Thursday, December 2, 2010

Selfishness or Healthy Self Care?

I was talking with an acquaintance the other day about the difference between selfish behaviour and taking healthy care of self. She, a medical professional, was irritated by the lack of commitment some of her colleagues showed when overtime, or the extra “mile”, was called for. When asked to do extra, she said, the response was far too often, “no, I need to take care of myself, I am going home.” My friend called it selfish but was it? Could this not be called healthy boundaries? When is taking care of oneself selfish, and when is being selfish the best form of self care?

Of course, there is no pat answer, each event is unique onto itself. The more important question to be asked is not so much what action we end up doing but how much awareness we have in our actions. That is, what is our underlying motive and what is the consequence of the action? Do we leave work at our scheduled time, for example, because staying longer would erode our health, negatively affect our family life, or because we have better things to do, like go to a movie? Is going to a movie part of our self care or is it because we don’t care about our job? With regards to the action’s consequence, will leaving work on time negatively affect another person’s life? If we do stay longer, do we have plans to replenish our self or repair family relationships? Have we communicated our work commitments to loved ones and were we clear about our familial commitments when we took the job?

What about the person making the claim that the other is selfish? Are they feeling drained from overwork to the point of resenting another’s healthy care of self? Is their “going the extra mile” a genuine need to be in service or a desire to be recognized as heroic? Do they feel they have to do the job because “no one else can do it” and is that statement true?

Like I said, there is no easy answer but I feel we have the highest potential to live in integrity when we are self aware and when we take responsibility for that awareness. If, for example, we leave work early because we are bored or just don’t care, is there a way we can be responsible for those feelings? Is it time to leave our job? Should we ask for more (or less) responsibility? Can we talk to a mentor or counsellor? Feelings of boredom or not caring are not “bad” feelings but if we don’t take responsibility for them, our actions could negatively affect another or ourselves.

Self awareness is the basis for interdependent living. It allows us to respond to our needs and wants in healthy and respectful ways while keeping in vision how our response affects our community. Self awareness builds the foundation for strong but flexible boundaries and a more compassionate view towards self and others. In short, self awareness plus responsibility is what defines seemingly selfish behaviour into healthy self care.

I have a feeling I am going to be talking more about this as I just taught a workshop on Interdependence in the Workplace… stay tuned.


  1. Oh...! I would love to take that workshop if you ever bring it to Seattle. There is a lot to what you've said here. It can be a very fine line; and I also think that a lot of the problem can stem from the upper management of an organization and how well they are setting priorities and allocating their resources.

    I know from experience that being the hero gets you nothing in the long run. I've also been frustrated at times by others lack of willingness to push themselves a little bit in the service of meeting a higher goal. I'm not afraid of hard work and pulling out all the stops when needed...I like the feeling of accomplishment that comes from everyone working as a team, going full force and pushing themselves past their comfort zone to meet a goal. It's a wonderful feeling to surpass your self-perceived limitations and fears. There also comes a time when it gets to be too much; when the rewards aren't there, or when resentment gets in the way: "Why should I do this in the service of an organization that doesn't care about me in the long run?" These are really complex issues you've laid out here. Great post!

  2. Thanks, Kristen. I agree with you that “the problem can stem from the upper management of an organization and how well they are setting priorities and allocating their resources”. I would also include the provision of a safe space for staff to speak of how they are truly feeling. Not an easy task mind you but its about humanizing the workplace and the relationships therein. It is so human to want to help another and it is to go overboard in this need. It is also human to feel resentful if no one notices or the rewards aren’t forthcoming. Yes, those can be codependent feelings but as Charles Whitfield says: It is the human condition.
    I am going to write more on this tomorrow. Meanwhile ...if you get ten or more people together, I will teach the class anywhere. 'Tis one of my favorites!