Is self-care selfish? Part 1

Is self-care selfish? 

The short answer is “maybe”. As sensible adults can probably appreciate, like most things in life the answer to this question is a resounding “it depends”.

It depends on the context. It depends on what – what kind of self-care we are talking about and what is the impact on others? It also depends on how, when and where – after all, there’s a proper process, time and place for most things.

Most importantly, in my opinion, it depends on why. Why are you practicing this particular type of self-care in this manner at this time and place? What is the intention, the aim, the purpose?

Obviously, it’s a rather nuanced thing.

Actually, though, wondering if self-care is selfish is the wrong question to be asking in the first place. I’ve been pondering and studying this for the better part of a decade and had a lot (A LOT) of conversations about it.

Usually, the asking of this question in itself says a lot about the asker. It can tell you about their values, beliefs, mental and emotional state, as well as their intention and any hidden agendas.

There’s actually nothing wrong with the question in and of itself, it’s just that it barely scratches the surface of the real issue here.

The quality of our lives depends on the quality of the questions we ask, and I think ‘is self-care selfish?’ is not the highest quality question in this instance.

Questions that might help us consider this whole issue a bit more deeply:

  • Is self-care wrong?
  • Is it narcissistic?
  • Am I going to get into trouble if I do some self-care?
  • Will it make me a bad person?
  • Is self-care irresponsible?
  • Is it inconsiderate?
  • Is selfishness or being self-centred actually a problem?
  • Can something be both selfish and selfless at the same time?
  • Can being selfless actually be selfish?
  • Will self-care make me a better person?

The tricky part is that once again the only short answer to all of these is ‘it depends’.

To start with, it depends what you mean by the term ‘self-care’. In some circles it is limited to more superficial concepts such as getting a massage or a facial. In others it extends to more in-depth actions like eating right, exercising, reducing stress and getting enough sleep. In the medical world, self-care refers to a patient following the doctor’s orders and doing the follow up steps necessary to heal; for example, going to follow up appointments and taking medication on time.

For the sake of this conversation I want to include all of the above.

Alright, but, is self-care selfish?

Well, is going to your follow up appointment with your doctor selfish? Is taking your medication on time selfish? Is eating right and exercising selfish?

What about reducing stress and getting enough sleep? Is getting a massage or facial selfish? What about brushing your teeth?

Is it selfish to put your seat belt on religiously? Is it selfish to set boundaries with rude people?

Are you being selfish if you are doing something that has no greater purpose but also no negative consequences purely because you enjoy it and it’s fun?

Is self-care irresponsible?

I think it’s pretty easy to see from the examples above that a lot of those self-care activities aren’t entirely self-centred.

Yes, they are centred on the self first and foremost, but every single one of them can have benefits greater than the immediate benefit to the self. Just because they are ‘all about you’ doesn’t mean they are inconsiderate or irresponsible acts. Quite the opposite, really.

Brushing your teeth everyday is a great example. Obviously, the immediate benefit is that you have clean teeth and over time need less dental work, which means fewer painful trips to the dentist and expensive dental bills. It’s a simple daily habit that most of us complete without even thinking about it, and never worry if we are being selfish by avoiding cavities and extra expenses.

Even though brushing our teeth every day is self-centred behaviour, it doesn’t take a genius to see that it’s also considerate and responsible behaviour as well.

It’s much more pleasant for others to be around us in the short term when we have clean teeth and fresh breath. In the long term, we free up appointments in the dentist’s office for people who really need them and saving money on dental bills means we have more to give to charity, if we so choose, or simply reduce the financial burden on others who have to support us.

The same thing can be said for virtually any kind of preventative physical or mental health practice.

Eating right, taking your medication, exercising, getting enough sleep, reducing stress, meditating and having good clean fun are all examples of important but not urgent behaviour that make a big difference over the long term for both you and those around you.

It can be put off and there will probably be few short term consequences, but over the long term not doing these practices will end up negatively impacting both you and those around you.

So it might be selfish in one sense, but it’s fairly easy to see that it’s actually responsible at the same time.

But is self-care inconsiderate? This is where things start to get a little murkier.

Stick around for PART 2 to find out!

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