Is Self-Care Selfish?

Why true self-care can transform your inner voice and spark deeper compassion for others
January 9, 2018 Updated: June 15, 2020

Some people just can’t give themselves a break.

If that’s you, have you ever wondered why we’re so bad at self-care, and why taking care of ourselves isn’t instinctual? There are countless books on how to take better care of ourselves, so why aren’t we getting it?

For one thing, the self-care culture we hear about is incomplete. We’re taught that self-care is an external process; a massage, good food, or taking a walk. These are all valid self-caring actions, which serve us. And yet, a far deeper and richer level of self-care exists. It is not about “doing” for ourselves, but rather about “being” with ourselves.

A far deeper and richer level of self-care exists, one that is not about “doing” for ourselves, but rather about “being” with ourselves.

The most effective self-care is about the kind of company we keep inside—the tone of the conversations we conduct with ourselves. The self-care that profoundly improves our lives involves creating an inner dialogue that’s infused with kindness, support, and curiosity. True self-care, as the word implies, means genuinely caring about ourselves.

This variety of self-care—relating to ourselves in a friendly and supportive manner—is not emphasized in our culture. It is even often discouraged. We are taught to have a critical attitude toward others—and ourselves. We’re taught to focus on flaws and shortcomings. Sometimes we’re even afraid of what would happen to us, who we would become, and how we would be judged if we were to simply value ourselves. Such warmth is supposed to be conditional. That we have value if we do something worth valuing. If we stopped the judgment and impatience with ourselves and acknowledged we had inherent worth, there is a fear we are somehow not being correct or even moral. So what is it about developing a kind and compassionate relationship with ourselves that’s so threatening?

Isn’t Self-Care Selfish?

While most of us would claim that we’re pretty good at self-care, we often feel selfish when it comes to actually treating ourselves with care internally: “How selfish of me to spend time thinking about what I need, when so many people don’t have that luxury!” The fear of being judged (by oneself and others) as selfish keeps many people from having more self-compassion, or asking for kindness from others, even when they desperately need it.

We’re sometimes afraid that if we care too much about ourselves, there won’t be any caring left for others, as if caring is a finite commodity. That is, if we take the time to pay attention to our own experience, we’ll become so self-involved and egotistical that we’ll stop wanting to be kind to anyone else.

In this belief system, our compassion for others is just a façade of sorts, something we do to seem like a good person. We’re desperately afraid of who we would become if we related to ourselves with friendliness—as if just a taste of our own sweetness would unleash the true narcissistic monster within.

The truth is that it’s only when we feel well taken care of, and when our feelings have been properly heard and cared for, that we have adequate resources to offer others. When our well is full, we are at our most selfless and can fully experience our goodness and inherent desire to be of service. We must put on our own air mask first if we want to help those around us.

The truth is that it’s only when we feel well taken care of, and when our feelings have been properly heard and cared for, that we have adequate resources to offer others

There is also an inner critic that deems us unworthy, that is consumed with our shortcomings. It can be hard to widen this critic’s focus to our full selves. If we had a friend who was being too hard on themselves, we would remind them of their broader character, that they are a good person worthy of self-compassion, but for some reason, this can be hard to do with ourselves. We all fall short, and we are all worthy of forgiveness and patience as we strive to do better.

It works in reverse as well.

Empathizing with our own experience is precisely what allows us to empathize with the experience of others. Paradoxically, taking care of ourselves is what makes us unselfish. When we reject or ignore ourselves, we cannot be truly compassionate with others, and certainly not to our full capacity, as a large part of our heart is closed off and inaccessible.

This isn’t to say we can’t be kind human beings without being kind to ourselves. But without the ability to relate lovingly to our own experience, we’re severed from the real depth of our loving potential. It’s as if we are living in a puddle when we could have access to the ocean.

As you take care of others, make the effort to relate to yourself with the same attitude of kindness and warmth. Remember to offer yourself a curious and compassionate ear: to talk to yourself as someone who matters, to give yourself the benefit of the doubt, to take a break from self-judgment, and even to consider what’s good about yourself. Decide to be a supportive and loving presence inside your own being.

Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, author, public speaker, workshop leader, and author of several books on mindfulness and personal growth. Colier is available for individual psychotherapy, mindfulness training, spiritual counseling, public speaking, and workshops, and also works with clients via Skype around the world. For more information, visit NancyColier.com