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We often hear two opposing messages.
One says: “Loosen your hold on your ego. Forget about yourself. Accommodate the needs of others. Opt for selflessness.”
As such, we’re encouraged to prioritize other people, so as not to be narcissistic.
The other says: “Reclaim yourself. Take care of your needs first.”
And so, we’re encouraged to prioritize ourselves, so as not to be codependent.
How do we reconcile these two conflicting messages? Are they even, or do they have to be, conflicting?
Maybe we don’t have to think of them in such a binary way. Maybe they aren’t mutually exclusive.
I believe answering those questions relies on understanding the distinction between reactive selfishness and proactive self-care.
Putting ourselves first in a proactive way allows us to retain our health, our inner psychic resources, our energy—all the best parts of ourselves. We can then draw upon those conserved resources to help others in a more sustainable way.
Because let’s say we’ve neglected our basic needs and health. In the process of that self-neglect, our energy and quality of care toward others deteriorate. We may even reach a breaking point and begin responding to others’ requests “selfishly”—putting our own needs first and tending to them out of dire necessity as a means of survival. We’d be doing this, though, in a reactive way, after we have already been worn down.
The other day, for instance, I was driving when a car that had been pulled over onto the shoulder of the freeway decided to get back onto the road in front of me. There were about 50 feet between our cars, meaning that even though he didn’t signal and it still felt somewhat abrupt, there was enough time for the car to do this without endangering me.
I didn’t feel triggered, nor did I honk, but had I been just the slightest bit closer to the car, or had I been stressed or driving fast, I very well might have (thus exacerbating the situation).
That 50 feet between us, though, was enough to provide me a feeling of safety while also allowing me to see that the the driver wasn’t doing anything malicious or being irresponsible.
True self-care gives us that metaphorical cushion of space between ourselves and other people, wherein we’re not so easily triggered (because we don’t feel precarious and unsafe).
The spillover effects of self-care benefit both parties. When we’re calmer and more clear-headed, we are more patient toward others, thus we help them to feel better.
It’s a chain reaction.
That’s why self-care isn’t inherently selfish.
So in short, I believe self-care—which entails self-respect, planning, and self-awareness—differs vastly from narcissism, which involves reactivity, lack of self-awareness, and the defending and preserving of one’s ego rather than tending to the deeper needs of the core self that the ego is wrapped around.
I hope that all of you reading can remember this the next time you set the evening aside to pamper yourselves!