Why do we think self-care is selfish?

Do you find yourself saying yes when you wish you’d said no? Do you consistently sacrifice your own self-care to take care of others? If so, you’re not alone!

Women tell me all the time that they feel selfish taking care of themselves, or saying no to the requests of others. Why is that?

We’re taught as young girls to not be selfish. To share. Good things that I hope girls and boys are being taught today.

But who did the teaching? And how did they define “selfish?” A Psychology Today article notes that many parents unwittingly label children as selfish out of their own feelings and issues. This label can give children the message that their own desires are inappropriate.

If we check the dictionary, selfish is defined as “concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others.”

It’s that last piece that’s easily left off. But what we know is that self-care benefits others as well as us. Consider the oxygen mask demonstration on an airplane – we need to secure our own mask before helping someone who needs our assistance. An over-used analogy, maybe, but true! The reality is:

“Self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others.” ~ Parker Palmer

Working with coaching clients, they often interpret self-care as “treating” themselves with food, wine or binge watching Netflix. It’s the sense of deserving it after a long day at work, taking care of everything and everyone else.


But they deserve so much more! Think about it…does it make sense to say “I deserve to over-eat.”? Of course not. But that’s in essence what they say.

So, let’s redefine self-care with things like:

  • Being gracious to ourselves when we make a mistake
  • Saying “no” when we’re at capacity or when we simply want to rest
  • Eating foods that are nutritious and taste good
  • Getting sufficient rest
  • Moving our bodies in ways that are enjoyable and strengthen us

What would you add to the definition? What would it look like if you were to take really good care of yourself? To treat yourself well? To be in integrity with what’s most important to you?

In the book of Galatians, the apostle Paul writes “…for the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” But with the way many people treat themselves, they wouldn’t have many “neighbors” left if they treated them likewise.

Note the command presumes we truly love ourselves. It does not mean people pleasing. It doesn’t mean consistently putting the needs and desires of others above our own well-being.

The question to answer is: How will you care for yourself so that you show up for others in meaningful and important ways?

Then go and do that.

4 thoughts on “Why do we think self-care is selfish?”

  1. This is a great article, Heather. You identified what I think is one of the most important self-care messages; self-care isn’t selfish. You’ve provided a list of beneficial ways to redefine self-care.

  2. Not only is self-care NOT selfish, but it is a necessity if we are going to live the life we were designed to live. I’d add stress awareness and reduction to your self-care list. Yes, by opting out, by saying no is definitely good self care. However, there are stressors in all of our lives that we cannot step away from– jobs, illness or family demands. Too many of us, myself included, just put our heads down and keep going because there’s no way to get rid of that particular stressor. Simply being aware of the stress and taking steps to mitigate it when you can’t eliminate it is a key component of self care. Once you’re willing to recognize the destructive role that it’s playing in your life– driving you to over-eat or binge in some other way– you can take steps to mitigate it by doing things like meditating, taking a walk, taking time to be with a supportive friend, or journaling. These are just a few anti-stress tools. You can find more on the Internet. My message is to be aware of stress and its source. You can still take steps to lessen its impact in a way that benefits your well-being.

    • Yes, mitigation is a key component. We cannot avoid stress and if we are to live our best lives, we’ve got to learn to lessen the impact on our well-being. Thank you for emphasizing that point.


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