How selfishness can actually be a GOOD thing
In honor of Halloween today, I want to talk about something that scares the pants off a lot of my clients: being selfish.
For most of us—especially those of us conditioned as girls and women, whose worth tends to be measured by our ability to take care of others—being called “selfish” is a terrible insult.
Why? Because it carries moral significance and judgment. Even just a quick Google of the word’s definition is dripping with judgment:
Selfish (of a person, action, or motive): lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one's own personal profit or pleasure.
That definition beautifully demonstrates what we’ve all learned about selfishness: that to be selfish is to be a bad person. That a selfish person inherently doesn’t care about anyone or anything but themselves, so they’d be all too willing to exploit, hurt, or use the people around them; that to be “selfish” is to be a danger to society; a menace; a monster.
I don’t buy it.
First of all, categorizing anything into a moral binary of “good” or “bad” means all nuance, context, and curiosity about it have gone right out the window, and let’s be honest, we’re all a lot more complex and interesting than that.
As someone who literally wrote a book about stripping our bodies of moral significance in order to overcome body image issues, I assure you—anytime we moralize a single part of the human experience, the only possible outcome is shame, anxiety, and self-abandonment.
(Think about all the harm caused by diet culture moralizing traits like “discipline” and “laziness”!)
Whether we’re talking about our bodies, personalities, or behaviors, no individual trait has (or should have) the power to determine the goodness or badness of our character.
But my defense of selfishness goes way deeper than that. Because while anyone can be impacted by body image and self-worth issues, the vast majority of my clients have one single thing in common: they strive to be selfless.
Please don’t misunderstand me: there is nothing wrong with wanting to be a good person, or striving to be kind, generous, or considerate. Those can be great qualities and values!
But often this drive comes from shame and anxiety about being bad, rather than a genuine desire to do good, and ends up feeling more like self-hatred or self-abandonment than love or concern for others.
Many of my clients are so afraid of doing anything that could be viewed as selfish that they never let themselves take up even an ounce of space in their relationships, and often struggle to set boundaries, express their true feelings, or ask for support. (After all, what if any of those things inconvenienced someone else??)
This is why the path to body neutrality and self-acceptance often requires healing, neutralizing, and overcoming an aversion to selfishness, and why I often find myself teaching clients how to embrace selfishness.
Luckily, I’m good at this.
I’m a selfish person by nature. I care about other people, but I care about myself more. My relationships are extremely important to me, but my relationship with myself comes first. And while I, too, grew up believing this made me a “bad person,” I now believe it’s one of my superpowers, and I love seeing my clients blossom and thrive as they learn that it’s safe to center themselves in their lives.
Do you feel pressure to be selfless, generous, and kind, too? Are you so afraid of people thinking you’re selfish that you struggle to take up space, or put yourself first? If so, I encourage you to explore why:
Where did you learn that putting yourself first makes you a bad person, or is tantamount to hurting and exploiting others?
Where did you learn that caring about yourself means you don’t (or can’t) care about anyone else?
And more importantly, how true is all that, really?
Think about it. Selfishness is about getting what you want…but what most of us want is a life that feels authentic, expansive, and fulfilling, complete with secure and nourishing relationships, and a deep sense of belonging, right?
And being an asshole to people is actually pretty unlikely to lead to that.
As far as I’m concerned, true selfishness can (and must!) co-exist with kindness, generosity, and consideration of others. If the goal is really to thrive, what could be more selfish than holding yourself accountable to your deepest values and priorities? What could be more selfish than investing in the relationships you care about, or treating people with respect?
Stripping morality from selfishness frees you up to consider what really matters to you, and define integrity (and morality, for that matter!) on your own terms. Which means on top of improving self-acceptance and self-worth, reducing anxiety, and fostering authenticity, embracing selfishness can actually help you become a better person.
So today I’m issuing you a scary challenge: be more selfish.
Seriously! Tell people what you want and need, ask for help, or do something just because it feels good– and then hit reply and let me know how it went!
I promise you selfishness isn’t the evil we’ve all been taught it is, and that viewing it through a morally neutral lens is an important part of the self-acceptance, shame-busting, and body neutrality process.
PS: If you’re looking for help centering yourself in your life, or moving toward body neutrality and self-acceptance, I’d love to work with you! Apply for coaching with me here, and we can chat!