Is Self-Care Selfish?

Why true self-care can transform your inner voice and spark deeper compassion for others
January 9, 2018 7:00 pm Last Updated: January 9, 2018 7:00 pm

Have you ever wondered why we’re so bad at self-care, and why taking care of ourselves is so difficult and not instinctual? There are countless books available on how to take better care of ourselves, so why are we not getting it?

For one thing, our self-care approach in this culture is made out of the wrong fabric, or at the very least, the wrong texture. We’re taught that self-care is an external process; it means getting a massage, eating well, taking a walk, or putting on our oxygen mask first. All are valid self-caring actions, which serve us. And yet, a far deeper and richer level of self-care exists, one that is not about “doing” for ourselves, but rather about “being” with ourselves.

A far deeper and richer level of self-care exists, one that is not about “doing” for ourselves, but rather about “being” with ourselves.

The most effective self-care is more about the kind of company we keep inside—the flavor of the conversation we conduct with ourselves inside our minds. The self-care that profoundly improves our lives involves creating an inner dialogue that’s infused with kindness, support, and curiosity. True self-care, as the word implies, means genuinely caring about ourselves.

This variety of self-care—relating to ourselves in a friendly and supportive manner—is not only not emphasized in our culture, but often discouraged. In fact, we tend to be afraid of what would happen to us, who we would become, and how we would be judged if we were to value ourselves and stopped the judgment and impatience. So what is it about developing a kind and compassionate relationship with ourselves that’s so threatening?

Isn’t Self-Care Selfish?

While most of us would claim that we’re pretty good at self-care, we often feel selfish when it comes to actually treating ourselves with care internally: “How selfish of me to spend time thinking about what I need, when so many people don’t have that luxury!” The fear of being judged (by oneself and others) as selfish is what keeps many people from having more self-compassion, or asking for kindness from others even when they desperately need it.

We’re afraid that if we care too much about ourselves, there won’t be any caring left for others, as if caring is a finite commodity. That is, if we take the time to pay attention to our own experience, we’ll become so self-involved and egotistical that we’ll stop wanting to be kind to anyone else.

In this belief system, our compassion for others is just a façade of sorts, something we do to seem like a good person. We’re desperately afraid of who we would become if we related to ourselves with friendliness—as if just a taste of our own sweetness would unleash the true narcissistic monster within.

The truth is that it’s only when we feel well taken care of, and when our feelings have been properly heard and cared for, that we have adequate resources to offer others. When our well is full, we are at our most selfless and can fully experience our goodness and inherent desire to be of service.

The truth is that it’s only when we feel well taken care of, and when our feelings have been properly heard and cared for, that we have adequate resources to offer others

The ability and willingness to empathize with our own experience are precisely what allow us to empathize with the experience of others. Paradoxically, taking care of ourselves is what makes us unselfish. When we reject or ignore ourselves, we cannot be truly compassionate with others, and certainly not to our full capacity, as a large part of our heart is closed off and inaccessible.

This is not to say that we cannot be kind human beings without being kind to ourselves. But without the ability to relate lovingly to our own experience, we’re severed from the real depth of our loving potential. It’s as if we are living in a puddle when we could have access to the ocean.

As you take care of others, make the effort to relate to yourself with the same attitude of kindness and warmth. Remember to offer yourself a curious and compassionate ear: to talk to yourself as someone who matters, to give yourself the benefit of the doubt, to take a break from self-judgment, and even to consider what’s good about yourself. Decide to be a supportive and loving presence inside your own being.

As 2018 kicks off, and the promise of the new year unfolds, remember that it’s OK to be on your own side.

Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, author, public speaker, workshop leader, and author of several books on mindfulness and personal growth. Colier is available for individual psychotherapy, mindfulness training, spiritual counseling, public speaking, and workshops, and also works with clients via Skype around the world. For more information, visit NancyColier.com