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  • Writer's pictureGabby Pavlovic

Is Self-Care Selfish?

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

It is very common to not prioritise one’s own health and wellbeing in a society where going “above and beyond” or giving “110 percent” is almost some kind of benchmark to reach in everything we do. With this kind of thinking, it’s no wonder people ask the question, “is self-care selfish?”


To explore this, let’s first discuss what self-care looks like and what it actually is.



Defining self-care


Self-care has definitely become a buzzword in recent years, and there does not seem to be a uniform definition for it, with terms like “self-efficacy” and “self-help” often being used interchangeably to refer to the same or similar concepts[1].


After a dive into the literature on self-care, it is evident that much of the research tends to look at this concept in a clinical or epidemiological way, particularly in regard to mental health and chronic disease management[2], but also as it pertains to wellbeing of healthcare professionals like nurses and psychologists[3]. Today I’d like to talk about self-care in a more general sense, and to look at the relevance of self-care for the average human. Let’s start with sharing what I mean when I use the term “self-care”.


What self-care is: prioritising what your mind, body, and spirit need so that you can do what you want to do, be who you want to be, and feel vital and well in the process.


What self-care is not: Engaging exclusively in specific treatments or activities which could be described as exorbitant or generally only affordable for some people.


Rereading the above sentences about what self-care is and what self-care is not, I hope you can see that you do not need to be booking in for a session in a magnesium float tank, a relaxation massage, or even drawing a hot bubble bath every night to take care of yourself.


What I’m getting at here is that self-care is for everyone, not just a particular group of people. Self-care literally means what it sounds like – taking care of yourself. What that looks like for you may be quite different to what it looks like for someone else.



is self-care selfish


What self-care looks like


What self-care looks like for me may be different to what self-care looks like for you. Self-care can look like taking time off to go to the hot springs for a soak, but it does not have to. Self-care can look like pampering yourself with a 6-step skin rejuvenation treatment, but it does not have to.


Self-care can also look like choosing nourishing, nutrient dense foods instead of processed food. It can look like saying “no” to anything that doesn’t feel like it’s a good fit for you at the time. Self-care could look like going to bed when you’re tired, rather than staying up because “it’s too early” or because that episode of your favourite show still has 20 minutes left.


We can look at self-care activities as they relate to the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of ourselves, so there are literally so many things you could do to take care of yourself in your life. Some of my personal favourite self-care ideas include:

  • Going for a walk first thing in the morning

  • Sitting on some grass with my shoes off

  • Going bouldering

  • Not committing too much energy to things when I’m in my menstrual phase

  • Preparing my lunch the night before so I’ve got a nutritious meal ready to go the next day

  • Staying home to play Stardew Valley on the couch rather than going to that social thing on a Friday night, if I’m not feeling it

The list of things you could do to take care of your mind, body, and spirit is endless, and it will change as you do. We are dynamic creatures, and so what we need to feel at peace, at ease, and well at any one time may differ from moment to moment, so honour yourself and meet yourself where you’re at right now.



Is self-care important?


Yes. Self-care (whatever that looks like for you) is important for taking care of ourselves in the face of constantly changing circumstances in both our external and internal worlds. We will always experience hard emotions, stressful circumstances, or physical challenges, but being able to recognise what we need and then do our best to provide that to ourselves is hugely impactful for our health and wellbeing.


We all deserve to look after ourselves and put our health first, because self-care and wellbeing depend on each other. To be well, we need to take care of ourselves, and this is why self-care is important.


Self-care is particularly important in current times because we face so much stress in our lives, whether its financial pressure, relationship issues, work challenges, or anything else, so it’s imperative that we implement ways to manage these stressors effectively.



Taking care of yourself is an empowering thing.

I like to think that by emphasising the importance of self-care and encouraging people to figure out how they can best take care of themselves, I am encouraging people to empower themselves and to take their health and wellbeing into their own hands. After all, our health is our responsibility.


You can also think about it this way:


By showing up for yourself, you can show up for the people, passions, and projects that are important to you.

So back to the question, is self-care selfish?


Merriam-Webster defines “selfish” as being “concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself” or “seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others”[4].


