I’ve been wanting to write this piece for a while, but have hesitated because the concept of “selfishness” is a bit tricky, and a bit touchy. Especially for someone like me, who does not have kids, who is able to work for myself, who has created a life (yes, after many many years of grinding) where I don’t have all that many responsibilities, comparatively. I get that. But all of that has also been part of 10 years’ worth of conscious decision-making, because it wasn’t always that way, as I have written many times before.
I think looking at someone who seemingly has less responsibilities, less stress and less pulls on their attention and just calling them selfish is lazy thinking. And it’s also shortsighted. It undermines others’ decisions and I think, as I will explain in a moment, does all of us women a disservice.
Because when we villainize the word selfish (“about oneself”), I believe it takes our power away. It subtly justifies that we cannot and should not look out for our own needs, and it subtly perpetuates the idea that we are not worthy enough to put ourselves first. Besides, there are so many other people who need us! We have to be there for them!
Or do we.
See, I have bone to pick with the word selfish. I don’t like it. Our society doesn’t like it. And yet, I have a theory … ready?
I think conscious selfishness ultimately helps us act in more selfless ways.
Let me explain.
Think about a time in your life (maybe even now) where you tended to put others’ needs ahead of your own. Sure, this can be altruistic and sweet and generous. People love being around you — why wouldn’t they?? You are the go-to person for those who need a friend, who need solace, who need money, whatever. You are the one who everyone knows will drop everything to do something for them.
That’s amazing. It really is. And man, it feels good to be needed. But. But, over time, what happens to you?
I’ve talked about this a lot — in my 20’s, I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off. Putting myself out for my clients — “Sure, I’ll train you at 8pm on Friday night! Whatever you need!” — and I always tended toward guilt and obligation. Call it the Irish Catholic upbringing or the feeling of worthiness I thrived on when I was able to meet everyone else’s needs and desires, but over time, I started noticing something.
I was putting on the happy face to my clients, coworkers, my boss and acquaintances, but to those I loved — my close friends and family — I was becoming an impatient, resentful bitch. I started noticing I’d snap at Jade, or I’d have very little tolerance for phone calls with my parents. I’d feel “put out” if a friend needed more than 30 minutes of my time. I’d feel resentful when a friend or family member needed something from me. COULDN’T THEY SEE HOW BUSY I WAS WITH MY CLIENTS AND WITH WORK??
I started becoming someone who was not so nice. Not so giving. Not so generous. Zero emotional availability.
Ironically, the thing I thought I was being with my clients — selfless and accommodating — was actually making me more selfish and impatient with the people who mattered the most to me. They were the ones who saw my stress and who suffered because of my tendency to neglect my needs.
Because that’s precisely what was happening. I was becoming a martyr for other people’s needs only to become a bitchy, resentful, impatient SELFISH woman on the inside and on the back end, with my loved ones.
It wasn’t until I started consciously taking time for myself, implementing boundaries with my clients, valuing my time and my worth more and ultimately being way more discerning when it came to obligations that things started turning around. It took me about 5 years to completely make the switch but over time, I was able to be more present with Jade, I was able to be patient and open with my time for friends who needed me. I didn’t have any resentment when it came to my parents calling me or loved ones needing from me. I became more generous, more patient, more emotionally available, more open and less stressed.
And so, back to my original argument.
By being a little more “selfish” and little more discerning, I ultimately ended up being more selfless, more emotionally available to my loved ones, more patient and in the end, a whole lot kinder.
Because putting your own needs aside ad infinitum is not a long-term solution. Over time, your availability to friends and loved ones wanes. Of course it does, because you end up with zero emotional reserves and you’re completely depleted.
Honestly, I think we can see this a number of different ways. We can see someone with boundaries, and who takes time for themselves or refuses to try to be everything to everyone, and think, geez, they’re so selfish! OR, we can see someone with boundaries and realize that it’s precisely because of all that conscious discernment that they are, in fact, acting more selfless. Why? Because you know when you get their time, they are with you completely, they are present, they listen, they’re patient and they’re 100% available to you in that moment.
As it’s Mother’s Day this week … moms, I know the debate about taking time for yourself versus putting everyone else’s needs before yours is a toughie. And look, you need to do what you need to for you. Each person does, and I would never assume to understand your situation. But ask yourself, when you take time for yourself, are you more or less open and available? Are you more or less patient? Are you more or less likely to be happy?
