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  • Writer's pictureLeslie

Am I Selfish?

The word selfish was thrown around in my family a lot as a child. As a result, I grew up with a fear of putting myself first. It wasn’t until after I found a really good therapist that I realized putting myself first was actually a form of self-preservation. So what is the difference between selfishness and self-preservation?

self care is not selfish

According to the Cambridge Dictionary:

Selfishness = caring only about what you want or need without any thought for the needs or wishes of other people

The second half of that sentence is critical – without any thought for the needs of others. Many of my clients who think they are selfish for saying no are extremely worried about the well-being of their loved one who is asking for help. So that is the first clue that they are not being selfish.

Self-Preservation = the ability of animals or people to protect themselves from danger or destruction

Many of my clients are grieving and struggling to get through the day. Adding even more to their plate with a request from someone else is often just too much for they physical and/or mental health.

self care and wellness

Sometimes we need to put our needs before the needs of others in order to protect our physical and mental well-being. If we are struggling with our physical or mental health, then are we really in any shape to help someone else? Think of the proverbial airplane oxygen mask – put your mask on before helping your neighbor with their mask. If you pass out trying to help your neighbor, then neither of you are wearing masks. And what good is that?

And yes, this applies to parent/child relationships too. Of course parents have a responsibility to put their child first in many if not most situations. But if a parent gets to the point where they are always putting their child first to the detriment of their own physical/mental health, then what is that child learning? Likely they are learning one of two things:

  • Entitlement – They should always be put first no matter the situation or who it hurts.


  • Unworthiness – They, like their parent, are not worthy of putting themselves first some of the time.

how to set boundaries

Ask yourself these questions If you are considering telling someone no and wondering if you are selfish:

  1. What is my motive or intention? Is my intention to hurt someone else? Or is my intention to protect my physical and/or mental health?

  2. Am I considering how someone else will feel by this decision? Do I care how they will feel?

If you are concerned about the other person, but your intention is to protect your well-being, then you are likely acting out of self-preservation, not selfishness. According to Brené Brown, a famous professor that researches human nature, the most compassionate people are also pros at setting healthy boundaries. We must take care of ourselves in order to help others and have stronger, healthier, and more authentic relationships.

Here are some tips on how to say no with kindness:

  1. Thank the person for asking for your help or remind them how much you care about them.

  2. State it just won’t work for your right now. You can provide a reason, but are not required.

  3. Ask them to keep you in mind if they need help in the future (only if you mean it of course).

If you would like additional help in learning how to set boundaries, or you’re feeling selfish for setting boundaries, let’s schedule a time to talk to see if counseling might be helpful.


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