Taking care of yourself sometimes means being selfish

My family, my friends and my patients think being selfish is bad.  I bet you do, too.  I used to think so, as well.  Twenty seven years in practice has taught that being selfish is good.  Actually, selfishness is essential to an individual’s health.

Today, I saw a selfless young woman who was ill.  She had an assortment of complaints.  She had not felt well in months.  If she was the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, she would have been diagnosed with executive burn out and given two months at Canyon Ranch, an executive retreat.

Unfortunately, she is the CEO of a typical American family.  She is married, has five children, a dog and works full time.  She has living parents who are aging and require help.  She is a hard worker, dedicated to caring for her nuclear and extended family, as well as excelling at work.  She has no time for self.  She is one of hundreds of such mothers in my practice.  She is stressed to the max but does not have the luxury of going to Canyon Ranch.

I often tell the story of the hand.  The thumb is you.  When you are young, you are self centered, egocentric.  The world revolves around you and only you.  One day you realize that you have parents (your index finger), and you are responsible to them, as well as yourself.  As you age, you meet the love of your life (the middle finger) and are responsible to your mate.  In time, children come along (ring finger) and they need lots of your time.  You become very responsible for them.  Then you have your job (little finger).  As you grow in your job, responsibility grows as well.  You are a good person and want to excel at everything.  Your parents are aging and require more attention.  Your children are aging and require more attention.  Your job is growing more complex.  Your mate, who is often responsible like you, is in the same position.

So what do you do?  Things are out of control!  You have to take care of your parents, your mate, your children and your job.  The only thing you control is you, so you sacrifice yourself.  Try using your hand without using your thumb.  What you find out is, without the thumb, your hand is useless.  No matter how hard you work to make your four fingers function, without the thumb, the hand falters.

If you are not healthy, you cannot help those who need and depend on you.  If you are not selfish enough to save time to care for and nourish yourself, you will get sick.  Those around you will have to function on their own.  Why wait until you are exhausted, burnt out or sick?  The answer is simple.   Your parents taught you not to be selfish.  They taught you to be a responsible individual.  It is time you teach your loved ones to be responsible to themselves, to set healthy limits, to take time off, to laugh and be happy.  Set a good example; get healthy.  At first, those who are used to getting all of you will rebel.  They may call you selfish.  Teach them that a part of a healthy you is better than part of an unhealthy you.  In the end, by being selfish, everyone will be better off.

Stewart Segal is a family physician who blogs at Livewellthy.org.

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_CKSY7QAHIZGZSKZKJEOCCYV2AA Gloria

    So true!

  • http://twitter.com/Valuemed Valuemed

    Good advice but often hard to do for busy working mums

  • Anonymous

    well, i would like to say that i do compeletly having  If you are not healthy, you cannot help those who need and depend on
    you.  If you are not selfish enough to save time to care for and
    nourish yourself, you will get sick. 

  • horseshrink

    The prayer of St. Francis means much to me:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prayer_of_Saint_Francis
     
    But, as with so many things, there are paradoxes.
     
    I must take care of myself, else I cannot attend to the needs of others.
     
    It does not matter how busy my schedule is, or how great the needs of others might be.  If I don’t stop at the gas station to put fuel in the tank, I will run out of gas.  Then, I’m no longer as useful as I was.

  • Anonymous

    It’s like the instructions we get when flying on airplanes:  If the oxygen masks are deployed, put on your own mask before assisting others.  If you put on another person’s mask first, chances are, you’ll pass out before you can get your own on.  It’s ok to take time to take care of yourself.  It’s not being selfish; it’s actually being efficient.