The Real Difference Between Selfishness and Self-Care

"Me time" doesn't have to be selfish.
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Mary Rose Somarriba
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"Me time" doesn't have to be selfish.

American culture is experiencing something of a burnout crisis. A good 53 percent of American workers report feeling burnt out, and there’s reason to believe that women experience it in unique, stressful ways. As nutritional therapist Jodie Brandman puts it, female burnout “occurs when women try to be absolutely everything and everyone, every single minute of the day.”

Perhaps this is why so many ads we see targeted to women show a woman at a spa with cucumbers on her eyes or hands massaging her back. Women are perhaps most lured these days by this notion that can at times feel like sheer fantasy—the thought of having a free moment of me time. Stay at this hotel and you'll grab a wink, the ads seem to say. Choose this airline and you'll get the pampering you deserve! Drink this beer and be transported to a private beach!

The need is real, and the marketing tactic has seen some traction. According to the American Massage Therapy Association, between July 2014 and July 2015, roughly 39.1 million adult Americans (18 percent) had a massage at least once, and from 2011 to 2015, revenue from alternative health care providers, which includes massage therapists, increased by 14 percent. A 2016 study shows more Americans than ever are spending money on stress-relieving exercises like yoga, with annual practitioner spending on yoga classes, clothing, equipment, and accessories increasing by four billion over the past four years. People seem to be noticing the need for more me time.

But simultaneously our culture preaches a competitive refrain of work work work work work. Especially when surrounded by people who appear to perform without breaks, many working women struggle to carve out personal time for fear of judgement from coworkers, family, or others. My work is too important. My family is too important. Everyone else’s needs are too important. As sociologist, researcher, and author Brené Brown has said, one major challenge our culture presents us with today is a looming self-doubt that we still haven’t done enough. 

But a recent study echoes this paradox-turned truism—the more we plan healthy breaks around our work, the better work we do. Researchers looking at the work and rest patterns of thirty-eight residents in southeast America found that setting aside just thirty minutes a day for me time helped early-career doctors perform better at their jobs, while not making such time provided scenarios in which patients were more likely to suffer. As Futurity described it, “the study finds that active recovery activities like exercising and volunteering can help employees recover quickly and respond better to their jobs’ demands.”

This applies to more than just doctors. As Nicole Cranley, the study’s lead researcher, put it, “Burnout is a serious issue… It’s usually related to the fact that you’re not taking enough time for self-care or engaging in activities that help you gain back some of those resources.” The key for effective me time, then, is that it qualifies as good self-care, not just any time spent on oneself.

‘You Do You’ vs. ‘You Don’t Run on Empty’

How does one know when me time is restorative as opposed to just wasteful selfish time?

As Linda Andrews, M.S., a counselor and Psychology Today contributor, told me, “I think of me time as being on a continuum. At one end is self-centered behavior—always putting yourself first to the detriment of the other people in your life. At the other end is self-sacrificing behavior—always putting yourself last to the detriment of your own health and well-being. Healthy self-care is the sweet spot in the middle, where you’re nurturing your own wellness in a way that benefits both you and those around you.”

How does one reach the elusive sweet spot? According to Andrews, people who want to determine the difference between selfishness and self-care can follow these instructions: First, think of a me time activity you enjoy, and then list three adjectives that describe how you feel after doing this activity. Last, ask yourself: When I’m feeling (adjective 1), is my ability to be there for others increased, decreased, or unaffected? and do the same for the other two adjectives. If you answered “increased” for most or all of the three adjectives, then you're doing what Andrews would call a “win-win.” If you answered “unaffected,” you can acknowledge it as an activity that gives you pleasure without harming those around you. If you answered “decreased,” then you may want to take a hard look at how your choices are impacting others.

“Healthy self-care involves engaging in activities and practices that improve your physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being," counselor Julia Hogan, LPC, told me. Drawing from her clinical experience, Hogan listed examples of healthy me time which include exercise, journaling, practicing gratitude, spending time with family and friends, practicing good sleep habits, and saying no when needed.

Hogan notes that engaging in self-care activities protects people from the harmful effects of stress—things that unproductive selfish patterns can exacerbate. Proper self-care “protects you from feeling guilty for not doing all the things you think you ‘should’ be doing.”

"I should be able to get everything done at work perfectly," or "I should be able to operate on five to six hours of sleep," or "I should answer emails after working hours,"—all these reflect an unhealthy trend of self-blame that can result when healthy me time takes a back seat.

Limits That Unleash Thriving

No matter how tempting it can be to push oneself to the brink for a worthy cause, burnout can undermine even those goals people are striving for. Not only because most people need to be alive and breathing to reach their goals, but also to stave off toxic inhibitors of anxiety, stress, and pain. Andrews indicates some of the most powerful ways to spend me time are by practicing mindfulness (a.k.a. living in the moment) and pursuing exercise. “Regular exercise has a host of health benefits—stronger muscles and bones, reduced depression, increased stamina, better sleep and reduced risk of illness, to name just a few. When you skimp on exercise time, you aren’t just shortchanging your own health and well-being, you’re also depriving others of your strongest, healthiest, most upbeat and energetic self.”

Making time for hobbies you enjoy helps you manage stress, says Andrews. “Spending an hour playing guitar or photographing birds can’t change the fact that your boss is super-demanding or your child has asthma. But it can replenish the psychological resources you need to cope more calmly and effectively with these challenges.” Whereas unhealthy coping mechanisms such as binging on sweets, drinking too much deplete one’s energy and create more problems, quality me time lifts one up.

It all boils down to a simple quotation that frequently makes rounds on social media: You can't pour from an empty cup. “I think that really explains well why it's important to take care of yourself,” Hogan says. “If you're drained emotionally and physically, you aren't going to be the best version of yourself out there in the world, whether you're at work, with your family, or with your friends. You can only run on fumes for so long before you burn out. Self-care helps you keep your cup full which protects you from burnout and enables you to be the most authentic version of yourself.” In other words, as Hogan puts it, “Taking care of yourself isn't being selfish.”

Photo Credit: Nirav Patel