The Importance of Being Selfish

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Selflessness is a much extolled virtue, and selfishness a much maligned trait.  But these perspectives seem simplistic.  Because I have found that to be truly selfless, I must be selfish first.  This is why.

Not selfish.

As a little girl, I learned that it was noble to sacrifice my needs for the needs of others.  I learned that I should aspire to live at least parts of my life selflessly.  And that the more selfless I was, the more worthy my life was.

So as a child, I shared my stationery, lunch, and candy; and played whatever everyone else wanted to play.  And as an adult, I did things for others that I didn’t have the time, desire, or energy to do.  Because I thought that I should be selfless.

It wasn’t a terrible way to live.  I didn’t  always mind going along with others preferences.  Or putting their needs ahead of my own.  But I didn’t realize that my choices had consequences.

Consequences.

The first consequence was that I constantly felt unfulfilled.  Something in me believed that having needs and preferences was selfish, that my needs and preferences would inconvenience others, and that they weren’t important anyway.  So, I suppressed them.  But they didn’t go away.  They lived inside me, and bubbled to the surface every so often where I denied them.  Again.  And again.  And again.  And I felt unfulfilled.

Feeling unfulfilled made me resentful.  I thought I was doing good.  But I didn’t feel good.  So, I looked for someone or something to blame.  And the people or situations that had “caused” me to feel unfulfilled were my easiest targets.  So, I blamed them.  And over the years, I started to resent them.

Finally, I infested my “selfless actions” with negativity.  Doing things for others when I didn’t have the time, desire, or energy to do them felt arduous and draining.  And was resentment-inducing.  I didn’t know how to deal with those negative feelings.  So I directed them towards the “selfless actions” that were causing them.  And doing that made those actions feel inauthentic.

My feelings felt messy.  I didn’t understand how being selfless could make me feel bad.  But I didn’t know how to fix anything.  So I stayed unhappy.  Until eventually, I learned a few things that helped.

Learnings.

I learned to love and respect myself.  I learned that truly loving and respecting myself meant that I had to accept who I was.  I had to accept my needs and preferences.  And realize that they were no more and no less important than the needs and preferences of others.

I learned to be kind to myself.  I saw that when I denied my needs, I was unkind to myself.   And that I deserved my kindness and selflessness just like everyone else did.

And I learned that I was responsible for my happiness.  If I wanted to feel fulfilled, it was my job to make sure that I did.  It was my responsibility to ensure that my needs were met.  If they weren’t, it was my fault and no one else’s.

So, I changed my ways.

More selfish.

I became “more selfish.”  I asked myself whether my needs or preferences were more important to me than the needs or preferences of others.  Often they were not.  And I went along with what others wanted.  But sometimes, they were.  And at those times, I did what I could to ensure that my needs were met.  Not from a defensive place.  But more from a place of wanting my needs to be met along with the needs of others.

Ironically, the more selfish I became, the more selfless I felt.  Because my needs were taken care of, I could more often and easily put the needs of others first.  Because I didn’t need anything, I could give without expectation.  And because I felt fulfilled, I could give with abandon.

Finally, instead of giving with resentment and negativity, I could give with joy, love, and well-meaning.

A well.

And so I learned that it was important to be fulfilled.  If my well was dry, I would have no water to share.  And if I gave from a dry well, I would have a cost to contend with – the negativity I generated.  But if I kept my well full by being “selfish,” I could give more freely, and more honestly.

So I started to choose my actions based on whether my well was full or needed filling.  As I did, I became both more selfish and more selfless.  And above all, I started to feel less messy, more peaceful, more fulfilled, and so much happier.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Mona Mathur March 14, 2012 at 10:51 am

Wow! This article makes me feel so much better :) ….thanks Meghana.

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Meghana March 14, 2012 at 11:30 am

You’re so welcome Mona! :)

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Claudia March 14, 2012 at 11:55 am

Dear Dancing…..your posts are always such a delight to read….you are old enough (lol) to be my grandchild….but you often have more wisdom than do i. it took many decades for me to even SEE the martyr syndrome i had adopted, which so many of us (mostly women) develop or are taught from a very early age. although things are changing slightly….the statistics comparing men and women who volunteer are staggeringly disparate. hmmmm……

just for the record: i wouldn’t call you “selfish”…..just “self-caring”. language is important….and i wouldn’t want you to go around calling yourself something that you clearly are not.

doing a happy dance today, along with the daffodils….:>)

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Meghana March 14, 2012 at 12:23 pm

Dear Claudia,

Thank you so much for your kind words, and your insight. And for the good distinction between selfish and self-caring. :) I’m so glad you’re dancing with the daffodils today! :)

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Anu March 14, 2012 at 6:58 pm

Hi Meghana
Another episode that is taken from my life (dear are you keeping a journal oor my life or a webcam?)

