Selflessly Selfish

I’ll just get to the point here: How many times have you been encouraged and directly (or even indirectly) told that “sometimes you just have to put your own needs first?” I’ll go ahead and make the assumption that it was probably the same amount of times as you’ve ignored it. Whether it came from your best friend who’s had enough of hearing you complain about how stressed you are, your husband or wife commenting on your spaced-out daze at the dinner table, or your boss lecturing you on your unmet deadlines, it’s likely self-care still remains a foreign concept to you somehow.

It’s one of the most common themes out there: “You can’t fill another’s cup if yours is empty,” “Love yourself first and the rest falls into place,” “Keep Calm and practice self-care;” Yet, what does it really mean? We’ve heard all of these phrases over and over again and to a point that the message has been watered down to nothingness… another one of those socially acceptable things we “just say.”

The reality is that self-care deficits have become a serious issue and one that more and more clients are bringing to therapy without even realizing it. They describe how drained they are by always giving to others, but never feeling like it’s good enough for them. They argue with themselves about why it is they sacrifice their own family time by making plans with others they don’t really want to see, or keep answering those phone calls at inconvenient moments in their day. These clients are mad at themselves for not being able to just let the phone ring, say “no,” or say, “I have to get going.” The ball is always in someone else’s court and they just can’t figure out how it always ends up that way.

Throughout my work as a therapist, I’ve come to learn how most of my clients have one major thing in common… a good heart. Because this is such a wonderful and desirable attribute to have for most people, there is a lot of effort that goes into maintaining it. They’re willing to do for others even when it’s inconvenient for them, to put them ahead of themselves, to be strong for them, to cheer them on… and to see them thrive because of it. This is beautiful….EXCEPT…

… we’re all human and we all have limits. People usually come see me at this point, that point being when they’ve hit one of those limits. This is a foreign feeling to them... a feeling they’re usually so great at denying. But a one-sided relationship can only last so long no matter how good of a heart a person has and this is a devastating reality for many. It’s common for my good-hearted clients to start “beating themselves up” for burning out, needing something in return and not feeling satisfied enough by their good deeds alone.

They start to have serious fears about being selfish and wanting to fix it as fast as possible.

THIS is actually the fun part for me because it’s right about the time when I get to offer my clients a simple statement that not only aligns with their value of selflessness, but also gives way to an inarguable directive for self-care:

“The most selfish thing you can do is not take care of yourself.”

The reaction I get to this statement varies, but most clients tend to process it in silence for a moment… seeming a bit side-tracked and confused… and then they’ll smirk a bit, while nodding their heads in surprised and positive agreement once digested. So far, no matter what their initial reaction, my clients have all been ultimately able to understand and apply the statement in healthy ways. They’ve come to realize that by not taking care of their own stress, they’ve stressed out and worried their best friends… by not getting enough sleep they haven’t been present during conversations with their spouses or children about events in their day… and that by overwhelming themselves with doing for others in personal life, they’ve dropped the ball at work and just piled on extra for their boss and coworkers instead.

Bottom line? Self-care cannot remain a concept we just know. Whatever good we want to be able to do for others has to originate from a healthy and nurtured place within us. The process of skipping over our own needs for the sake of others will ultimately self-destruct and leave all involved feeling unfulfilled. Those who love us are counting on us to be around and we won’t be able to do it when it’s always at our own expense. We must always be selfish short-term to be selfless long-term.