Self love or selfish? Kids are often taught to share their toys and think of the needs of others. Reciprocity and empathy are useful values to have. However, some people have taken this to mean that anything other than giving or putting others first can seem selfish. There are distinct differences. Self-love is healthy, selfish is not. To make the distinction clearer, let’s start with definitions.
Selfish means showing concern only for oneself. It’s about making sure that you come out ahead, even when it hurts others. It can even include intentionally slighting others to give yourself an advantage. This is not a great strategy because people are social creatures. We need each other for companionship, division of labor, sex, amusement, growth, and a whole lot of other things. If we alienate people because we don’t consider their feelings and needs, we could end up lonely and miserable.
Selfishness comes from a space of lack or fear. When we fear that we need to protect our stuff, we withhold it from others. When we fear we won’t have enough, we cling tightly to what we have – even when there is more than enough. When we fear being hurt, we close down. These are selfish acts.
Self-love is about putting yourself first, but doing so in a way that honors you and others. If you’ve ever been on an airplane, you’ve heard the spiel about putting on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. This is because a healthy you is an effective you. You can’t serve from an empty vessel. You are the center of your life. You create things, serve people, share ideas, do tasks, love, care, and provide for someone or something. If you go down, all that you do goes down with you. The best way to continue to serve is to be healthy. The best way to sustain health is to practice self-love.
Self-love comes from a space of security, self-esteem, and peace. When we give, it is with a full heart. When we share, it is because we are secure in knowing that we have enough to spare or can get it all back again. When we say no, it’s because our time or resources can serve us better by staying where they are.
Let me give you some examples to show the differences.
“Archie” is an accomplished businessman who built a business from scratch. He has a huge house, pretty wife, and kids in private school. He doesn’t deny himself or his family anything. He feels his status entitles him to special treatment. He wants to be respected wherever he goes. If he doesn’t get what he considers his due, he lets people know. He is quick to fire staff for slights. He posts many selfies every day to show off his achievements to make sure that everyone knows he’s successful.
This is selfish. Someone like this may describe his behavior as self-love, but self-love is not about ego or pride. Self love doesn’t abuse other people. Nor does self-love have anything to prove. Archie’s money, success, or his spending habits don’t make him selfish. The lack of love in his life makes him selfish.
“Katie” is an accomplished businesswoman who built a business from scratch. She has a huge house, handsome husband, and kids in private school. She doesn’t deny herself or her family anything. She regularly volunteers in the community. Sometimes, because of her status, she is called on to do things for other people or organizations. She helps when she can, but doesn’t allow her helping to interfere with her family life, social life, or work. If she can feel “all in” without being drained, she says yes. Otherwise, it’s no. Katie posts pictures on social media that reflect her life. These often show the grandeur in which she lives.
This is self-love. Again, it’s not about what you have. It’s about love and boundaries. Katie provides well for herself and her family. She also gives, but only to the extent that it does not begin to weaken her. Maintaining those boundaries is crucial to keeping Katie well and happy. The more she has to give, the more there is to give.
Still confused? Let’s look at it from another point of view. When someone calls us selfish, it tends to be because they feel we should be doing something different or they feel that we have hurt someone by our actions. So, the label “selfish” comes from someone else’s expectation of us. In other words, there is a “should” involved.
As long as someone else is judging you, you’re almost always going to fail in their eyes. There is no way to know what someone else wants of you. To live up to that is to give away your free will. Instead of trying to do that, I suggest you go the self-love route.
Selfish says, “If you take care of me, I will take care of you.” Self-love says, “I will take care of me, so that you don’t have to. Please take care of you so that I don’t have to.” When each person assumes primary responsibility for himself, everyone has high self esteem. If everyone does a great job, you never have to deal with feeling like a burden or assuming a burden. You never have to deal with guilt. And your success or failure is completely in your own hands. That’s a much more empowering way to live.