Pleasing others always all the time has been the self-forced motto on my life. If 99 people (out of 100) are happy with me and how I take care of them and one is not, I feel sad and worry what I could do to make that person like me :(

Selfless without taking care of ourselves makes us run dry (of good feelings, thoughts and actions) We run around trying to please others and not pleasing ourselves and then when we run out of steam, energy etc, we sit around thinking “well I took care of all these things for others: doing what they like to do/ eat/ etc etc why does no one ask me what I would like to do? etc. Then the feelings start eating you out and the so called selfless act looses its sense and importance and you are feeling sorry for yourself and resentment. How can a selfless act evoke these in you? Because you are not able to be selfless without fulfilling your desires/needs/wants/likes etc.

Selfish takes a really bad rap as it has a negative connotation. Perhaps self-focussed would help. If I am sick and I am trying to take care of others, I will feel down as I am not able to. If I take care of myself, heal myself well and then use my positive energy and health to help others then it makes everyone happy including myself. If I am self-focussed on being healthy, exercising, eating well, spending with in limits, loving what I do, being happy and radiate a positive energy then I can throw myself into helping others and doing good with out any resentment/ etc.

Self-focused approach to life is important to succeed as an individual (not just in profession) and a self-improved person (taken care of their needs/ happiness) can become wonderful in being selfless to help others and feel happy about it.

I have started using selfless in a limited way because some deeds no matter how selfless the intentions are, end up hurting me. I am advocating self-focused approach as if you help yourself get to a better place/person then you can do good to others.

Okay remove the webcam Meghana :) or you might just catch me cleaning my toddler’s spit up/ diaper etc

A special note to You:
Love your column gal, Love the spirit. Keep it going
By the way, do you realize that all the positive self-focused improvement has put you in a wonderful place now where you are devoting your energy/time/thoughts/blog to reach out and touch others with positive thinking and making people reflect on these topics and on themselves (and hopefully improve more)
Thank you from the bottom of my heart
Love
Anu

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Meghana March 15, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Dear Anu, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and for your kind words. You are right, words like self-focused or self-caring (as Claudia suggests above) are more appropriate. It’s amazing how we can make 99 people happy and beat ourselves up about that 1 person who isn’t. I’ve come to the conclusion that no matter how hard we try, we can never make everyone happy. So we might as well make ourselves happy and in the end, the the same number of people will be happy anyway. :)

As for the webcam – I do have one – and its focused within me. But I so truly believe that we’re all the same and so I know that others share my experiences. :)

Thanks so much again Anu for sharing your thoughts and for your kind words and constant encouragement!

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sheila March 19, 2012 at 8:00 pm

I totally agree with Claudia’s comments above…I think as women we are taught that our life has to be in the service of others…our parents, our children, our partners/husbands. It is so important to feel validated, valued and that our needs are being respected and met. Without that, it’s so true that resentment will set in. I think this is a wonderful post!

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Meghana March 20, 2012 at 9:47 am

You’re so right Sheila. Women especially learn these things over a lifetime. And it takes effort to un-learn them. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! :)

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Abha May 4, 2012 at 6:34 am

Meghana

I seem to have found a “soul mate ” in my journey… I read about u and many articles that u have written ….just today ..can’t seem to get enough…. I wish I could talk to you…but even if I can’t I see my stumbling upon ur blog while revising grammar lessons with my kid as a sign…. a sign that I have to reinvent myself… and go through this chrysalis or journey of being ” the me that I want to be”…This post is like many others say,… about me too 1

cheers

Abha

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Meghana May 4, 2012 at 11:12 am

Dear Abha,

I’m so glad you stumbled upon my blog. In a way, we’re all each other’s soul-mates because deep inside, we’re all the same, and so every post is about each one of us. :) Thanks so much for writing! :)

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