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Self-care: Finding a balance between selfless and selfish

Since when did using the word 'self' become a problem? Is it a reaction to the increasing falseness of the 'self' we present online (e.g. our filtered selfies)? Is it a resistance to being a 'tall poppy' (e.g. being overly self-confident)? Perhaps it is seen as the cause of the increasing disconnect we experience as a community (e.g. being self-absorbed)?

There are many ways that view the 'self' and how our language can change how we feel about words simply by adding 'self'. For example, caring for others is one of the most common values people hold. Often in therapy sessions, people tell me that they believe it is important to care for their family and friends, for those who are vulnerable, and the act of caring is given as a sign of their love. When they act in line with this value, it gives them a sense of meaning and fulfillment.

And yet, these same people seem to balk when the concept of self-care is presented to them. "Oh no, I'm being selfish when I do that" is a common response. If people deem caring for others to be meaningful, why do they have a blindspot in seeing that the value of 'caring' including caring for themselves?

My experience is that people can get trapped into believing selfless and selfish as polarised actions, e.g. they are either focusing on the needs of others (being selfless) or else they are ignoring the needs of others (being selfish). They tend to not see that there is a continuum where there is a spot for self-care to sit in the middle.

How this tends to play out is that people who value caring for others tend to give much of themselves. This value can sometimes get twisted and warped into way of avoiding uncomfortable feelings and thoughts about not being 'enough' - not being a good enough parent, a good enough friend, strong enough, etc. How this impacts people's behaviour is that they tend to avoid saying no to people, they have difficulty maintaining boundaries, can have relationships that aren't balanced in the 'give and take', may avoid telling others that they aren't coping or asking for help - all behaviours that promote self-care.

Then there is the aversion to being seen as selfish. There are daily clickbait articles about parents who aren't doing enough for their kids whether that be what is packed for lunch, managing their obsessive interest in the latest gaming craze, etc. that aim to name and shame. This isn't just for parents. We are bombarded by messages that by giving to oneself we are taking something away from others.

So how does this continuum look? This is how I often explain it:

- Being selfish is putting your own needs ahead of others (often to their detriment).

- Being selfless is putting others' needs ahead of your own (often to your own detriment).

- Practicing self-care is recognising and responding to your needs whilst considering the impact on others.

There are lots of messages that self-care is the same as being self-indulgent (think about all of those chocolate ads where the person finally gets to relax and have a break). Self-indulgence is a temporary and often unhelpful way of trying to avoid facing and changing what is happening. Self-care is about motivating oneself for growth and change. It is about shifting the imbalance and building a healthier, more resilient self.

When people value and practice self-care it creates a ripple effect for themselves and those that they care about. It is an investment towards having fulfilling relationships. It is a commitment to modelling positive mental health to others (especially children). It is choosing to acknowledge and respond to our needs with love and kindness. And it empowers us to grow.


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