Why It’s Not Selfish to Put Yourself First

One piece of advice that I’ve come across in the writings of several life coaches is that we should act in our own best interests. My initial reaction to this is to feel uncomfortable – like most people, I worry that I’m being selfish if I put myself first.

But I’ve come to realize that acting in your own best interests, when done properly, isn’t a selfish act – it’s a way to ensure that you’re making the very best of your life, so that you can help those around you to make the very best of theirs.

So, what are your best interests? How do you base your actions, your goals, your time-management and your life on them – and how will this affect the people around you?

I would suggest that acting consistently in your own best interests involves four areas:

  • Meeting your physical needs, such as getting enough sleep and exercise
  • Meeting your emotional needs, such as asking for support when you need it
  • Meeting your mental needs, such as having a stimulating job
  • Meeting your spiritual needs, such as taking time to meditate or pray

Physical needs

If you’re regularly exhausted because you never take time to eat a proper meal, get a good night’s sleep, or get some exercise, then start making these things an absolute priority.

Do you stay up late with your spouse, watching TV whilst slumped on the sofa half-asleep, because you think he/she will be offended if you go to bed alone? Are you the one who always insists on getting up with the kids in the night – even though your partner would be perfectly happy to? Do you have no time for your own breakfast because you’re too busy preparing lunchboxes for your children?

“You eat on the run because you believe that you shouldn’t take time for lunch; there’s too much work to do. You eat the éclair, the doughnut, the cake, all the while knowing this isn’t really taking care of yourself. But to really take care of yourself, you have to think of yourself first.”

End Emotional Hunger: Take Care of Yourself First

Being well-rested, and taking care of your health, means that you’ll have the energy you need to help those around you. If you feel constantly frazzled, you’re likely to snap at your loved ones when you least mean to.

Emotional needs

Some of us end up being the “rock” who friends and family come to with problems. It’s a great privilege to be known as a good listener, but sometimes it’s hard when you feel you need support – but you’re worried about burdening people.

Ask a good friend or a relative if you can have a chat with them. Explain that you’re going through a difficult time, and it would help to have someone to talk to. They’ll be more than glad to help, especially if it means they can return a favor that you’ve provided for them in the past.

Healthy selfishness is a way of thinking and acting in which there is a deep appreciation and concern for yourself. It includes a willingness to respect your own feelings, desires, and needs as well as to trust your knowledge, ability, and experience. … In a practical sense, it means doing such things as resting when you’re tired or asking for emotional support without apology.

If you don’t reach out to other people when you’re feeling sad, angry, low or lonely, you can end up turning to unhealthy sources of comfort. Whether it’s supersized bars of candy, a bottle of vodka, or drugs, all of these will eventually be damaging to you and to those around you.

Mental needs

We all need to feel challenged and stimulated by our daily life. If you never learn anything new, never push yourself to think a bit harder, or never do anything that tests your limits – you’ll probably end up feeling that life lacks meaning.

On the flip side, if you’re completely out of your depth with a particular area of studying or work, you’re unlikely to be unhappy, stressed and anxious.

These are three classic scenarios of people whose mental needs aren’t being met. See if you recognize yourself in any of these:

John works in a factory. It’s boring, repetitive and low-paid work, but it’s a secure job. His real passion is computers, and he started a couple of programming courses once – but he quickly gave up, convinced that a career change would be dangerous to his family’s security.

Amy is at home all day with three small children. She loves her kids dearly, but misses her high-powered job in journalism. But her family need her, and she convinces herself that she’ll be able to restart her career once the kids have all left home.

Mark is a Physics major, and hates it. He wanted to study Theatre Management, but his dad insisted that there was more money in science. Mark spends every evening struggling over his textbooks, feeling more and more lost as the semester goes on.

Do you think any of these people are able to meet the needs of those around them? Do you think that John, Amy and Mark’s loved ones want them to feel unhappy and unfulfilled?

Spiritual needs

When life is busy, it’s hard to take time for things which feel unproductive – like attending a religious service, meditating, taking a long bath, or praying. You might feel guilty about “sitting there doing nothing” if you’re engaged in one of these activities.

But it’s crucially important for us to find space and distance from day-to-day life, in order to take a fresh look at things. Some great thinkers have flashes of inspiration in the bath (Archimedes’ Eureka moment comes to mind…). I’m sure that you’ve had your own experience that sometimes the solution to a tricky problem, or a new insight on life, comes when you’re just relaxing.

Letting yourself take the time you need, without feeling guilty, means that you’ll be able to support your family and friends with your perspective on problems or situations that they might be in. You’ll be in a better state to not only cope with, but excel in, your own life.

Do you consciously act in your own best interests? Have you ever felt guilty about doing so? How does putting yourself first help you to be a better human being?


Written by Ali, who runs the blog Alpha Student: helping students get the most out of university.

Image by Todd Baker.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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