The word selfish has such a negative connotation. From a young age, we are taught not to be ‘selfish’ – we are taught to share, to be generous, to even sometimes put others’ needs before our own. While all of these lessons remain important, and are a part of the recipe for harmonious and reciprocal relationships, I have to ask: have we taken it too far? Have we gotten stuck in a cycle of putting everyone and everything before ourselves?
Recently, I’ve been hearing more and more from clients, family, and friends just how exhausted they are. Exhausted by their work, by their social calendars, and by the expectations they’ve put upon themselves to be stellar employees, parents, friends, and partners. We’ve put an immense amount of pressure on ourselves to show up in these roles, and while I absolutely believe these efforts are meaningful and worthwhile, how long before we are trying to pour from an empty cup?
When I suggest to my clients that perhaps they need to focus a bit more on themselves, it is often met with resistance; “but, I have no time” or, “I know it’s bad, but this is just a difficult time of year” or, “I honestly have no idea what that would even look like.” I would be lying if I said I couldn’t identify with every one of those excuses, because they are true! We do have a litany of obligations; we do have friends and family depending on us; we do have impossible work schedules that make the idea of a regular exercise routine seemingly comical. And yet, I wonder, how far are we willing to push ourselves? And, more importantly, to what cost?
How can we be the stellar employees, friends, parents and partners we strive to be if we are running on fumes? How on earth can we respond to each other with compassion and patience when our reserves are diminished? I like to think about an electrical outlet – envision the many things plugging into you for energy: your families, your job, your home, even, maybe your pet… but what do you plug into? What is your energy source (and how often are you using it)?
Organizational psychologist and author of Grounded: How Leaders Stay Rooted in an Uncertain World, Bob Rosen states: “When you take care of yourself first, you show up as a healthy, grounded person in life…If you can’t take care of yourself, then you can’t care for others. Being selfish is critical.” So, while perhaps an unpopular perspective – maybe we can encourage ourselves to be a little more selfish, not only as a necessity for our own well-being, but also as a service to those we love most.
Here are a few ideas and exercises to think about on this topic:
- Write down 20 things that you love to do. No specific order, no right or wrong answers, just jot down 20 things that make you happy. (For example, reading a novel, taking a yoga class, traveling internationally, having dinner with friends, exploring new neighborhoods, walking the dog, etc.) Then, write next to each item, when the last time you actually did that activity (days/weeks/months/years). It can be a glaring exercise to realize that we haven’t engaged in activities that bring us joy in months or even years. [Activity adapted from The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron]
- What can you say ‘NO’ to this week, (or this month)? Sometimes things that are supposed to bring us joy – like seeing friends, or going out for dinners etc., bring us more stress than we realize. We are so accustomed to saying ‘yes!’ to invitations and expectations, but what if we chose just one thing and said no rather than yes. Barricade yourself at home for the evening, (or in a happy, relaxing place) and play hooky.
- Engage in service. This might seem counterintuitive – but if you have ever spent time sitting with someone who is ill, or serving food in a soup kitchen, or volunteering at an animal shelter, you know – there are few things more energizing than giving back to those who truly need your help. Not only is giving back good for our communities, but it is good for our spirit. You can search for volunteer opportunities at chicagocares.org.
- Take 10 minutes for yourself. Whether it is walking to get yourself a coffee in the middle of the work day, or setting your alarm a bit earlier to sit quietly or stretch first thing – this tiny exercise in slowing down, can help us towards a more mindful reset.
- Plan something indulgent. While we can’t necessarily treat ourselves to a getaway or a massage every day, or even every month – there is research that suggests that the ‘build up’ and excitement for planning a trip is even more enjoyable than the trip itself. So, maybe begin to plan that trip you’ve wanted to take; savor the entire process. [Source]