Selfishness is a character trait that gets sort of a bad name. Along with traits like greed, ambition, and pride, selfishness is one of those traits that you rarely see in the story’s hero, unless it’s a flaw that needs to be overcome. Selfishness belongs to the villain. It is a problem, a word to dismiss your choices and behaviour as wrong.
“You’re being so selfish” is just another way of saying “you shouldn’t do that”.
But I’m going to offer up a rebuttal to all of that today: personally, I think we all kind of need to be selfish at certain times in our life.
I’m certainly not going to deny that selfishness can be a problem, especially in excess, but aren’t most things already a problem in excess?
Selfishness becomes a problem when you are consistently ignoring another person’s feelings and putting your needs above theirs.
Selfishness becomes a problem when you become absolutely incapable of looking beyond yourself and seeing things from another perspective.
But at the same time, it’s difficult to deny that the opposite of excessive selfishness, and by that I mean excessive selflessness, can also be just as much of a problem.
If you spend your life living for other people, you risk losing your sense of identity. You become their caretaker, or a filter for their thoughts. You waste all your energy trying to make them happy, so that you have none left to make yourself happy. When all you care about is other people, then you stop caring about yourself – and we have seen multiple examples of this.
For example, mothers are often considered one of our society’s most prime examples of selflessness, but 11 to 20% of women who give birth in the United States report symptoms of postpartum depression, meaning that more women will be diagnosed with postpartum depression in one year than men or women will be diagnosed with tuberculosis, leukemia, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, lupus, or epilepsy. And yet, only 15% of these women will ever receive treatment for their postpartum depression because there is such an intense stigma against mothers who suffer from it. These are women are literally not taking care of themselves because they have been told by society that it is more important that they take care of their children. That if they don’t drop everything and put their children first, then they are selfish and, therefore, bad mothers.
And if postpartum depression goes untreated, it can result in some very dangerous, life-altering side effects, like chronic depression and anxiety for the mother, and complications in the child’s development.
And I’m not trying to say that mothers with postpartum depression should neglect their children completely; all I’m trying to say is that there needs to be a balance between caring for yourself and caring for others.
And you don’t even need to be a mother to need this balance too. I have known many people who spent years dedicated to other people, whether it be to a parent, a sibling, or whatever, doing whatever they could to make them happy, until one day they just couldn’t anymore. They realized that nothing they had done had made them happy, that they didn’t even really know who they were, and they needed to take time for themselves and find out who they were. Sometimes this means partying. Often this means rebellion. And every time I have seen someone do this, they did it because they needed to. It is because they could not do anything else anymore.
I have also known people who never came to this point where they realized they weren’t happy; they just kept serving other people, more and more of them falling away until they were just a ghost. They didn’t have their own opinions. They didn’t stand up for themselves. They just parroted the things that others said to them, reflecting them more than they did themselves.
I’m not trying to say that taking care of others is not a fulfilling thing to do. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t consider other opinions. All that I am trying to say is that you are just as important as anyone else.
You deserve the chance to be yourself. You deserve the chance to build your own identity and become comfortable in it. You deserve the chance to understand what you believe in and how your mind works and when you are not well, and all of those things are bought through selfishness. Through taking the time away from other people and focusing on yourself.
The main component throughout all of this is balance.
You need to know that other people matter, but you need to know that you matter too. You matter just as much as anyone else does. And just like your parents or children or whatever the case may be, you deserve love and kindness and understanding. If you rob yourself of this, that is when you risk becoming a ghost.
So be a little bit selfish. You need selfishness. We demonize it too often in our society, when the truth is that it is just as dangerous and just as beautiful as selflessness.