When you hear the word “selfish,” do you feel your stomach drop? Does the thought of putting yourself first make you recoil? If so, you might consider embracing healthy selfishness.

Many of us have internalized the idea that selfishness is a bad thing. We associate selfishness with a person who doesn’t care about or think about other people, but that’s not what healthy selfishness is. Healthy selfishness is a form of self-care and self-love. 

So, how can you embrace healthy selfishness in order to take care of yourself wholly and unabashedly? 

What is healthy selfishness?

“Healthy selfishness is akin to self-care and doesn’t mean that you do not care for other people. Rather, this form of selfishness is especially important for healing C-PSTD–it asks you to respect your needs and feelings even when others do not.” – Arielle Schwartz, PhD

The definition of the term selfish on its own is, “devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one’s own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others.” Healthy selfishness, however, is when you’re devoted to caring for yourself and are concerned with your own welfare without that added “only.” 

Healthy selfishness doesn’t mean that you only care for yourself, but it does mean that you know your limits. It’s associated with wellbeing and relates to the concept of “putting on your own oxygen mask first.” You can’t take care of others effectively without first meeting your own basic needs.

If you experience concern about embracing selfishness, note that healthy selfishness is achieved by striking a balance between your needs and others’. You don’t have to abandon other people to achieve it.

That said, if you’re reading this, chances are that the pendulum has swung the other way. You probably haven’t been putting yourself first, even if it would be healthy to do so.

Trauma and the fear of being too selfish

Many people who have gone through trauma or who otherwise neglect their own needs struggle to “put on their oxygen mask first,” as the saying goes. Trauma can make you fear punishment for taking care of yourself. And it makes some of us forget how to care for ourselves in the first place. Trauma survivors may feel we don’t deserve even the most basic “selfish” needs, such as the need to take up space, emotionally and otherwise. 

So, to get to a healthy level of selfishness and self-care, you will likely need to sit with some discomfort. If you worry, “am I being too selfish?” or “am I taking up too much space?” the chances are that you aren’t. In fact, this is a sign that you definitely need to keep going–and take up more space. Not less. 

How can you channel healthy selfishness in your life to feel happier, healthier, and more at ease in your work and relationships? Find concrete approaches below.

How to be healthily selfish 

Some people are in touch with their needs and desires. For others of us, particularly trauma survivors, our needs, wants, and even identities sometimes get lost. This can mean that you might not know where to start when it comes to developing boundaries, self-care practices, and decision-making skills. Decision-making skills get lost, after all, if we focus all of our decisions on doing what other people want us to do. Or, what we believe they want us to do.

None of that is your fault. Healing from trauma, or taking steps forward in any way you can, is taking your life back, and this is a vital part of it. For trauma survivors, it’s not often easy. Here are some steps you can take:

1. Get to know yourself and your needs.

If you overextend yourself, cross your own boundaries, don’t meet your own needs, or don’t even know what all of your needs are, learning how to give yourself what you need will probably take some time, patience, and self-compassion. Here are some questions to ask yourself that can help you get in touch with your needs:

  • How do I want to be treated by other people? Does how I want to be treated align with how my friends, etc., treat me? If not, what boundaries do I need to set? What do I need to ask for?
  • Am I comfortable saying “no”? If not, what are some phrases I can prepare for when I need to say no?
  • Am I comfortable saying “yes” when other people offer to help me? Are there times when a person in my life offers help and I don’t take it but want to? Next time, can I challenge myself to do it?
  • Are there parts of my life where I overextend myself financially, emotionally, or otherwise?
  • Are there parts of my life where I compromise my beliefs or needs for another person? 
  • Do I feel resentment toward anyone in my life right now? What needs to change so that I don’t feel that way? 

2. Set boundaries to embrace healthy selfishness. 

Once you ask yourself questions and reflect on your needs, The next step is to think about what you need to change. Boundaries, like selfishness, is another word that tends to make people cringe. Particularly, if it’s something they struggle with. However, boundaries are a crucial part of loving not just yourself but other people. Boundaries facilitate healthy dynamics. Think of them not as a wall, but as a warm “Welcome” sign; Welcome to my home: Please take your shoes off at the door!

