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Selfless Selfishness

Merriam-Webster defines the adjective “selfish” 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 the last thing one wants to be known for, to be so focused on yourself that you disregard others.

But when a day in the life looks like morning yoga, work and drinks you’ve rescheduled three times with that guy who was such a promising first date suddenly fitting in time for your passion project becomes a mystery on par with finding a rent controlled apartment in NYC.

Over time, I found myself in a bit of a paradoxical situation. I spent less time with myself, for myself. And as a result, I wasn’t very present with others, because under the surface anxiety bubbled over what I wished I had gotten done.

It’s time to reclaim what it means to be selfish.

There’s an old adage - one women, in particular, should pay attention to in our culture - that you can’t help others until you help yourself.

And so I propose that we rebrand selfishness, thinking of it as a way to be kinder to ourselves and in effect, more selfLESS with others.

This is why we propose practicing what we’ll call, for the sake of this piece, ‘mindful selfishness,’ or knowing when to pay attention to you, yourself, just you, aka no one else, aka not your partner, aka not your boss, etc.

Let’s break this down a bit. If you feel like you give more to your relationship than your partner, and that  leaves you resentful, are you truly being selfless? If you’ve gotten into the habit of taking on extra work to please your boss, but that means you miss yoga, stay up too late and come to work grouchy each morning, are you really being selfless? If you spread yourself thin in the name of pleasing others, are you truly being selfless? It’s a bit of a Catch-22, all of this time in service of others, unless you’re say, a nun. And chances are if you’re reading this, the closest you’ve gotten to being a nun is a Halloween costume.

So, how can we get over our guilt associated with the word “selfish” and actionably implement “selfish” time into our lives?

A big first step is identifying why you feel compelled to give so much of your energy away. The implications of this make for a whole other essay, but there’s a good chance you give so much in order to please, which is likely out of a fear of being perceived as selfish. For cis women, our culture dictates that we might be branded as a “bitch” if we say no. So we’ll say that step one to reclaiming yourself and your time is learning think about what you need for yourself outside of the cultural programming and narratives that be. Think for yourself, girl. The Beatles wrote a good song about that.

Step two: Identify how much time you really need for your activities and set strict boundaries around those hours. Make these hours untouchable, precious. This might look like three uninterrupted weeknights where you simply do not make plans under any circumstances, barring emergencies. Perhaps it means you no longer socialize on Sunday, or have two weeks out of the month where you don’t drink. Whatever this looks like, set it and keep to it. When the inevitable birthday brunch comes around, it may be hard to explain why you’re not drinking. But not feeling hungover and guilty the next day will make YOU feel so much better.

Step three is a biggie: practice how to say no. This is a big topic on the internet. Feminine energy is nurturing and caretaking, which is beautiful, but as with everything, this can get thrown off balance.. I used to have crippling anxiety every time a friend asked to hang out when i’d scheduled a night of writing or reading. Usually, I’d rationalize the social time and leave behind my own work. And Living in a major city like NYC, for example, means out of towners pass through frequently. I have learned that I cannot say yes to “drinks” with every out of town visitor who messages me at noon on a Tuesday. It’s hard, but it gets easier with practice.  And if you think about it, the person asking you to drink with them last minute is a being a bit selfish, no?

Step four is learning to value self-care. Carve out dedicated time for pampering yourself. Make it a ritual. Maybe it’s a salt bath every Sunday night, or bi weekly massages. Instead of going to a large group dinner where you get stuck paying for more martinis than your share, say no and put that money towards acupuncture that leaves you feeling relaxed and rejuvenated. This behavior might be perceived as frivolous by some, but if it allows you to replenish yourself and give more energetically, it’s actually more giving, in the end.

Step five is perhaps the trickiest one of all. I want you to learn to be more selfish at work. In a city like NYC where people are so focused on their careers as barometers for success, it’s easy to get caught up in feeling like everything you do should be centered around reaching another rung on the proverbial ladder. And yet, learning how to say no to work is critical to staying healthy. Do not feel the need to stay at work because everyone else is. Sure, there are times when work becomes an “all hands on deck” situation. Maybe a coworker goes home sick, and you take on a bit more work to help meet a deadline. These things happen. However, there’s this thing (particularly in places like Silicon Valley and New York), where people think they have to be constantly working, and you do not need to buy into this culture that inevitably leads to burn out. If you know you need to be out by 7 to make it to yoga and the grocery store in time to cook dinner and go to bed at a reasonable hour, do it. Have a conversation with your supervisor or with HR. This will stave off burnout and - guess what - make you MORE present at work. Maybe you’ll get some glances from competitive coworkers, but if your quality of work and productivity are heightened, we’re betting your boss doesn’t care.

The final bit of advice it to know what works for you, in your own particular way, and own it. While most of these changes won’t even register with others on a level that affects them or jeopardize your work/relationships, being a bit more selfish can have repercussions, especially if you’re the type who usually always says yes and is highly impressionable to others. (empaths unite!)

Say you embark on a program, be it a break from booze or a commitment to a 30-day yoga challenge. Your friends may give you slack for being less of your former college-party self, but those policing how you choose to structure your time are the selfish ones in this situation.

Maybe because you’re on a 30-day yoga challenge, you no longer have mornings to romp around in bed with your partner, and they’re hurt. These situations where our selfishness does go noticed might lead others to vocalize their belief that we’ve changed. Know that this assessment is their perspective, not yours. You have to serve yourself. Your thirty-day challenge is over in just that…30 days, after which you’ll feel accomplished and happy.

Finally, remember there’s an excellent chance no one even notices that you’re taking more time for yourself because you’re shining so brightly as your best self that your energy is redistributed in such a way that you can be more giving. Use this as an opportunity to check in with yourself and your relationships. If you find partners and friends reacting adversely to your new mindful selfishness, it may be an indicator that people in your life aren’t serving you, or that they don’t have your best interests in mind. Those who care for you will cheer you on in your quest for wellness, and they’re likely going to love the more present you who shows up for them.

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