Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Another four letter word -Selfish

After spiders, being seen as selfish used to be one of my biggest fears. I never wanted it to seem like I was putting myself before others or attending to my needs before other people. I feared this so much that I went to great lengths to make sure it never happened, including completely failing at taking care of myself.

You see, the word “selfish” has such a negative connotation these days, so much so that it’s often seen as another four letter word. Who wouldn’t rather be seen as a selfless human being who gives and helps others all of the time? The problem with this isn’t just that it’s completely unrealistic but that it’s near impossible.

If our own needs are not getting met, it’s not easy for us to meet other people’s needs. You may disagree with this, but hear me out. I am not saying that you are physically unable to put someone else before yourself (hell I used to do it all of the time) but it comes at a price and it’s a high price.

Take the example that you hear on planes all of the time about making sure to put on your oxygen mask before helping another. If you do not put your own oxygen mask on first, you will not be able to help others around you. It really is as simple as that. So your child may be alive but now who will be around to take care of her? This may sound like an extreme example but it’s true.

I really suck at taking care of myself. Actually let me rephrase that: I often get so sucked into taking care of other people that I forget to take care of myself. We as human beings are born knowing exactly what we need. A baby will cry when he is hungry or in distress. Toddlers continue to hold on to their parent’s pants leg when they enter a new place. Just like babies and toddles, we as adults have needs and taking care of them is JUST AS important. 

Last summer I was working insane hours, working at an all aquatics summer camp and then coaching afterwards. I spent a lot of hours helping those around me and I loved every minute of it. I enjoy working with kids and coaching brings me more joy then anything else I have found so far, yet 2/3 into the summer I was completely spent. My patience was wearing thin and I was starting to resent working as much as I was. The worst part for me was when I noticed that I was starting to slack on the job. I didn’t have the energy or the ability to function and it was starting to show. People around me were continually telling me how tired I looked and asking if I was OK. I felt really bad about this so I continued to push myself harder and harder, thinking maybe I just needed a little more motivation to make it through the long summer. Motivation wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I wasn’t taking care of myself. I wasn’t eating and was getting very little sleep. I was stretched so thin trying to outperform in all of my commitments, that I never had any free time. I was doing everything for everyone else EXCEPT for myself and I was miserable.

Going into the fall semester I continued this trend. I was working hard in school, being vice president of social, trying to go above in beyond for the sorority, trying to be a great girlfriend in my new relationship, volunteering here there and wherever. I was “Dependable Daniella” and you could always count on me. Let’s not mention that I was slowly killing myself. I was running on caffeinated beverages, no sleep and my trusty planner. Food wasn’t in the equation nor was anything that I actually needed. But I was convinced that slowing down wasn’t an option and come hell or high water I was not going to take time for myself.

All of this eventually caught up to me and I am very grateful that it did before it was too late. My therapist convinced me that maybe it was in my best interest to drop some things and focus on taking care of myself. When she first told me this I laughed in her face. After all, I knew how to take care of myself and I would not be the one to break commitments, I was not that selfish. I decided that I would show her. There was no way that I was resentful, bitter, angry or a people pleaser.

As I am sure you figured out, I eventually conceded however I was still convinced that I wasn’t being selfish. My life was slowly crumbling to pieces, but I was convinced that I was in control. I really believed that if I continued to do everything for everyone else, my problems would work themselves out and my life would come together. Boy was I wrong. Resigning from the sorority, dropping out of other commitments and saying no to people was the hardest thing ever yet the worst part of it all was admitting that it was exactly what I needed to do. I needed to be selfish. I needed to take out all of the extra things that were going on in my life and focus on myself. I needed to re-learn how to take care of myself. And this fact was like a knife to my heart. While trying to do everything for everyone else I had forgotten how to take care of myself and needed to do exactly what I had feared for so long. 

Since then, I'd like to believe that I have come a long way. I no longer cringe at hearing the word selfish and my name in the same sentence. I have also gotten better at putting my own needs first when necessary. I can now recognize that when I am not taking care of myself, I really am not that valuable to the people around me. I am still able to "suck it up" and do what needs to get done, but I don't do it with the same passion. For me, being selfish doesn't have a negative connotation anymore. I think everyone needs a healthy dose of selfishness. 

Being selfish isn’t a bad thing nor is taking care of yourself. As I said above, you can’t truly take care of or meet other people’s needs if you aren’t meeting your own. You don’t need to be a martyr. Putting yourself first isn’t a sin. It is only when you have yourself put together and figured out that you can truly be giving towards other people. Being selfish and self centered are not the same thing. No one will fault you for getting your needs me nor will they think any less of you. 

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