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Why We Need to Embrace the Word Selfish: Part 1

I have a theory- that the most creatively giving souls, the happiest, most freedom-seeking spirits, and the bravest trailblazers in society are precisely the people that get labeled as selfish. 

Being selfish was my worst fear for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I put others’ needs first while minimizing my own. My self-sacrificing was so extreme that I developed an eating disorder in adolescence. Even as I healed from anorexia in high school, I still focused on making others proud, getting straight A’s and using “I’m sorry” as part of my everyday vocabulary. In college, I started to learn another way. It happened when I lived by myself in Boulder, Colorado one summer. I didn’t have anyone else to take care of or to please. I started to do more yoga and I became acquainted with the still small voice that let me know my needs, that led me to inspiration, and that told me when something was amiss.

On my way home from Boulder, I spent a couple of nights with my childhood best friend in Oklahoma. It was there that I came face to face, literally, with my fear of being called selfish. From the beginning of the visit, things didn’t feel right. My friend was acting like a bully and behaving in ways I hadn’t noticed before. On my last day there, I found myself backed against a wall, nose to nose with my so-called friend who was screaming at me, “You are so selfish!!!!” She said much more during her shrill monologue, but one word stood out. It wasn’t the yelling that stung as much as what she had called me. Selfish!? Really? Me? 

Once I got some distance from that episode, it occurred to me that my childhood friend had yelled at me because she was trying to maintain control over me. She was not accustomed to my new behavior. She probably wondered, “Where is Cara, my trusty sidekick who goes along with my plans and priorities, and who replaced her with this self-assured person who takes care of herself, asserts her needs, and creates boundaries?” In such a desperate situation, the label selfish was her weapon of choice. 

The most ironic thing about calling someone selfish is that the name-caller demands that others put her needs before their own, creating a dynamic where she has power over the person she’s calling selfish. That is crazy-making and a major red flag that something fishy is going on in the relationship. 

Selfish is a policing word. 

We use it to police ourselves, to keep ourselves in check, to make certain that we rarely, if ever, put ourselves first. By sacrificing our time, energy, money, and authenticity, we label ourselves as “good,” selfless, worthy people. When we live this way, we may collapse from exhaustion at night, but at least we know we gave all of ourselves. 

We also use the word selfish to police others. 
  • That person took the last brownie at the potluck?! How selfish!
  • My partner got engaged in a conversation with a friend and forgot to call?! How selfish!(!!!)
  • My friend stayed home again to work on her art project. How selfish! 
  • Geez- she always cuts her hair, dresses, and acts however she wants! How selfish! 
  • They are always going on vacation! Some of us have to work. How selfish!!

You get the point. 

When we look closer at these examples, a trend emerges. When we call others selfish, often it is for doing the very same things we wish we had the guts and freedom to do ourselves. We wish we had the courage to stand up and take that time, that initiative, and ask for that opportunity ourselves. So why do we shame others? 

It’s easier to judge than to change. 

We are creatures of inertia. And it’s much, much easier to point fingers at others, to keep sacrificing for others, than to take an honest look at ourselves and perhaps admit that our needs are not being met. Change is scary. Admitting we want more from life can be absolutely terrifying. So we keep ignoring that still small voice to our own detriment. We keep calling ourselves and others selfish, dreaming of taking that vacation, finally starting on that painting, getting that haircut we’ve always dreamed of, and taking the last damn piece of brownie for ourselves. 

There is a better way. What if we could rob the word selfish of its power? What if being called selfish were a compliment that we take as a sign we’re on the right path of self-care and self-awareness? What if we could take all of the energy we put into keeping ourselves and others in check and put it toward our passions? What's your experience with the word selfish? Leave a comment and let's get the conversation started, together! 

Stay tuned for my next post in this series, Why We Need to Embrace the Word Selfish: Part 2, where I will share 10 Radical Ways We Can All Stand To Be a Little More Selfish 

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Originally published 9.3.15

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