Rebranding Selfish

Paul PierceIt gets under my skin when I hear people justifying a choice they’ve made, or a way they’re living, with the phrase “I’m just too selfish right now”, implying that selfishness is at the core of doing what’s best for themselves. Selfish means lack of consideration for others, at root. It’s one thing to claim yourself selfish, it’s entirely another to have the word leveled at you by another. It means self-involved, self-centered, narcissistic, even. In our image-obsessed (see: selfies and humble-brags) current cultural moment, selfish is still a put-down. A pat, negative dismissal of a person and their ability to choose a life or way that’s right for themselves, by implying it’s done at the exclusion of, or detriment to others. I reject that.

Let me disclose right away that I am an only child, and that as such, I understand my upbringing and worldview is different. I’m on the periphery, an observer of what a family larger than three is about. I didn’t have to share anything within the boundaries of the family home—not a room, not my stuff, none of the family’s resources. My parents didn’t have to consider or balance the needs of several personalities, just mine (sometimes). Because I am their only child I have leverage; there are no competitors for their time, love and attention. Nor discipline, disappointment and criticism either. My worldview is skewed.

That said, the word selfish rankles me. Specifically when it’s used in a self-deprecating context, or a justification of choice. Or worse, as a value judgement. I feel like I hear people pin this negative label to themselves when they’re talking about making a decision that’s right for themselves. I’ve heard countless times over many years variations on, “I’d like to have kids someday, but right now I’m too selfish.” Or, “I’m not traveling during the holidays this year to see family, which I know is selfish.” I can’t understand what could possibly be wrong with choosing to wait on making one of the biggest decisions in life (parenting). I’m also unfamiliar with forcing oneself to take part in traditions or expectations when one would rather not.

We live our lives in a culture of “should” where we twist and turn and knock ourselves out to meet external expectations, feeling an internal tug of obligation with all the guilt and other (not) fun emotions that are part and parcel of the deal. It’s making us miserable, and a little self-care is in order. It’s not wrong to check in with ourselves and ask, is this something I want to do? And if we find that the reactions making a certain choice are causing are harder on us than they are important for someone else’s well-being, can we not? There is nothing wrong with putting ourselves first, sometimes.

If now is not the time for you to take on the monumental, permanently life-altering role of parent and you know it, and you forestall the decision, rock on. Nothing selfish about that. If this year the thought of spending the holidays with family causes that special existential dread, stay home. The people who expect you to be there because that’s how it’s always been will live on without your presence.

It’s OK for you to get to know yourself well enough to understand your limits. Really. It’s not selfish, it’s considerate. And considerate people are some of the kindest, most trustworthy people we know.

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