Why Being “Selfish” is Selfless

Welcome back to Making it Happen with Amanda Kaufman! This week I’m reflecting on a big life lesson, one that I seem to need to re-learn again and again, that serves me each time I get better at it.

Reflection: How often do you compromise your rest, nutrition, movement, and emotional health because you are “doing something for someone else”? What is that costing you longer term?

As you’ll hear in today’s vlog, this is a tough one for many high achievers, and can get in the way of elevating to the next level of performance. Physiologically running our energy into the ground by consistently short-circuiting our own needs shows up in how we regulate our emotions, how resilient we are when challenges arise, and how we relate to other people.

Shortly after Sheryl Sandberg’s massively successful book, Lean In, she undertook another campaign to #BanBossy. I propose another language ban, and that one is #BanSelfish. How many times have you thought along the lines of “if I don’t put the needs of others first, that means I am selfish, and I definitely don’t want to be that”. Who would?

Selfish is another one of those terms that carries with it a huge dose of judgement with almost no benefit to the recipient of the description; and funnily enough, it’s a word that is often used to describe ourselves when no one else would use it to describe us. It is a powerful word, that if we are indeed selfish, it means we are taking advantage of situations at the detriment of others.

Here’s where it really gets wonky… Is it really detrimental to others to insist on 8 full hours of sleep as a standard norm, 3 nutritious meals per day, regular opportunities to stand up and move (or even, GASP! Exercise?), time away from screens to recover our minds and prevent eye strain? Sadly, many of us, including me, struggle to defend these basic boundaries, and often it is our perception that we are sacrificing of ourselves for the good of others that reinforces this behavior.

So what do we do about it?

#1: Know the difference between “pleasing” and “serving”

The difference is subtle, but important: pleasing is about “me”, and serving is about “you”. Meaning, if you are striving to do something purely to “make someone happy” so that they will regard YOU well, that’s pleasing. A people-pleaser constantly puts their needs on hold to satisfy what is felt as a bigger need, still for self, to be likedaccepted, and appreciated. These desires are external to self, they put power in the hands of the people we are attempting to please, and therein lies the trap. What do you do if the person you’re trying to please doesn’t demonstrate the appreciation you hope for? What if they don’t notice your efforts? What if they don’t express outwardly?

Then you redouble your efforts. Cut another corner, sacrifice a little more, a little more… until eventually there’s nothing left to cut back on, and you’re frustrated! You’ve placed the responsibility for your feeling good about your contributions in the hands of others.

Serving, on the other hand, is consciously knowing within yourself that you are making a positive impact on another person, regardless of how they express to you. YOU own the decision and judgement of your behavior, and therefore get to reap the rewards of it independently of whether their appreciation is demonstrated.

#2: Plan Your Needs First

Each week, as you review what you plan to accomplish, schedule your own self-care FIRST. Make sure you have time for the following:

  1. Rest
  2. Eating Well
  3. Mindfulness / Mental Health
  4. Movement
  5. Reflection & Reward

As you plan for rest, be sure to have at least an hour before you actually shut your eyes to sleep and an hour after you wake protected to make sure you’re managing your stress as you head to sleep and head into your new day. Ensure you do not have meetings or commitments overlapping every mealtime, and there is enough buffer to prepare or select meals that serve your body and health goals.

For mindfulness / mental health, this is NOT TV-watching time necessarily! Even 10 minutes of mindful meditation can make a huge impact on your well-being. Consider trying a yoga practice. Create space for your mind, and open much more resilience, productivity, and energy for your life.

Movement can be as simple as a walk. Living with intense Texas heat, I struggle with this in the summer, but have found that dance-parties in my home office are a great substitute! Join a fitness class, or consider hiring a trainer. Movement is one of the easiest things to skimp over and shortcut on when you have a demanding corporate job, or a family, or really just have a life these days!

Finally, reflection and reward is important, particularly for high achievers. Due to the hedonic treadmill, high-performers are particularly subject to the tendency to achieve an objective, then set a new goal and pursue without first integrating the success of their achievements. Identify a few things that feel like a reward for you, and make time to DO THEM! It will help you experience far more gratitude for your high performing lifestyle, and is widely agreed to be one of the top strategies for experiencing greater happiness.

#3: Reframe “Selfish” to “Self-Love”

Selfish is a harsh, judgemental term, that implies a lack of caring for others. Take a hard look at your life, and how you spend your days… are you really taking advantage of the kindness of others, or diminishing resources at the expense of other people? If so, okay, stop that… but if you’re using the term “selfish” to describe how you feel about taking time out to take care of yourself, and the impact on others is that they might not get as much without your help or intervention… take a harder look. Is that really the case? Or is it a story that you’re buying into to justify your need to please others as described above?

When you are thirsty, stop and get water, and tell yourself it’s how you demonstrate “Self-Love”. Self-love lets you love and serve others. Taking care of ourselves first allows us to better serve; constantly neglecting our own needs diminishes our capacity to support the needs of others.

Think of it like refueling a car. If you keep driving a car, refusing to replenish the fuel tank, even when the light comes on and it beeps at you, you can drive the car a bit further. You might even get several miles out of it, often a surprising number of miles. So you keep getting in the car, refusing to fuel it, hoping that you’ll get just a few more miles out of it… but what happens if you STILL don’t refuel? Eventually, your car won’t go anymore.

Don’t be that car. Selfishly pursuing the next mile to hopefully get acknowledgement from someone else for the risk and pain you’re putting yourself through… instead, refuel, and have the energy to drive hundreds more miles! And know you are doing more than enough. Remind yourself of it regularly. You deserve it!



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