Healthy Selfishness

Much too often, we wind up doing things for others and forget to take care of ourselves in the process, meaning we deprioritize our health, work, life, etc. Although we may not realize this, we are doing a disservice both to ourselves and to others when we do things this way. We think we’ll just do this one thing and then take care of ourselves later, which of course never happens. By doing things for others first, not only are we deprioritizing our lives, but we are also doing the same to our friends and family, who rightly deserve more of our time. It is unfair to them as well. In other words, we do things for others at the expense of our own time and attention. Sometimes, we call this “sacrifice”.

When we keep doing things for others at the cost of ourselves, we run the risk of burning out sooner than later. It’s only a matter of time before things (such as your health) that were important to begin with become an urgent issue. This is one reason why workaholics (especially those higher up in organizations) tend to land in hospitals, and when they do, doctors tell them to consider it a wake up call to take care of their health first. Unless they do that quickly, their health will be adversely affected and continuing to do so would come at the cost of their own health, or ultimately death. Although this is an extreme example, it is not uncommon.

Lots of people in the corporate world are in the exact same boat. They tire themselves to exhaustion in the name of doing work. And when they work beyond a certain threshold in a given week (say, beyond 30-40 hours), the quality of their work goes down. By overworking, these people are doing a disservice to their own health as well as to the people around them. Not only that, they are setting poor examples as role models to those who work for them. When others follow suit, that becomes part of their organizational culture. In fact, I wrote earlier that spending more time at work beyond a reasonable limit only shows our incapability of getting work done efficiently.

We need to remind ourselves (if we’ve forgotten) to take care of ourselves first, and unless we do that we can’t take care of others (even if we wanted to). Airlines tell you this all the time — you need to put on your own oxygen mask first before you help others with theirs.

Only when we take care of ourselves can we help others do the same. By not putting our lives first, we are doing a disservice both to ourselves and to others. Even when we do end up helping others, it wouldn’t be as useful because we would be doing things sub-optimally.

Here are a few things we can do to remain healthily selfish:

Remember that your time on this planet is limited and yours alone. You don’t have to justify how you spend it to anyone for even one second. Others might try to project their beliefs and “priorities” onto you as to how to spend that time, but it is ultimately up to you to decide what to do with your time and attention. No one can take that choice away from you unless you choose to give it away.

Prioritize. If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will do that for you. We can either be proactive or be driven by others. The choice is ours.

Remember, we can either do a few things well or many things poorly, so we need to learn to say no to others’ requests unless they somehow overlap with our agenda. That can only happen when we know the few things we have said yes to. Then, it’s a matter of focusing on our relationships and results week to week as we work toward living a fulfilling life.

We need to stand on our own feet before we can help others. For instance, we need to support ourselves financially before we choose to do pro bono work for nonprofits, let’s say.

We need to take care of ourselves physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. I wrote about this in Renewal.

When we begin to prioritize our lives, not only are we able to help ourselves first (which is important), but we can also serve others better because we aren’t helping them at the cost of our own commitments.

Of course, when we take out time to fulfill our commitments first, it’s possible that others might complain and give you a hard time for deprioritizing them. At that point, it’s up to you to determine the validity of their complaint and if you want to accept responsibility for their problem. And while others may resent you for not meeting their expectations (by not doing things or deprioritizing them) in the short term, they will almost always respect you in the long term.

For example, some of my friends always complain to me for not answering their phone calls. I gave them two options — either we schedule a time to talk to each other, or I return their calls at my convenience. Both of those options were less appealing to them. Then again, this is not my problem but theirs. The fact remains that we always teach others how to behave with us, and how we do things is always our own choice.

No one has the right to impose on your time. Your time on earth is yours and yours alone. It’s up to you how you choose to use it and whether or not you let others make their problems your own.

Unless we prioritize our lives, we won’t be able to help others. Even when we do help others, we would end up doing a poor job of that if not properly prioritized. Plus, we would resent them and get frustrated in the process, while at the same time forgetting that we did those things of our own volition.

Contrary to what others might have you believe, taking care of yourselves isn’t selfish at all, but is required to live a healthy, fulfilling life.

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