Is it Selfish? Or is it Soulful?

I’m noticing a pattern in the work I’m doing with women who want to make important shifts to their lives.  Even though they really, really, REALLY want to make changes, they find it difficult to follow through on the teeniest of tiniest CONSISTENT action steps that change requires. 

Here’s why:

In order to change your life, you kinda have to put yourself FIRST — even if only for a few additional minutes a day.

Inevitably, they make this statement, “I feel like I’m being selfish for …”

… having lunch or taking a pee break (Yes, I’m talking to you, Sweet Pea!)

… taking three weeks off to pursue yoga teaching

… spending some of our family money on myself

This is particularly difficult for women in “helping professions.”

Here’s why:

When they started this work, the thing that rang their bell was alleviating the suffering of others.

And yet, because these women are actually PEOPLE, they have sorrows and worries and fears. While they have IMMENSE compassion for the suffering of others, many of them have little to no compassion for themselves.

When you are a woman, you KNOW suffering.

If you are a consciously aware woman who also happens to be a citizen of a developed country, compassion for self can feel, well, selfish.

I hear things like this –

“I feel so guilty for feeling unhappy in my marriage/partnership/relationship because I know that all over the world, women live their entire lives in a culture of unremitting disdain for women.”


“I feel so guilty for missing work when I am sick because I know that there are so many woman “out there” who don’t have jobs, or healthcare, or Pamprin, or whatever.

Compassion for self is a tricky thing.

One way that achievers achieve great things is that we deny our own pain. We don’t allow it. We tell ourselves we don’t have time for it.

But a lack of compassion for self is NOT a sustainable long-term model for life.

If, over years, your UNREMITTING policy for dealing with adversity is to pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and get back in the day-to-day battle of caring for and alleviating the suffering of others, what eventually happens is that you get physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted.

And if you don’t PREEMPTIVELY recognize this exhaustion for what it is – a serious threat to not only yourself, but ALSO your ability and willingness to do your work in support of others, then you will eventually meet up with some serious calamity that will insist you take yourself out of the game, sometimes forever!

So, the next time you are at a turning point in your life, the next time you have the courage to admit that your current way of living is no longer working for you – the NEXT time you want to make a change in your life that requires “letting others down in the short run” to pursue a greater, healthier realignment of how you are living your life, ask yourself this –

Is it selfish?

Or, is it soulful?

Love, Jen

Photo: Flickr, tom@hk

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14 Responses to Is it Selfish? Or is it Soulful?

  1. Oh God, WORD, sister. For proof that we do this all.the.time, just go look up some reader reviews of Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love.” Whether you liked the book or not isn’t the point, it’s what the reviews reveal about the reviewers. There are so many of them that aren’t about the book or the writing in the least. Instead, these reviews reek of “how DARE she?!” They’re angry at Gilbert — angry for her having the temerity to take a year off and focus on herself, angry she didn’t go help orphans in Somalia, angry that she got paid to write this book and do the traveling that formed the basis of it (seriously?! EVERY nonfiction book, with few exceptions, is sold in this manner). It’s appalling. Why do we do this to our sisters in the journey? Why can’t we cheer each other on? Why can’t we SUPPORT each other in our quests to find center again?

  2. Laura says:

    Right on Jen! I am so clear about when I need to have “me” time – most of the time. My bodymind let’s me know when I’m off track. This weekend during the power outages – I slept for 10-12 hours per night. Heat is enervating! I listened. I feel better. And joy of joys the electic came back on this morning!

  3. Cija says:

    I am starting to come to an age where it seems like so many of my friends are realizing they are exhausted. I figured that out (ok my body told me via digestive problems) that enough was enough and that is was not only ok to take care of myself but a requirement. Apparently I needed a doctor to confirm that advice my body was giving me but I am really getting it now.

    It is not selfish to be compassionate to yourself, it is vital and necessary! Thanks for writing this post 🙂

  4. Heidi says:

    Well, isn’t what you’re talking about (consistently putting your very real needs aside to take care of someone else’s problems) really about codependency? Maybe it’s just because I recently read a book on it and definitely struggle with it myself. But yes, that’s it…you have to take care of yourself some of the time, in order to give your work and your family your best. You have to rest. You would ideally eat right and exercise. You will not be a compulsive anything. You’ll invest in your ongoing personal and professional development. Right?

  5. Patty D says:

    You’ve hit the proverbial nail on this one. I’d like to throw in an additional caveat – once you do decide to practice self love and compassion, expect some backlash from those who are used to you overextending yourself. It’s inevitable. But don’t lose your resolve. Eventually the naysayers will come around or fall by the wayside. Don’t give in to knee-jerk guilt ( it’s a waste of your precious time and energy).

  6. Wow, Jen, this is so true. I see this all the time in my work as a diabetes educator – women who have put themselves last to the point that their health is suffering.

