How Selfishness Can Lead to Better Relationships and a Happier Life

Laura is known as an extremely nice and helpful person. She goes out of her way for others at work, is the first person to help a friend in need, and is the model mother with a continual presence at her children’s school. Laura is also a giving and understanding wife. Like Laura, her husband Bill has a demanding job. Unlike Laura, he often works late to meet deadlines. Laura knows her children need her home for dinner, so she frequently wakes up at 4:30 in the morning to get extra work done. On weekends Laura understands that Bill needs time to shake off the week by surfing or playing racquetball with his friends. While Bill is out Laura thinks of fun and creative ways to entertain and educate her children. When people meet Laura the first thing they notice is her ready smile and her gracious manners. If they look a little closer they may notice a bit of strain around her eyes and the tightness of a clenched jaw. No one knows it but Laura is suffering. Over the course of a couple years, the joy and excitement she used to feel so easily has left her. She finds herself feeling irritable and having intrusive negative thoughts about her husband, children, coworkers, and friends. She chides herself for being ungrateful. Bill has been a good husband and she has been blessed with kind friends and healthy smart children. She feels deeply ashamed. Everyone knows her to be such a good person and she has always believed this of herself, but now she is beginning to feel like a fraud.

The word selfish gets a bad rap in our culture, as does the term self-centered. Meanwhile, selflessness is considered a virtue.  People (especially women) are encouraged to prioritize their spouses, children, and jobs over themselves. Those who do this are reinforced for being a good parent, hard worker, or a generally good person. For people who put themselves behind everyone else in their lives on a consistent basis and receive the accolades that follow, selflessness becomes a cornerstone of identity and self-esteem.

At this point you might be asking yourself: “What is wrong with being selfless? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone put others before themselves?” To this I respond: in an ideal world, perhaps, but a couple of realities of this world get in the way. First, acting selfless in a relationship is no guarantee that others will do the same. It is no secret that there are many people in this world who generally do not put others first. Second, the deepest flaw in the concept of selflessness is that it violates the fundamental reality that everyone in fact has a self. Everyone has a body that needs care, emotions that need acknowledgment, and thoughts that need to be heard. People who chronically deny this truth for the good of others often end up feeling resentful of the loved ones they are putting first. In my opinion this is the saddest aspect of the problem of selflessness.

I see it all the time in therapy: A person comes in feeling depressed, depleted, and irritable, often having very negative thoughts and feelings towards the people they love the most. To add to their suffering, this person invariably feels guilty about their bad feelings and thoughts. They feel like if only they were a better person they wouldn’t feel this way. In this case therapy involves the process of acknowledging the reality of the self, learning to tend to the needs of the self (i.e. being selfish), and learning to help and give to others from the solid ground of having met ones own physical, emotional, and mental needs first (i.e. being self-centered). This process can take awhile in more extreme cases, but in the end depression tends to lift, and relationships improve and flourish. In essence, one learns the lesson every airline attendant instructs before take-off: You have to put your own oxygen mask on first.

The following are 5 ways to begin the process of becoming a healthy, happy, self-centered person:

1.    ATTEND TO YOUR PHYSICAL NEEDS: Drink water, eat nourishing foods, move your body, and incorporate more sleep and rest.

2.    ATTEND TO YOUR EMOTIONS: Take time every day to check in with your feelings. Notice how you feel after completing a task, or interacting with someone. Your emotions are information, listen to them!

3.    ATTEND TO YOUR THOUGHTS: Check in with your opinions and beliefs on the topics and issues that come up throughout the day. Try to differentiate between your own thoughts and the thoughts of others.

4.    TAKE TIME BY YOURSELF: It’s often difficult to hear the needs of the self when continually around others; alone time is essential.

5.    SEEK HELP IF NEEDED: If you find that doing the above causes feelings of guilt, or if you find yourself making every excuse not to, consult a therapist. You deserve to care for yourself, and the people you love deserve a healthy and whole you to love in return.