You skip your morning workout to help your business partner put out a fire. You spend your lunch break on the phone with your elderly dad so he doesn’t get too lonely. You keep delaying your dream project to spend time helping stressed employees navigate work challenges.
The moment you get home, your entire evening is consumed with your spouse and children—helping with homework, playing games, loading the dishwasher, reading bedtime stories, listening to your partner vent about work.
You finally collapse into bed, marking the end of yet another day in which you did nothing—absolutely nothing—to take care of yourself.
You are compulsively self-sacrificing.
And you need to fix it.
The Trouble with Selflessness
We have a tendency to treat selflessness as an unquestionable virtue. In any dilemma, we think the morally correct choice is the one that serves someone else. The wrong choice is the one that caters to our own self-interest.
. . . Right?
It’s actually more complicated than that.
Without question, those lunchtime chats with your father are important. It’s also good for your employees to see you take an interest in the challenges they face. And of course your spouse and children need to know that they are the most important people in your universe.
The problem isn’t that you make sacrifices for the people you care about. The problem is that you neglect your own need for rest, mental stimulation, and growth. As a result, you don’t bring the best version of yourself when you show up for your staff and family. You’re not focused, awake, and positive. You’re tired, distracted, and burned out.
In a strange way, many people take pride in that exhaustion. The more worn-down they are, the more virtuous they feel. “I don’t have time for myself,” they say. “I’m too busy living for everyone else.”
Self-neglect becomes an identity. And then it becomes an excuse.
How Selflessness Becomes an Excuse
How often do you point to others as the reason you can’t pursue your goals?
You want to be in better shape, but how can you find the time when your company needs your full attention for twelve hours a day?
You still have that dream of taking a solo backpacking trip, but your family really can’t spare you for more than an afternoon.
It would be great to finally start your own business, but you feel like you should wait until things are less crazy for your boss. It would be such a burden on him to lose you now.
See how easy it is? You’ve made up a story about how no one in your life can get by without you. They depend on your time, your talent, your resources, and your undivided attention. They can’t get by without you. To pursue your own desire is to trample everyone else’s needs.
You have this story locked and loaded when you are reminded of your intimidating life goals. You tell yourself that you’d do anything to be able to live out your true purpose . . . to challenge yourself and transform into the person you always wanted to be. If only everybody else didn’t need so much from you.
Here’s the real truth.
The people you’re sacrificing everything for . . . they’re looking for quality, not quantity. Even your kids. Sure, they may act like every second you’re not with them is a personal insult, but what do you think is actually more important for their personal fulfillment and development? Several hours of one-on-one time with a parent who is emotionally and mentally distracted? Or a few hours with a parent who is 100% present . . . a parent who is healthy and focused and modeling self-care?
As for your spouse, your friends, your coworkers or employees . . . guess what they want? They want to see you reach your goals! They want to see you happy, successful, and thriving.
So if you catch yourself still playing the martyr as you go through your week, guess what. You’re not doing it for them. They don’t need it. You’re doing it for that story you made up: the story that says you can’t create the life you want for yourself because you’re just too virtuous.
Finding the Balance
I’m not going to pretend putting these ideas into practice is easy. We feel an intense sense of responsibility for the people we work with and the people we love. And sometimes prioritizing others is the right thing to do.
So, how do you make more space for yourself? How do you know when it’s time to be selfish and when it’s time to show up for others?
Here are a few ideas to get you started.
- Start small. What is the one thing you could do every day that would clear your mind, ease your stress, bring you joy, or help you grow? Decide when you’re going to do that thing. Block out time on your calendar. That appointment is now as important as every other appointment you have. You cannot postpone and you cannot reschedule.
- Talk to the people who would be affected by your decision to take time for yourself. Explain why you’ve decided to block out this time for yourself and share how you hope this small gesture of self-care will benefit them. You may also want to let them know why making this commitment is difficult for you, especially if you have a personal relationship with this person. When they know you’re concerned about their wellbeing, they’re better equipped to support and reassure you if you’re tempted to backtrack on your commitment to yourself.
- When you feel guilty, sit down and make a list of all the ways your selfishness stands to benefit others. Remind yourself as often as necessary that self-care makes you a stronger professional, an emotionally available parent and spouse, and a well-rounded human being with a lot to contribute to the world.
When all else fails, remember what flight attendants would tell you. In the event of an emergency, you have to secure your own oxygen mask before helping the person beside you.
Because that vulnerable person needs you conscious and alert, with strong lungs full of oxygen.
That person needs you to be selfish.
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