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Self-care Is Not Selfish

Published on January 6, 2017 by VWC

By Mary Elise Polce, Ph.D.

The biggest obstacle to self-care may be the mistaken belief that when we take care of ourselves, we are being selfish. Self-care is not selfish. Selfishness is defined as: “seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure or well-being without regard for others.” By contrast, self-care means taking care of our basic needs. If we don’t do this, who will?

Guilt is another obstacle to practicing self-care. Many women and parents wrestle with guilt when they take time for themselves. Guilt is meant to stop people from doing something illegal, unethical or immoral. Taking care of basic needs, which include balancing work and relaxation, does not meet any of these criteria! When we start practicing self-care a sense of well-being quickly replaces unnecessary guilt.

What is Self-care?

Our self-care needs change across the lifespan. When we are in school, working full-time or raising a family (or all three at the same time!), our time is naturally limited. However, limited time does not excuse us from taking care of ourselves.

Basic self-care is simple. It includes adequate sleep, healthy nutrition, a balance of solitude and socializing, regular physical exercise, spiritual practice and positive relationships. It includes keeping doctor’s appointments and annual screenings. It also means taking care of our appearance and fashion needs, if this is an important value. This sounds easy enough, but due to our socialization, many women feel selfish when they take the time to practice self-care. A much needed nap or going to bed early is often denied to take care of family needs or household chores. Sometimes women even neglect their own doctor’s appointments because they are putting everyone else’s appointments ahead of their own.

It is important to practice self-care every day. However, during times of stress, such as when one is preparing for the holidays, managing a personal crisis or grieving, self-care becomes even more important. Taking care of our needs is our primary job and everything else revolves around this. When we practice good self-care on a regular basis, our career, family and relationships will go well too.

Holidays and Self-care

Maintaining healthy boundaries during the holidays is one way to practice self-care. A helpful tool is to “Let your yes mean yes, and let your no mean no.” In other words, when you decide to do something (host gatherings, buy gifts, make pies from scratch, organize a Christmas drive for needy families), it must be for your own good as well as for others. We can surely experience real joy in our hearts doing any of these activities, but when our physical or emotional stress levels are too high, we can say, “no, not this year.”

Saying no can not only free us, but it also allows others to develop skills or leadership in family or work settings. Thoughts such as, “No one else will do this if I don’t,” or “It won’t get done right if I don’t do it,” are often irrational or perfectionistic. Such thoughts increase our burden and prevent others from stepping up. Even children are very capable of taking on tasks that we have previously done for them. During the holidays, children, friends and partners are more likely to accept changes in holiday traditions when told, “I will be happier and less stressed with this change.” Healthy boundaries are a must during the holidays; remember to “Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no.”

General Self-care Strategies
These general self-care tips are adapted from the American Psychological Association[1]:

  • Maintain awareness of stressors and use healthy coping strategies.
  • Maintain social connections with family and friends.
  • Give priority to your own mental and physical needs by developing and working toward specific goals.
  • Use leave time from work for important self-care needs such as doctor’s appointments, sickness and vacation.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Maintain healthy nutrition by eating as close to nature as possible.
  • Seek professional help when needed.

Specific Self-care Strategies

Small behavior changes and different ways of thinking can be readily incorporated into our daily routines as well as during the holidays.[2]

Stop over-thinking. You don’t need to have all the answers!  Life is an unfolding journey.

Accept what is. Stop pushing and over-controlling the things you can’t change. Wait it out. Patience is an under-practiced virtue in today’s hyper-paced culture.

Be still, regularly. Find somewhere beautiful – a park, the woods, your kitchen, a bench outside your office building – and just sit there, still, for a few moments. Absorb the sound of the wind through the trees, the light and the shadows, the peace, and just appreciate the stillness.

Stop comparing yourself to others. Comparing yourself to others with envy robs you of appreciation for the sacred place your life is in at any given moment. Everyone has had their own long journey and you don’t know what that journey has been like for them.

Create joyful rituals. Create simple easy-to-do rituals that ground your day and you’ll find your way “home” no matter what life throws at you. For example, get up 10 minutes earlier and enjoy some gentle yoga stretches or that quiet cup of tea or coffee.

Take actions that scare you. If something scares you deeply, it means you want it deeply, so go for it. Reach out to someone who you want to get to know. Apply for that job you’ve always wanted (at VWC, of course!). Remind yourself of how short life is. In the end, any discomfort or rejection won’t really matter.

Cherish your friends. Surround yourself with true friends. Friends who’ve seen you at your worst, and love you even more for it. Friends you can be sick and miserable around and yet all they seem to do is make you laugh. Those friends are priceless.

Know your strengths. Your weaknesses are always shouting out for your attention like the squeaky wheel. But you must remember to focus on the other wheels…your strengths. You have so many. Focus on them and build your life around them.

Don’t let people walk all over you. Being nice and being a doormat are two very different things.

Forgive yourself. Forgive others. Forgiveness is one of our most powerful allies. Forgive the people in your life who harmed you and forgive yourself for your own mistakes and you will liberate yourself from pain, anger, resentment and negativity. Not forgiving others hurts you the most.

Stay away from negative people. Don’t be a negative person. No explanation needed.

Unplug from screens, TV, Facebook, your smartphone or your tablet. Remember that real face time beats digital face time any time.

Allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling. An ancient practice I teach my patients is called, “Let it be and let it go.” On the in breath, feel the sadness, fear or anger, and on the out breath, let it go. Ten deep breaths this way releases the emotion and is good for your body.

Embrace your imperfections. Let them reveal your individuality. Laugh at them if you need to. Behind every imperfection is a strength – so remember to look for it.

Remember to just be you. You are enough. You are invaluable.


Conclusion: The Three Goals of Self-Care are Health, Happiness and Personal Growth

Dave Richo, Ph.D. suggests self-care is one of the basic tasks of adulthood. He has written a series of excellent books on “how to be an adult.” This article ends with wise self-care words from his latest book, How to Be an Adult in Love [3]:

Self love is self caring. This is not selfishness but a wise tending of our body and minds, a loving-kindness toward ourselves. We love ourselves when we organize our relationships, our diet, our lifestyle, our work, our [leisure time], and our whole selves in such a way that they lead to, and protect, the three goals of self care: health, happiness and personal growth.


No Web sites or books this time, just two reminders:
1) Taking time for yourself is self-care, not selfishness.
2) You are in charge of your self-care.



[3] Richo, D. (2013). How to Be an Adult in Love. Shambala Press.