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Selfish or Self-Caring?
None of us wants to be seen as selfish, even though it’s normal to feel and behave selfishly at times. This might be something as simple as eating more than our fair share of the Oreos or hogging the TV remote. But we understand that selfishness is not an acceptable part of the social contract. Selfishness is taboo enough to make us feel guilty, ashamed, and fearful of social disapproval. So, it’s best not to be selfish. But is the better alternative to be selfless?
One advantage of selflessness is that it’s more likely to win favor than disapproval. The most selfless of all might even be nominated for sainthood. But as unhealthy as selfishness is to our relationships, selflessness comes with its own hazards to our well-being. Putting the needs and desires of others ahead of our own is a slippery slope toward burnout and depression. This is especially true when selflessness is not kept in balance by adequate self-care.
The clients I see suffering the most consequences of excessive selflessness are caretakers. These are often wives, mothers, healthcare professionals, teachers, and therapists with empathic hearts that call them to serve the needs of others. And, yes, more women than men tend to suffer these afflictions for a variety of reasons. But countless caregiving men suffer from selfless caregiving, too.
When I work with clients suffering the consequences of being selfless caregivers, the first priority established is the duty of self-care. Yet, it is surprising how many caregivers don’t understand the difference between self-care and selfishness. Somehow they’ve become convinced that caring for themselves is ipso facto selfish. In reality, self-care means putting one’s needs ahead of the desires of others, whereas selfishness means putting one’s desires ahead of the needs of others.
Self-care includes the fundamental needs of protection, self-love, and replenishment. There are two threats from which selfless caregivers need to protect themselves: being taken advantage of and being mistreated. The selfless often feel guilty about having needs of their own that conflict with the expectations of others, making them more vulnerable to these threats. And when the influences of low self-esteem and/or dependency are added to their guilty feelings, setting protective limits with others comes with the fear of rejection. Nonetheless, the two most important words needed for selfless caregivers to protect themselves are “no” and “stop.”
Advising caretakers to say “no” and/or “stop” for their self-protection usually makes them uncomfortable, triggering a cascade of “but what ifs. .
.?” At the heart of these worries is a fear that they are not worthy of being loved unless they sacrifice their needs for the sake of others. So, in addition to the lack of self-care, there is a lack of self-love.
The idea of cultivating self-love can also make caregivers uncomfortable. That’s because self-love is easily confused with egotism. Egotism is a type of self-love based on feeling superior to others, whereas self-love is based on feeling deserving of love apart from one’s ego status. Caretakers tend to be the most loving people in the world, which in and of itself makes them lovable. They have hearts of gold that are compassionate, empathic, considerate, supportive, kind, nurturing, and helpful in countless ways. They care for our dependent infants, children, sick, elderly, and the troubled in our society. Caretakers must embrace how their services to others make them worthy of honor and respect. And with this recognition must come the confidence that their own needs are just as deserving as those of others. Developing this foundation of self-love makes it easier to say “no” and “stop” to others whose behavior is selfish and/or uncaring.
After self-protection and self-love become better established, the next lesson has to do with the importance of self-replenishment. Without
adequate replenishment, a caretaker’s emotional well will run dry. Not only do they need to set limits on how much of their water they give to others, caretakers must also find new sources of water with which to refill their own wells. Self-replenishment also includes relaxation, entertainment, recreation, and fun. But most importantly, self-replenishment requires asking others to help refill their well. That means learning to become more comfortable with asking for help, love, and care from others in various ways.
Caretakers often wrongly assume that the more attention they pay to their own needs, the less they will be able to meet the needs of others. But that’s not really true. Anyone who has ever flown on a plane has heard the direction from flight attendants: “In case of emergency, first place your own oxygen mask on and then proceed to assist those who need your help.” The meaning is clear: if caregivers don’t do what is necessary to survive themselves, then their dependents won’t stand a chance of surviving, either. Caregivers must understand that the most important way to ensure their ability to care for others over time is by maintaining the sufficiency of their own well water.
Here’s another way in which self-care is best for those on the receiving end of caretaking: setting appropriate limits on the care of others helps foster the ability of others to develop their own self-care skills. It is not beneficial to cultivate dependency in others by doing too much for them. We ultimately help others get their needs met best by teaching them how to become more self-reliant. We do them an even greater service when we teach them how to reciprocate caregiving with others. This will help them develop better relationships that will provide a more sustainable source of care in their future. Caregivers don’t need to just say “no”; they need to say things like, “I can show you how you can do this for yourself,” or “I’ll do this for you, but you will need you to do this for me.”
Evolving from selflessness to self-love and self-care can feel uncomfortable and take time. If need be, seek help from a good therapist to support this transformation in your life. If you want to be the best caregiver you can be, start learning how to protect, love and replenish yourself.