    Thanks for outlining the issue so clearly

  7. Priska says:

    Unknowingly I lived in boot camp for twenty years. Endlessly pushing myself to do and achieve more. But I started to feel the strain and wear and tear in my fifties.
    I took action by not doing more, I stepped out of life to take a mid life gap year. During this time I learned self compassion through the practice of mindfulness meditation.
    Because I now spend time on self care I have so much more I want to give others.

  8. Kelly says:

    I am soooo listening to this one.

  9. Wow! This really hits home! Especially “And if you don’t PREEMPTIVELY recognize this exhaustion for what it is – a serious threat to not only yourself, but ALSO your ability and willingness to do your work in support of others, then you will eventually meet up with some serious calamity that will insist you take yourself out of the game, sometimes forever!” Yikes! This is what’s been niggling me for a while now!

    I’ve finally come around to accepting that it’s a GOOD THING to put myself first. (Not that I don’t have to battle that berating voice of my inner critic every step of the way!) It’s the only way I can truly be present both fo rmyself and for all those others I thought I was being so selfless for!

    I think at midlife we can finally get this. It’s our turn now. Love the way to stoke that fire under the butt!

  10. Jennifer Y says:

    It is *possible* that I see a little bit of myself in this post….or perhaps a LOT of myself. 😉

    But I agree fully with what you’ve written here. I am through with feeling guilty for taking time to recharge my soul. And since recent life changes have left me un-beholden to anybody to answer to, I suppose I now have that freedom to write my life into EXACTLY what I desire it to be.

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  12. Wendie Tobin says:

    This has so many layers—from eschewing our salon visits to lingering in disastrous relationships “for the kids’ sake.” Women are societally programmed to nurture others from the second we hit the air, it seems. Incidentally, there’s nothing wrong with nurturing, but so many of us seem to subscribe to this “nurture in lieu of” mentality.

    Today, I like to think that there’s a bit more gender neutrality, but girls—perhaps at the direction of their parents—still want their dolls and carriages. Also that undercurrent, that follows into adulthood, of “boys will be boys.” Boys —irrepressible scamps—unable to control their wanton little Y chromosomes—with a need to play. Girls—the exasperated, eye-rolling, head-shaking, sensible worker bees, secretly reveling in the feeling of “I’m capable. I’m needed.”

    Additionally, women—and I blame the dolls for this, too—are really sold on the happy family ideal. We want people to be happy, we believe it’s our responsibility and within our sole power to make that happen, that if it isn’t happening it’s our fault, and we’re willing to preempt our own satisfaction in exchange for the happiness of the majority. Even as I type this response, I’m smacking down my innate need to edit my words so I don’t present as a stark-raving feminist; a lurking fear of injuring with my viewpoint. (I’ve largely slayed my people-pleaser dragon, but like some mutant starfish, he still regenerates and peeks his head out from time to time.)

    Women are typically focused on making sure everyone in their lives are properly cared for. We wouldn’t endorse unhealthy, neglectful, or spiritually bankrupt environments for our loved ones, yet women often view themselves as marked down merchandise, not worthy of the three weeks of yoga. I think we adopt the dialogue of “I’m such a critical cog in the operations of my family/company/friend dynamic/whatever” as a convenient means to avoid looking inward and dealing with our own stuff. When we put ourselves in that role, the one where major life changes would shred the safety net, the much easier default position (we’ll call it “fear”) is “There are many people who have it much worse than I do. I’m very lucky to have what I have.” It’s a convenient avoidance of confronting what really mustbe confronted: “Do I see enough worth in myself to make the (purchase, education, yoga, divorce, WHATEVER LIFE-IMPROVING CHANGE) a yes?”

    I just discovered your site through Twitter. Something happened to me after my medically-induced menopause. I don’t know if it was the estrogen crash, but I kind of stood back and realized that just because my uterus was temporary housing to three children (I have a Grace, too… ), and just because I choose to help guide them on their paths to becoming valuable contributors to the universe, none of that equals “Hey, cash in your identity, personality, hopes, dreams, and soul. Forget who you were before you embarked on this arc of your life and never look back. You’re a different person now.” Like, why DO we women do that? I did it for some dark years. (Divorced after a few years of daily prayers that sounded like, “God, I can’t afford the karma of suicide, but if today’s the day you’d like to take me off the planet, have at it.”)

    Anyway, your site is a gem. I have a hot date with a hot cup of cocoa and my couch so I can read every bit of content you’ve ever written.

    Takeaway: This post helped me/em> personally in the following way: I’ve been a writer for years, but recently went into business for myself. I mentor other women in business as they start their own businesses, and have watched them attain success. Some of the guidance I’ve contributed has perhaps helped with their accomplishments. To touch on that “care taking” aspect, professionally, I take care of those around me more than I do with my own aspirations. If I help them, and see them succeed, I get all the rewarding feelings without any of the risk of failure. No personal investment.

    I know I’m good at what I do, and I know my services are valuable. If I help myself/em> as intensively as I help those around me, I’m center stage. If my business doesn’t go as planned, failure will be standing right next to me in that spotlight. I guess that’s my next dragon to slay.

    In my world, there have never been coincidences or luck. I know I was meant to find your site today.

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