A few years ago, I accidentally stumbled upon the secret to happiness.
I was a single mom, working more than full time hours and in grad school full time. I was mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted. All. The. Time.
One morning, I found myself wide awake with a full hour before go time. For some reason, instead of diving into last night’s dishes or homework or answering work emails like I normally would, I made myself a cup of tea, sat on the back deck and watched the sun rise.
That one morning changed my life.
You see, I’m a recovering people-pleaser. I spent most of my life believing it was my responsibility to take care of everyone else and that to do anything for myself was—(ugh) selfish.
I used to base my happiness on how everyone else in my life felt. If you were happy—I was elated. If you were pissed off—I was right there with you, taking on all that negative energy to make you feel better.
I excelled at chameleoning myself into what I thought others wanted me to be, especially in relationships. I spent 10 years in abusive and alcoholic relationships compromising my values in exchange for what I mistook as happiness. Hell, I even went to the Nascar races because it made my then-partner happy, which for a girl whose passion and life mission is combating climate change, was a hard pill to swallow.
I based my own self-worth on how happy I could make everyone around me. I never once took a moment to think about what I wanted. I believed if I wasn’t doing something for someone else, then I was letting him or her down and I couldn’t bear to be the person who wasn’t always there for you, because that would mean that I was a terrible person—unworthy of love.
Society teaches us, especially women and parents, to be selfless: to always put our needs on the back burner. We’re “supposed” to be the self-sacrificing parent, partner, friend, caregiver. The supermoms who can keep a dozen balls in the air while simultaneously feeding our toddler homemade organic vegan gluten/dairy/soy-free baby food, climbing the corporate ladder, taking care of the house, helping friends and writing our memoirs all at once.
It’s absolute madness.
That morning on the back deck, while I was doing none of these things, it hit me: The secret to happiness is selfishness!
My habit of never asking myself what was important to me, of never putting my own needs first was actively prohibiting me from being the kind of person I wanted to be—caring, respectful, compassionate, changing the world for the better, a good friend and parent and hopefully someday partner again.
I constantly felt impatient, resentful and overwhelmed, not showing up for friends or my daughter—the opposite of who I wanted to be.
At first, acknowledging my needs was unbelievably difficult. I couldn’t stop thinking about everything else I was “supposed” to be doing. I was terrified all of my friends were going to unfriend me for being so selfish and narcissistic. I felt like I was shirking responsibilities, wasting time and sinking under the weight of my endless to-do list.
Gradually, I realized the world was not falling apart when I took time for myself. Nobody unfriended me—they actually started asking me what I was doing differently because they saw how it was impacting me for the better. My daughter didn’t starve to death and nobody called CPS because I was too busy taking care of my needs. And surprisingly, I felt less stress, less exhaustion and more connected to my life.
Don’t get me wrong, this is hard. It’s not like I woke up that next morning and “voila!” my new normal was to show up for myself flawlessly. It’s taken a lot of trial and error, a lot of letting go of my old ideas about relationships and a hell of a lot of being gentle with myself as I floundered in this unfamiliar space of asking myself what I needed and being honest with myself about the answer.
I never thought something as simple as taking time for morning tea could have such a drastic impact on my life and my sanity. That one simple act of asking myself what I need (mental white space) and then honoring that need has transformed my life—and snowballed into my reality today where selfishness is non-negotiable for me. The more I practice selfishness (aka self-care), the more I recognize how easily I slide back into chameleon mode when I don’t and how icky that feels when I’m being incongruent with my values.
The awesome thing is, my daughter sees it too. I used to be scared of not being there for her when I was doing things for myself. Now, she encourages me to take care of myself because she knows I’m a better mom for her when I do.
I am able to be the kind of person I want to be when, and only when, I take care of myself first.
Here are the three critical things I had to learn before I could start to make selfishness a part of my life. I hope they help you.
Identify your needs. What is important to you?
If you’re like I was, you may have no idea what taking care of yourself even looks like. It might feel completely foreign and selfish to ask yourself what you need. But if you don’t know what you need, how can you expect anything to change?
Take time to figure out what nourishes you, gives you mental down time, or recharges you. Pay attention to how your body, mind and heart feel when you make time for these needs, and how it feels when you don’t.
Give yourself permission to create space for yourself.
You have the right to create the space you need to take care of yourself. It’s not only okay but absolutely critical for you to do what you need to do for your health and sanity. Nobody else is going to create space for you; it is your responsibility to create space for yourself.
What kind of space do you need? It’s different for everyone. Maybe it’s meditation or uninterrupted reading or being present with your kids/loved ones. It might change from day to day.
When I watched the sunrise that fateful morning, I had no idea that what my soul was craving was mental down time. I didn’t figure it out until after the fact when I noticed how light and happy I felt; a welcome change from my “normal” of frazzled, frantic and frustrated. I wasn’t thinking about my to-do list or work or what to pack for my daughter’s lunch. I was thinking about the crisp morning air and gentle breeze, how the sun felt on my face as it rose up over the hill, and gratitude for being alive. And it felt freaking awesome.
When something unexpected comes up, your needs are almost always the first thing to go if you haven’t made them non-negotiable. Treat selfishness as you would a doctor’s appointment or an important business meeting. You wouldn’t just blow off your boss or your doctor; why would you blow off something as important as your mental, physical and emotional health?
I regularly schedule time for selfishness. I make non-negotiable appointments in my calendar for what is important to my mental/physical/spiritual wellbeing and nourishes my soul. On any given day, my appointments include spending time with friends, time to play, be creative, make art or write, and most importantly lots of nights where I literally schedule myself to go to sleep early. And when I miss those appointments, I feel drained, physically and emotionally.
If you don’t give yourself permission to have what you want or need and then consciously commit to it—you can pretty much guarantee you won’t get it. If nothing changes, nothing changes.
Selfishness has the power to vastly improve your happiness, physical and emotional health, and quality of life. The only person who can change things for you is you.
How has being selfish changed your life for the better? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below!
Author: Heather Higinbotham
Editor: Sarah Kolkka