Self-care: We hear it all the time now — or, more accurately, see it on Instagram as skincare products, fizzy bath bombs, yoga poses, açai bowls, and more. But self-care is more than what’s commercialized on our social media feeds.
Self-care started as a way to physically take care of yourself. It then evolved into caring for your emotional well-being, and even more so the overall healing for women, people of color, and more marginalized communities.
Then why are we still feeling like self-care is selfish?
Maybe you’ve just called off dinner, declined an invite where your ex will be, or even just said no to anything. This might leave you feeling a little selfish or guilty.
It doesn’t matter that you’re emotionally and physically exhausted, or that your mental health is suffering. You might lie awake in bed, thinking about how you should have done something differently or been better in some other way. Saying no feels like a failure like you’re incompetent or unequipped to handle day-to-day life.
But if staying in helps you prioritize yourself and your own energy and healing, are you really being selfish?
Redefining what it actually means to be selfish
When the word “selfish” comes to mind, it often sparks negative connotations at first. We think self-centered, self-serving, self-involved. And we’re supposed to avoid thinking only “me and my interests,” right? To instead try to live for the good of all humankind, since giving is taught as preferential to taking?
Even though it’s defined as being concerned with only your own personal pleasure and profit, as well as lacking consideration for others, we still think of selfish as the times when we’re simply putting ourselves first.
But we can’t see it in black and white. For instance, we’re told we need to adjust our own oxygen mask first before helping others in a plane emergency. Or to make sure the scene is safe for you before helping anyone who’s hurt. No one would call us selfish for following those instructions.
Just like all things, there’s a spectrum. Sometimes the right thing is to be “selfish.” And just because someone defines something you’ve done as selfish (like opting out of their party), doesn’t mean you have to define it on their terms.
So, repeat after me: I won’t beat myself up for being ‘selfish’
Sometimes being “selfish” isn’t a bad thing. There are times when being selfish is the right thing to do for your health and well-being. These are also times when taking care of yourself is necessary.
Here are some of those times:
1. You need help
Everyone needs help from time to time, but we often avoid seeking it. Whether we acknowledge it or not, sometimes asking for help can make you feel incompetent, weak, or needy — even if not asking for help means adding unnecessary stress.
But asking for help when you need it is important. If the stress of a work project is getting to you, ask a co-worker for assistance or delegate tasks. If you need companionship, ask a friend for support. If you need an unbiased outside voice, seek therapy.
2. You need to rest
When you’re feeling tired — it doesn’t matter if it’s emotionally, mentally, or physically — it’s time to rest. Sometimes, that just comes down to sleep.
There are a number of consequences to not getting enough sleep, including trouble focusing, a weakened immune system, and memory issues. Skipping too much sleep can even have a negative impact on your relationships. But we often feel like we have to keep going. Sometimes sleep isn’t at the top of our priorities.
But the fact is we need rest. If you’ve been working late and skipping sleep, it’s time to find some work-life balance. And the next time you choose to go home and sleep instead of grabbing drinks with friends, that’s OK. If that’s called selfish, it’s the kind you want to be.
Resting doesn’t always mean sleeping, either. Whether your brain is feeling off-balance or you have a health condition flare-up, consider it a sick day and take the time off. And don’t feel obligated to do the laundry since you’re at home. Read a book in bed, binge-watch a show, or take a nap.
If you’re feeling fatigued, exhausted, or in pain, it’s time to get some extra rest and not feel guilty about it. Rest is essential to any type of recovery.
3. You just need alone time
Some people might not get it when you choose to stay home over going out. If that’s what you’re in the mood to do, don’t feel selfish for wanting to be alone.
We all need alone time sometimes, and some people need more than others. Social interactions can be exhausting for some people. There’s no shame in taking time for yourself.
If you’ve been going nonstop, your mood is all out of whack, or you need to reevaluate your relationships, now may be a good time to plan some alone time.
You don’t need to fill your calendar with social events unless you want to. Run a bath, unplug, and have that “me time” you’ve been craving.
4. It’s time to end a relationship, job, or living situation
It’s never easy breaking up with a significant other, moving to a new city, or quitting a job. If you feel bad when you interact with someone or dread encountering them again, it’s time rethink your relationship.
We often stay in friendships or relationships because we’re scared of hurting someone. But when it comes to relationships that are damaging, sometimes you need to put yourself first.
It’s not self-sustaining to continue a relationship — or job or anything, especially one that’s in any way abusive — that no longer makes you happy. If something is affecting your well-being, it might be time to say goodbye.
5. Give is being significantly outweighed by take
Although it can fluctuate, any relationship should have a good balance of give-and-take. But when the scales tip so that all you’re doing is giving and all they’re doing is taking, it might be time to do something.
The balance of give-and-take is especially important when living with someone. Do you find yourself doing all the errands and chores when you get home from work while they come home and put their feet up? It’s important to have a balance to avoid both resentment and fatigue.
Depending on the situation, you may choose to talk to them, take a short break to recharge, or cut them out completely. It’s not selfish to prioritize your own needs over others if the act of giving is causing you more harm.
6. To avoid burnout, after work or in your personal life
Everyone is susceptible to burnout or work exhaustion. Certain professions can be exceptionally draining. When burnout occurs, it can hurt both your professional and personal life.
One study even points out that for mental health professionals, it could be “ethically imperative” to practice self-care.
So when the clocking-out time comes, truly clock out. Turn off your work notifications, snooze your email, and deal with it tomorrow. Most of the time, whatever it is can be handled just as well tomorrow instead of in the middle of dinner.
No matter what you do, make sure you have time to separate yourself from work. Creating this work-life balance can help you avoid burnout and bring more happiness to your personal life.
Take care of yourself
Don’t neglect yourself and your health to avoid feeling selfish. Selfishness doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It can be good to be a little selfish to take care of your emotional, mental, and physical well-being.
Many people who focus entirely on give, give, give end up overwhelmed, fatigued, and stressed. And chronic stress has been linked to a number of health risks, including conditions like diabetes, cancer, and mental illnesses.
You can reduce your stress by being a little selfish now and then and practicing some good ol’ self-care.
Here are some ways to start self-care tonight:
Whatever you do, remember to take care of yourself. And don’t forget, it’s never selfish to do so.