And I’ll add this one final thing. Could you even ask yourself: is it maybe even selfish of me to assume that others cannot do for themselves? In other words, what would happen if you implement some boundaries and other people have to fend for themselves a little as a result? By making yourself less available, could you even be doing them a service? Might you even be enabling them by assuming they need you every second??? Could you instead give them the benefit of the doubt and allow them to have the full experience? Give them a chance to struggle through something without you being there every minute to pick up the slack? They might learn, no? Aaaaaah! Tough questions, but some things to think about ;)
This is a tough topic for me to write about because selfishness is a sensitivity of mine. I hate that I used to be so selfish, I hate that so many of my friends and family were put out by my behaviors and when I see impatience, condescendence and self-righteous in other people, I cringe. I hate it. Because that was me. And it was a direct result of not taking care of myself, having zero boundaries and running around being a huge martyr all the time. But no more.
With my momma!
If you talked to any mom, we would likely tell you that we struggle with finding time to get everything done. We would likely tell you that we struggle with time management and making ourselves a priority not because we lack the desire but because we try to do it all. The typical superwoman approach.
With everything we have on our plates, household chores, work, kids, family, activities to name a few, there is very little time for ourselves. There is always something that needs to be done.
There are two schools of thought on this and both come with the typical “mama guilt.”
One is to continue putting everyone and everything first because that is what we as moms do. It is what we know. We want to take care of ourselves but we feel stuck. Between no time, sleep and/or motivation it seems impossible. So it waits.
The other school is to put yourself on the list. To take care of yourself, workout, eat healthy and let something else go. It could make you seem selfish because “what about everyone else?” But there is some truth that we are just as important. If we don’t take care of us, who will?
Of course, there is guilt there too.
I think we all know what it feels like to put everyone else first. You spend your days trying desperately to “fill in the gaps” and bring up your weaknesses (whatever those are) so you can maintain SuperMom status. Everyone else is taken care of except you. You are always last because in the moment, everyone else’s needs seem superior to yours. I mean, you are the mom. It’s your job, right? RIGHT??
But what if we let some of those ‘to-dos” go and put ourselves on the list? What if we left the dishes in the sink so we could get in a 20 minute workout? Or bought packaged meals so we didn’t have to spend time cooking every night and took a walk after work instead?
Does that mean we suck? Does that mean we failed? Does that mean we are selfish?
Here is my take…
I don’t enjoy cooking or cleaning (or really anything domestic). I frequently refer to myself as “anti domestic” and my skills (or lack thereof) have become a household joke. I spent years trying to be good at this and I was miserable. Not only was I constantly stressed about not being good enough, I dreaded every minute.
For years I spent my weekends preparing food, cleaning the house, and tried desperately to be “domestic” in every way I thought I should. One of my weekend days was entirely consumed by “prepping” for the week. I was miserable.
I hated Sundays because that meant I had to do all of these things that created a massive amount of stress when I would rather spend time with my family. There were a million things I would have rather done but I continued because I thought I had to.
I spent years trying to bring up one of my weaknesses because I thought, “As a wife and a mom, I SHOULD be doing this! I must suck if I can’t have a home cooked meal made from scratch for my husband! This is what I signed up for.”
I spent years telling myself this. It wasn’t about me anymore. It was about everything else I should be doing.
Until I found another way. Until I became an advocate for myself, set boundaries, and told myself that I was equally as important. Until I decided to throw myself a bone, take away the pressure to be supermom and be good enough.
This does not mean I started spending hours at the gym or went back to prepping. I have not prepped (other than bought food at the store) in years!. It means I found a way to take care of myself while still being the best mom and wife for my family. I learned how to do both in a way that was authentic to me. In a way that felt good for us.
People frequently ask me, “How do you do it all?” and I usually laugh. Because I don’t. I am very far from being SuperMom and doing it all. The difference is that I am okay with letting my weaknesses (cooking and cleaning, for example) go. I ask for help. I hire help. I leave it for my husband.
I gave up my weaknesses to build up my strengths.
I spend 90% of my days doing what I enjoy. I take my daughter to swim and music. We go on walks. We play outside. We read books. We go to the gym. We run errands. I work during nap time.
There is no shame in admitting that I cannot do it all. That WE cannot do it all. And maybe we don’t even want to.
For me, being domestic is not something I am good at. I don’t enjoy it and I am done forcing it. I may not be a good housewife but I am a damn good mom. I made a promise to love myself and take care of myself just as much as I do everyone else.
I deserve to be healthy and happy.
So maybe I am selfish. Maybe I am messy. Maybe my house needs to be cleaned.
But one thing I know for sure. I am not supermom and I am OK with that.