Ever since someone made you share a toy back when you were two or three you probably got the message that being selfish was bad. Today, I’m writing about when being selfish is a good thing. Understand that I’m not going to get all Ayn Rand on you and I’m not making a case for being a person who never cares about other people’s needs. We’re going to look at how we can reframe “selfishness” so that it lose some of its negative connotation which can make you feel that your needs are never allowed to be met.
The Origins of Selfishness
Here’s a bit of a thought experiment. I threw the “toy” incident out there, but do you remember the first time you were called “selfish”? If you can, get in touch with that sting. Was it anger and shame that you couldn’t have what you wanted? Or was it closer to shame that you wanted it in the first place?
This can be extended past “things” to taking up people’s time with your stories. Some kids want to be the center of attention. The problem is the hurt that occurs when you’re the first born and everything you do is met with applause and excitement—until another baby is born. Suddenly, you feel you’re not as important to everyone else. People come to visit your little brother or sister and don’t spend all of the time with you.
This idea that selfish is a good thing does not only apply to first borns. Most of us go through a phase where everything we do stops being celebrated—and that’s healthy. We all know people who can’t function without ongoing adulation, who take up all the space all the time.
We should learn how to share. We should learn how to let someone else tell the story, but link it back to the initial feeling (it’s ok if you don’t recall it) and if it was upsetting enough we may not be taking any of our own space. We may be ceding all our time.
And we’d be hurting ourselves in the process.
Showing Others How You Want to Be Treated
I see parents who want to sacrifice everything for their children and you get the message that this is what you are “supposed” to do. Yes, your child, certainly the younger and more helpless they are must be your priority.
But, you teach your children so much more by letting them see how you treat yourself.
This post, by the way, isn’t just for parents. We teach others–our friends, family, work people–how to treat us by how we treat ourselves. Are we always giving in? Are we always giving that last cheese fry to someone else when we really want it? Are we ever saying, no, I want to stay in tonight?
We can connect this with assertiveness, but also with giving yourself permission to be who you want to be, to do what you want to do, and to find a way to believe that sometimes selfish is a good thing.
Selfish IS a Good Thing…sometimes
If redefining selfish as a good thing is still difficult for you feel free to call it “me time” or whatever you want. But you’re modeling for others—if you have kids, if you have clients, if you have people you interact with they can see how you treat yourself and it gives them the permission to take care of themselves as well.
Yes, you can go too far, but if you’re regularly on the other end of that spectrum, start out with something small and experiment with what it’s like to take care of yourself for just fifteen minutes or so.
Is this a struggle for you? Making selfish a good thing—does that hit at the heart of a family rule that goes way back? If you either struggle with getting in your own way or seem to choose relationships that reinforce that you’re too “selfish” get in touch with me and we can schedule a FREE 15-minute phone consultation.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been providing counseling for men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.