Self Care or Selfish?

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 I question whether it is. 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?

There is no pat answer for this, of course, 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. In other words, are we conscious of what motivates us and cognizant of what may result? 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 a plan to replenish our self or repair family relationships? Have we communicated our work commitments to loved ones and been clear with our employers 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 (or will) do it,” and is that statement true?

Like I said, there is no easy answer and I feel we have the highest potential to live in integrity when we are not only self aware but 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 ourselves or another.

Self awareness combined with responsibility is the basis for interdependent living. The two allow us to respond to our needs and wants in healthy and respectful ways while keeping in vision how our responses affect our community. Responsible self awareness builds the foundation for strong but flexible boundaries and a more compassionate view towards self and others. In short, when used together, self awareness and responsibility are what redefine seemingly selfish behaviour into healthy self care.

Jo-Ann Svensson teaches “creative codependence” and is a Certified ARC Health Practitioner.