Being kind to yourself: selfishness by another name?

Drawn picture of a can with the word 'selfish' and a fish underneath.

Maybe sometimes it is, but is that so bad? The word ‘selfish’ is nearly always used pejoratively to mean someone that is self obsessed, concerned with their own profit or pleasure and unconcerned about others.  I’m not advocating naval gazing obsession with ourselves at all times, but I think spending energy focused on what brings us pleasure and meaning in life is a good thing.  Some of us could do with being less focused on ourselves, but many of us would have more authentic connections and fuller lives if we spent a little more time really working out what works for us and how we can be kind to ourselves.  Living a life that includes self compassion and kindness often increases the energy we have for the other people and things in our life in the longer term.


In my last post I talked about things that helped me to get through the emotional and psychological challenges that come with acquiring a diagnosis and lots of contact with the medical establishment.  They come down to one big idea – being kind to myself.  This involved accepting kindness from others, finding meaningful things to do, self care and making space for my emotions – even when they weren’t fun. I’ll admit that there were parts of that period after I found out that I had an ovarian cyst where I veered alarmingly close to the naval gazing obsession with myself. For the most part, though, I was able to have reciprocal relationships where I was present for others as well as myself. In short, I was being selfish about how I spent my (very limited) energy, but when it was committed I was 100% in. Being kind to myself was the only way that was possible for me, because it helped me to have the energy to give to other people.  So what did that kindness look like?


1) Create meaningful activities and connections

While my last post was about being kind to myself when acquiring a diagnosis, this bit also applies to new relationship energy.  Seriously, the amount of time I have spent googling health conditions is only equalled by the amount of time I’ve wanted to connect with someone when I’m deep in NRE with them.  I want to be in lots of contact and read everything they have written (and with some of my people that takes a very long time). In both cases, I try to make sure that the other things in my life aren’t just left to wither on the vine. Whether it is a work project; a social group or a crafting project; doing something meaningful that is separate from the diagnosis (or new relationship) is being kind to yourself.   


2) Re-evaluate relationships

Sometimes I picture relationships like the circuit boards we used to play with in science class. The two people involved are the battery, and the relationship is the light on the circuit. Only sometimes you add a resistor to the circuit, and the light dims.  The people who are the battery are still throwing energy at the relationship, but there is only the ghost of a flickering light. Of course, even the best relationships are hard work sometimes, but when everyone involved is throwing lots of energy into them, and the relationship is barely flickering it is time to reevaluate.  Never more so than when your energy is low and you simply can’t afford to be throwing it at a relationship that isn’t giving it back.  This doesn’t mean that you’re not ‘meant to be’ with the other person, nor that they are giving less to the relationship – both the light and the resistor are between you and don’t necessarily reside in either of you.  What it does mean is taking a serious look at the connections in your life and working out which ones are helpful to be in when life is hard. Maybe you need to pause the relationship, maybe you need to change the shape of it.  Whatever it is, it is important to feel able to withdraw from the situations that are draining you when you simply don’t have the energy for them.


3) Ask for and accept support

I was surprisingly bad at this, but I learned from generous teachers.  I hate hospitals, and I always want company when I have to go to an appointment.  None of my closest people were available for several of the appointments, or to pick me up after either of my surgeries when I had my ovarian cyst.  Loads of different people went with me, from a woman that I’d met literally twice before (but really clicked with) to my ex fiance who I’d broken up with 5 years earlier (shortly before the proposed wedding because I fell in love with a woman).  I accepted help from colleagues, friends, acquaintances and ex partners. This help came in different forms – being a sounding board, coming to medical appointments, driving me places, meeting me after difficult appointments, cuddles, taking my mind of stuff with games. It turns out that accepting support from people can be very vulnerable, very intimate and can really strengthen connections. It makes people more willing to share when they need support too, and to ask for it.  In spite of my fears, my life became warmer when I did more of this.


4) Treating self-care as a priority

Self care is a sort of airy-fairy concept that can mean different things to different people. To me, it means working out my needs and finding ways to meet them.  That can mean routine, small activities that improve my mood, eating properly, treating myself in the way I’d treat anyone else I love.  I created a ‘happy book’ which included ideas that took anywhere from 2 minutes to 2 hours that I would feel just a little better after. I committed to doing some of these things each day.  


5) Allowing myself to have my emotions

Emotions can be wonderful multi sensory experiences.  They can also be the pits.  I was very uncomfortable with the feelings of anxiety, anger and sadness. It was/is very easy to fall into distraction techniques that are numbing and avoiding or fighting against the emotion.  I love the way this clip demonstrates the latter. I had to spend time in mindfulness practice to be curious about the emotions that I was having.  That was a hard lesson to learn too. Giving space to my feelings allowed me to be more present and less numb – which was ultimately a good thing. Anxiety still sucks though.


Taken to extremes, any of these things could certainly be an unhealthy level of selfish.  But none of them is necessarily so. In fact, they help me to create a life that works for me and that gives me energy to spend on my connections with others.  They help me to be my best self, for myself and for others. For that reason, I’m OK with being a bit selfish every now and then.


If you are interested in counselling or coaching on self consent, relationships, or wider mental health, please contact me via the contact page.

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