So going back to how I defined self-care at the start of this blog and then comparing that to the definition of the word selfish, there are a few things to note. First, both place emphasis on the self. According to the above definition, being selfish also means being excessively concerned with oneself and only oneself. I guess we would want to know then, what constitutes “excessive”? Again, just like self-care is subjective, what one person would consider excessive attention on oneself may be different to what another person considers so – you do you.


Being selfish may also emphasise not being mindful of others when you are placing attention on yourself, and when you are engaging in self-care activities or behaviours, by nature of them being self-care, you are solely focusing on yourself, because you are taking care of yourself!


You could read the official definition of the world selfish and conclude that yes, self-care is selfish, but I would like to pose the question – is that a bad thing?


I started this blog by saying it is extremely common for us to neglect our own health and wellbeing in today’s modern, hustle-bustle culture, and I think one of the big problems that leads to this is how much value we place on what others think of us.


Think about it for a second. We care so much about what others think that we will do whatever we can to not appear selfish, and instead appear as self-less as possible, because then in the eyes of others we are generous, we are committed, we are driven, we are caring.


But here’s the thing – if we place so much emphasis on putting all our energy into everything and everyone but ourselves, this is a sure road to burnout, no question about it.


It makes sense in evolutionary terms, as fearing judgement from others is a very primal fear. If there was even an ounce of a chance that you would be judged by others in the tribe for whatever reason, of course you wouldn’t risk opening yourself up to being judged, because that would mean you could potentially be cast out from the group, and this would of course jeopardise your survival.


But what if we moved towards a paradigm shift in wider culture where we could witness and appreciate the bigger picture here? That bigger picture being that people in our communities would be better cared for if those taking care of them were well-resourced enough to do so? Or where people are showing up for work and feeling excited about what they do because they’ve prioritised themselves and are therefore in a position where they can pursue a fulfilling career, so they then create amazing results in their field.


There are so many possibilities for us as individuals and as communities if we choose to firstly, take care of ourselves, and secondly, recognise when others prioritise taking care of themselves and keep encouraging them to do so, rather than labelling them as “selfish”.


Perhaps what we associate with that word, “selfish” needs to change, because I bet when I say that word, your mind probably goes straight to imagining a person who is greedy, who never cares about others, and who does not have the capacity to even consider the needs of anyone other than themselves at any and all times. I don’t know about you, but to me, that doesn’t sound the same as someone who is able to focus on their own needs to nourish themselves mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, so that they can then extend that nourishment and care outward.



Closing thoughts


If you’ve read this far, kudos to you – I’ve clearly had plenty to say about self-care, and I hope you now see why self-care is not selfish (at least not in the current sociocultural context of the word). In summary:


  • Self-care is anything you do in your life to nurture and take care of yourself, your health, and your wellbeing.

  • Self-care activities or behaviours can be subjective and what self-care looks like for one person may be different to another.

  • Self-care is for everyone, as we all deserve our own compassion and care so that we can prioritise our health and wellbeing.

  • Culturally, prioritising one’s health and wellbeing has traditionally come after taking care of other people and things – but this is changing as we see how important it is to take care of ourselves first and foremost, so that we actually have the energy and ability to then place our attention on anything external to ourselves.


This blog article just scratches the surface on the topic of self-care, so I am keen to expand on it in the future. Until then, just remember:


By showing up for yourself, you can show up for the people, passions, and projects that are important to you.


References

1. Matarese, M., Lommi, M., De Marinis, M. G., & Riegel, B. (2018). A systematic review and integration of concept analyses of self‐care and related concepts. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 50(3), 296-305.


2. Riegel, B., Dunbar, S. B., Fitzsimons, D., Freedland, K. E., Lee, C. S., Middleton, S., ... & Jaarsma, T. (2021). Self-care research: where are we now? Where are we going? International journal of nursing studies, 116, 103402.


3. Dorociak, K. E., Rupert, P. A., Bryant, F. B., & Zahniser, E. (2017). Development of the Professional Self-Care Scale. Journal of counseling psychology, 64(3), 325-334.



Image credit to Jackson David.

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