Why it’s not selfish to put yourself first

Am I being selfish? 

As soon as the word selfish left her mouth, my throat tightened, and my head felt like it may possibly explode. All I wanted to do was come back with a well thought out retort, but my mind went blank as her last word still stung my ears.  

Growing up, society has taught me that selfishness is a negative personality trait, and that we should try our best to always think of others rather than ourselves. According to Collins dictionary;

If you say that someone is selfish, you mean that he or she cares only about himself or herself, and not about other people.

While caring about others is extremely important, does this mean we should never put ourselves first and others feelings second? And if we do put ourselves first at times, does this mean we are selfish?  

The negative stigma towards ‘selfishness’ has somewhat blurred the lines between selfishness and self-preservation. These blurred lines can cause feelings of guilt and pressure to always try to be selfless.  

But what if we look at this in another way…

What if before we make a decision that others may perceive to be ‘selfish’ we check in with ourselves. Ask yourself, what is my motive behind this decision? Am I doing this because I don’t care about others and their feelings, or am I in fact putting myself first because I need to look after my own mental health and physical well-being?  

The word ‘selfish’ still ringing in my ears, I clear my throat and diffuse the small explosion pending in my head. I explain to her, that I can’t take the next shift at work, not because I don’t want to – but because I know that I can’t cope with doing it and if I did I know I would fall to bits. When I’m in a better place mentally and physically I will happily take another on shift, but until then I just can’t, and I’m sorry if this upsets you.  

You see, the difference between selfishness and self-preservation is your motive. If you truly care about others but also understand your need to put yourself first sometimes, your making a self-preserving decision. However, if you blatantly have no regard for others and you are perhaps making decisions based purely on what suits you best, then that could be considered as a selfish decision.

Professor, Brené Brown found that consistently throughout her 20 years of research into human nature that the most compassionate people also have the most well-defined boundaries. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. In order to be able to give to other people and be compassionate towards them, we need to look after ourselves first.

As a person who has battled with the challenges of mental health, I understand the feeling of always wanting to put others first and yourself last. However, I have come to also understand that for me to be my best self, for myself, and for my family and friends – I do in fact need to put myself first and that doesn’t necessarily mean that I am a selfish person, it just means I care about myself too, which isn’t always the easiest thing to do.

Next time you find yourself surrounded by fears of whether you are being selfish, ask yourself; am I being selfish? Or am I being self-preserving, so that I am able to still care for others in the future?

If you’re interested in exploring this idea further, pop over to the Quiet Community to start a conversation today!



  • Katy Harper-Rose

    Katy has spent many years of her life within the mental health system, she has received support and therapy from community mental health workers and in inpatient facilities. Katy’s experiences of the mental health system have encouraged her to pursue her goal of helping others that also find themselves in similar situations to herself to know that they are not alone, and that life is always worth living. With a deep passion for writing Katy wishes to put across this message within her articles.

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