Most of us are taught from an early age that being selfless is a good thing, and there are many proven benefits of altruism, to both our mental and physical well-being. However, sometimes the messaging we receive to be giving of ourselves, to push ourselves to the limit, be productive, and forgo our needs can be taken to an extreme in our everyday lives. If we’re not attuned to who we are and what we want, we can start to make sacrifices that don’t just hurt or limit us, but actually negatively impact those we care for.
Socrates gave two injunctions: Care for oneself and know oneself. He and other ancient ethicists understood that caring for ourselves is to exhibit an attitude not only toward ourselves, but also toward others and the world, to attend to our own thoughts and attitudes in self-reflection and meditation, and to engage in ascetic practices aimed at realizing an ideal state of being. Maintaining a certain regard for ourselves and engaging in self-compassion and self-care are actually fundamental to creating a good life for ourselves and the people who matter most to us.
1. When we feel depleted, we have nothing to give.
When we fill our time with responsibilities and constantly prioritize the needs of others over our own, we can drain ourselves of energy and desire. We’ve all experienced the difference between giving from a feeling of having something to offer—happily getting our kids ready, helping a colleague at work, cooking a meal for our partner, doing a favor for a friend, and making ourselves do these same activities because we “should.” The tasks remain the same, but our attitude shifts, largely based on our attitude toward ourselves. If we are kind to ourselves and considerate of our own needs, we are more likely to show up fully for the people to whom we extend ourselves. Otherwise, we may be going through the motions, but not engaging in a way in which everyone benefits—i.e., our kids feel nurtured, our job feels rewarding, our partner feels seen, and our friend feels cared about.
2. Doing what we love recharges us.
When we’re lit up and excited, we have more energy and positivity to offer the people around us. The time a parent “takes off” for a date night or an employee uses to rest instead of working at all hours is not self-centered. Just because it feels good to us doesn’t mean it denies others. In fact, by tending to our own needs and practicing good self-care, we alter the very quality of how we relate to others. Our families, friends, and coworkers get to experience us as the best and fullest versions of ourselves—happy and present.
3. We lose our real selves in the “do, do, do” mentality.
I know many parents who go above and beyond for their kids on a practical level. They literally pack every minute of their day into being chefs, chauffeurs, coaches, and clean-up crews for their kids. I also know people in relationships who focus on doing everything they can think of for their romantic partner. However, when we fall into a cycle of “go, go, go,” we often tally up achievements that we use to prove our worth, but rarely stop to experience what makes our hard work worth it to us. We may sacrifice our own interests altogether or stop enjoying personal connections that make us feel like ourselves. In doing so, we give up aspects of ourselves, but the people close to us also miss out on really knowing us.
4. We can drain others when we don’t get our own needs met.
One of the best pieces of advice my colleague Pat Love gives to parents is to get their adult needs met by other adults. When parents center their entire lives around their kids in an effort to be selfless, they put a lot of pressure on their kids to fulfill their lives and meet their needs. It’s so much better for kids to witness their parents as full and fulfilled people in and of themselves, thereby experiencing their parents’ example and not just their devotion. This is true in all of our relationships. If we don’t practice self-care and find healthy ways to meet our needs as individuals, we tend to have less energy, complain more, drag our feet, feel more resentment, and criticize ourselves and others, all of which can be draining to all the people we are seeking to benefit by setting aside our own wants and needs.
5. We lose ourselves to our “critical inner voice.”
When we are preoccupied by a drive to be “productive” or “helpful,” it’s valuable to look at what’s pushing us. Are we doing what we do because it makes us or the people we care about happy? Or are we driven by something else? Many of us have an inner critic that tells us we have to achieve certain objectives to be acceptable or worthy. This harsh internal coach tends to attack us from all angles and reinforce the idea that anything we do for ourselves is selfish. When we’re listening to this voice, it’s easy to lose track of what’s really going on around us. Are we living our lives the way we want? Are we really doing justice to the people around us by being present and feeling good? The critical inner voice is a huge distraction that affects our mood and behavior, and it can often be at the helm of an unrealistic desire to be “perfect” and always put others first.
6. We fail to practice self-compassion.
One risk of becoming lost in all the things we "should" be doing for others is that we stop feeling for ourselves. To no surprise, research has shown that being kind to ourselves and practicing self-compassion improves our well-being. It also benefits the people around us. Researcher Kristin Neff has argued that having a kind attitude toward ourselves actually makes us better able to look at our mistakes and make real changes. In addition to self-kindness, she describes two other key elements to self-compassion—mindfulness, which involves learning to accept our thoughts and feelings without over-identifying and being overcome by them; and a sense of common humanity, which means not seeing ourselves as isolated or different in our struggles. Each of these three elements is important to practice because they help us stay attuned to ourselves, who we are, and what we need without judging ourselves too harshly or feeling unworthy or different from everyone else. If we can take time to practice self-compassion, we can feel more comfortable being ourselves, and extend this attitude to others.
7. Our stress hurts us and those close to us.
Our failure to stop and check in with ourselves and make time for the things that are meaningful to us can increase our stress. Filling our lives with responsibilities can generate a cycle in which being stressed feels like the norm. As a society, we are unapologetic about our stress levels, even wearing them like a badge of honor, proving our value. However, stress takes a serious toll on our mental and physical health. These effects often catch up with us and prevent us from enjoying our lives, not to mention affecting how we relate to others, often leading to more conflict, tension, and acting out in our relationships.
8. Driving ourselves can impair our performance.
Research by The Energy Project recently found that workers who didn’t practice good self-care, like getting enough sleep, often have trouble focusing on one thing and are easily distracted. Their findings led the project’s CEO, Tony Schwartz, to conclude , “If you do not put your needs first, then ultimately you will not be able to perform well and show up for others consistently and happily.” Taking care of ourselves doesn’t just make our personal lives better; it also makes us into stronger assets at work.
For many of us, there are good lessons to be learned about being generous and giving of ourselves. However, when we lose touch with the grand passions and tiny quirks that make us who we are, we diminish the quality of our lives. It’s all too easy to categorize certain pursuits as selfish rather than fighting to maintain the things that make us come alive. However, when we do make time for our wants and needs, we are more alive to the world around us, more available, and more giving of our fullest selves. In effect, we are our least selfish, while still honoring our sense of self.