Once you reflect on the ways that boundaries can actually support your interpersonal relationships, it might be a little bit easier (not easy, but easier) to do it. 

3. Assert yourself. 

The most challenging part of boundary setting is not always setting the boundary itself. Sometimes, it’s boundary enforcement. Maybe, you ask someone not to bring up a specific trigger or topic around you. Instead of showing respect for the boundary, they object or push back. That is where you might say something like, “I love talking to you. I set this boundary based on my needs, and it is non-negotiable. I will have to leave/talk with you later/hang up the phone if this conversation continues.” 

Stick by your own side. 

4. Know what you are and aren’t responsible for.

This is not the case for everyone, but some people encounter a situation where, when they start caring for themselves, someone around them pushes back or lashes out. 

More specifically, if there is a person in your life who crosses your boundaries, talks to you in a way that you don’t like or are uncomfortable with, or expects you to conform to the version of you they want, they may push back or react negatively when you start to care for yourself and do what you need to do.

There are a lot of people out there who will cheer your self-respect on, whether that’s a new friend or someone you’ve known for a while. If someone has a negative reaction, that is reflective of them; not you. The toughest part right here is that you have to stand your ground. Do not budge, no matter how hard someone protests, attempts to tear you down, or tells you that they want things to go back to how they were. “How things were before” hurt you. Remember that. 

Someone who genuinely and authentically supports you won’t want you to go back to a dynamic that was harmful to you. It can be tough to internalize and believe this when you’re used to dynamics that tell you otherwise. Your real supporters are out there.

5. Take action–or take heart.

It is okay to set boundaries or step away from someone who, for whatever reason, is not healthy for you. You get to make your own decision about how you navigate this relationship, but know that, in any case, their reaction isn’t your fault or responsibility. You can continue to do what’s best for you.

If this is someone that you can’t restrict time with or cut off, the internal knowledge that you deserve self-care and unconditional love can be remedial. Remind yourself of this through self-talk and have an aftercare plan for when you are in a situation that may cause an urge to step back, question your worth, or question your self-care. This may include peer support, affirmations and mantras, time to unwind and do something you want to do, or something else.

6. Evaluate what you want in your life.

We talked about needs, but what about wants? What brings you joy? What do you want your life to look like? What about your friendships and relationships? This goes for both long and short-term desires. Some people who have survived trauma or other challenges in life struggle to get in touch with their wants, so if you draw a blank in the face of the question, “what do you want?” know that you aren’t alone and will get there. 

To get in touch with your wants, spend time with yourself. Engage in a hobby or activity that you like. Listen to the music that you like. Make a meal that you like. Reflection on long and short-term wants will get easier in time, and again, you will most likely start to see that sense of identity solidify.

7. Say “yes” to help.

Many people struggle to reach out for support. Perhaps, you are able to offer your support to others, but you have trouble accepting support for yourself. Start saying “yes” to those who offer to help you, whether emotionally or tangibly. 

How can you stick to healthy selfishness?

It can be advantageous to celebrate your wins when it comes to healthy selfishness. Maybe, you set time aside for self-care activities, stood your ground in a difficult conversation, or something else. Perhaps, you even ended a toxic relationship in your life, whether that’s a romantic relationship, a friendship, or a relationship of another dynamic. 

Take a moment to acknowledge and celebrate the choices you make in self-care or self-love. You can say something like, “I am proud that I did that despite the discomfort” or “That was a big step for me, and this will get easier in time.” 

Similarly, if you have a difficult day or moment, use self-compassion. This isn’t the end, and it does get better.

Note the benefits of healthy selfishness

Arielle Schwartz, Ph.D. notes in The Complex PTSD Workbook that, according to research, selfish people are more likely to take better care of themselves, have better relationships, make natural leaders, feel happier, and be more authentic. When we don’t tend to our needs, it takes a toll on us in concrete ways. 

The people around you will benefit from your healthy selfishness, too. When you take care of yourself, it shows. Not communicating your needs means that people won’t be aware of them, plain and simple. And when you put yourself out there as your most authentic self, the people who love and respect the real “you” tend to show up. Just give it time. 

Utilize peer support

We all need a helping hand from time to time, especially those of us who are working to heal trauma. Reach out to someone in your personal support system or utilize a peer support option like Supportiv.