If you often feel selfish about doing things for yourself, listen up. I’m going to help you explore the concepts of being selfish, selfless, and to identify the comfortable middle ground.

When it comes to doing something for themselves, so many of my clients struggle with feeling selfish about that.

I felt it was a great topic for a podcast to today about being selfish, being selfless, and what lies in between.

Fact – They’re Just Behaviours

Before we start, let’s be clear that being selfish or selfless is largely about someone’s behaviour in a certain circumstance.

Some people behave selfishly, or selflessly, more often than others.

And while frequent selfish behaviour or unselfish behaviour may shape your general attitude, it also may not necessarily define you as a person.

I have known people to behave selfishly in certain situations and yet generously and compassionately in others. 

I have known people to be seemingly selfless in certain situations, and then to lash out, withdraw all support and empathy and become seemingly selfish. 

In that context, please, let’s not use these terms as judgements, labels, or ways to define ourselves or others. 

Let’s take the drama out of these words and use them as frames of reference for behaviours that people may display in certain situations.

Selfish vs Selfless: Some Definitions

To get clear on those frames of reference, I want to read you some dictionary definitions for the words selfish and selfless.

As I read each one out, listen to see what they conjure up for you.

The word selfish (of a person, action, or motive) means lacking consideration for other people; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.

The word selfless means you are chiefly concerned with the needs and wishes of others, much more than your own.

How do you feel about those two words?

A lot of your will think that being selfish has negative connotations – it’s about ignoring the needs of others.

The word selfless is interesting though; it is almost the opposite in meaning in that you have little to no regard for yourself, yet somehow it sounds strangely positive – almost as if you are being virtuous, or a knight in shining armour for others.

The trouble with these two extremes is that having any level of consideration for your own needs seems to be a negative thing.

Yet there is no way that could be true!

So, knowing that neither extreme is sustainable, I want to ask you a question you might not have considered.

There must be a middle ground where looking after yourself is acceptable – so WHAT IS IT?

I posed this question on Facebook last year and some smart cookie had a great answer; therefore I would like to introduce you to the middle ground.

Self-Care

Self-care is any activity that you do deliberately in order to take care of your mental, emotional, and physical health. It’s setting time aside for activities that enhance your energy, restore your health and reduce stress.

How do you feel about the word self-care?

I find it interesting that some people see self care as a negative, as something for the weak, or at least, as something they don’t have time for.

Perhaps you might find yourself dissing self-care because you have only ever considered the (unsustainable) extremes.

So I would like to dig into the concept a little further – to explore the middle ground with you right now – so you can review your relationship with yourself, your needs and these three little words.

Being Selfish 

I want you to first get really clear on what being selfish means to you and how you relate to it, personally.

Right now, think of a time you judged yourself or someone else to be selfish.

What was it that caused you to make that judgement?

What were you telling yourself at the time?

What feedback did you get from others that influenced your thinking?

Chances are that you noticed was someone behaved differently than you would (or you behaved out of character) in a certain situation.

If you are someone who wishes you were more self-disciplined, or were better at regulation your thoughts and actions, then that tells me what you actually want is self-care.

For example, a group of friends organise a coffee date that suits all except for Kylie, who says she can’t make it then because she has her pilates class at that time.

Is she selfish for sticking with her existing plan, instead of meeting her friends?

What meaning would YOU attach to Kylie’s behaviours?

What are the other friends saying, and how might that influence your judgement?

To me this is self-care. 

Without any other information about what sort of person Kylie is, how she is feeling right now, what her needs are, or how good a friend she is, it is clear that in this instance she is looking after her own needs.

Here’s another example.

Let’s say you have slaved all week for the family, washing clothes, making beds and cooking meals, and you are short tempered, frazzled and exhausted.

So you lock yourself in the bathroom for a nice warm bath. You hear your kids knocking at the door wanting to come in and talk to you.

Would it be selfish to say no?

To me this is self-care at the end of a largely selfless week. 

Without any other information about what sort of person you are, it is clear that in this instance you are looking after your own needs.

To me, this is setting a good example for your kids of how to set boundaries and meet your own needs, so you can be calmer, more stable and emotionally balanced, more available to others and a happier person to be around.

What do you think?

Being Selfless

Now let’s get clear on your perspectives on selflessness.

Right now, think of a time you judged yourself or someone else to be selfless.

What was it that caused you to make that judgement?

What were you telling yourself at the time?

What feedback did you get from others that influenced your thinking?

Think about this example. 

Kelly worked hard all week, did all her work and stayed back late to finish projects on time, and made time to help her colleagues with some of their tasks.

Is Kelly being selfless?

How do you know?

To me, it sounds that way. She is putting others first.

But we have no information on what this behaviour has cost her, personally.

What if Kelly sacrificed her healthy meal prep, missed her gym sessions and drank wine a few nights this week, despite her intentions to do the opposite of these things?

In that case, how would you feel about the concept of selflessness?

And what would you think of Kelly as a person?

One thing I know is this – when spend most of their time doing selfless behaviours, they may become martyrs (constant sufferers and complainers) or lose the respect of others.

Getting Clarity

By now you may be feeling a little bit uncomfortable about your ideas and feelings toward selfishness and selflessness.

That’s ok.

That simply means you are at a growth edge, getting ready to consider the truth in your own terms, and perhaps, how you would like to behave and show up, be going forward.

I suspect that most of you listening to this podcast are not aligned with either selfishness or selflessness. 

You’re seeking a middle ground that feels aligned and has integrity.

So let’s talk about that now.

Why Self-Care Wins

If you are someone who wishes you were more self-disciplined, or were better at regulation your thoughts and actions (self-regulation), then that tells me what you actually want is self-care.

You want the middle ground between selfish and selfless.

You want to be accountable to yourself, and to do enough of the basics required to meet your own needs.

When I say basics, I am talking about the basic human needs – to eat well, to move, to get enough good quality sleep, to have adequate relaxation and rejuvenation time, to have some fun, to enjoy loving relationships and to have a sense of peace, calm and confidence.

People with high self regulation have good levels of confidence and belief that they can be effective in what they pursue and they are more likely to achieve their goals.

As you can see, there is nothing woo woo about self-care.

Looking after yourself and giving enough attention to your own needs.

Summary

Let’s get some perspective on selfishness, selflessness and self-care. If you are consistently selfish or selfless, it can become your attitude. 

But a lot of the time we judge individual behaviours – our own or others – as selfish or selfless.

You want the middle ground between selfish and selfless… the middle ground is self-care.

The problem with these words, according to their formal definition, is that you don’t get your needs met. So they both have negative connotations for you as an individual.

I propose that the middle ground is self-care.

That is the state of intentionally looking after your basic needs – for food, shelter, activity, sleep and rest – with self-discipline.

If you do this, you will be on your game, better able to support others and probably, a happier person.

Ready to find the balance between selfish and selfless?

Come explore the middle ground! If you’re truly ready to break old habits and get out of the rut I encourage you to check out the Habitology membership.

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