Selfish is OK

Several years back during a time when introspection was greatly needed, I came to the notion that my fatal flaw was that I was selfish, but that I was OK with that and I was going to embrace it and work with it. It didn’t strike me as that horrible as fatal flaws go, but I took some shit for it when I told people. When I thought about it more, I realized that I didn’t truly mean the same thing as the dictionary definition.  In fact a dear friend pointed out that I absolutely was NOT lacking in concern for others, and that I should reframe it as “being good at self-care”.  In addition to meeting pretty much all the needs of my still young at the time children, I was also quite capable of saying no, taking time for myself, pursuing interests that I enjoyed, and perhaps more often than others, putting my needs before the needs of others. There had to be a better way to express that.

SELF·ish /ˈsɛlfɪʃ/ adj. lacking consideration for other people; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.

A year ago today, I made a plea on Facebook for “a word (a simple word, not a phrase) that would mean much the same as selfish, but without the ‘complete disregard for others’ it connotes? ” I was looking for a word I could use to describe this feeling of taking care of my own needs in the face of conflicting needs from others. What I got was a deluge of negativity regarding my inquiry.

Egocentric? Narcissistic? Greedy? Self-centered? Self-absorbed? Inconsiderate? Inwardly focused? Self-indulgent? Jerk? Egocentric? Cavalier? Thoughtless?

I was shocked! Such hostility and rancor towards the subject. I hoped that people simply misunderstood my intent and that the entire world did not think that putting ones own needs and desires above others’ was inherently bad. So I clarified, ” OK. Clearly I was not as concise as I wanted to be. I wanted to TAKE OUT the negative element. Selfish, according to the definition, means to focus on one’s needs to the exclusion of others. I was looking for a word that would positively give a sense of focusing on one’s needs, perhaps not always acting the way others would want, while still being aware of them. “Self-focused” was the only one that got close to what I was really looking for. Now that I am clearer, any other options?” What followed was a little better, but not much.

Internally focused? Self-contained? Centered? Grounded? Autonomous? Individualistic? Self-directed? Empowered? Self-care? Boundaried? Authentic? Self-interested?

Still not great. More in line with what I was thinking, but not a simple adjective to be used in everyday life to concisely express what I was meaning. I think my sister got it right when she postulated, “… that could be part of the whole concept’s issue. Maybe it’s not a mode one ‘lives in’ but maybe a vital process one engages in to bridge to a more whole self?” The CONCEPT has an image problem. It’s not somewhere you are supposed to live. And I wonder why not?

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Someone suggested trying to make a new word – selfishless was their suggestion. To my ears, though, that sounded more like “to be without selfishness” which was again the opposite of what I was going for. I thought maybe “selfful” might work, like helpful, but for yourself. But someone characterized it as being “full of yourself”, which is a phrase that is distinctly negative in it’s connotation, an exaggerated sense of self-worth in a way that annoys other people.  A word won’t work if it “sounds bad” and that did.  So back to square one, no good, simple word to describe a maligned concept that needs a good PR firm to bolster its acceptance.

It’s sad to me that the people I polled immediately defaulted to thinking that this type of feeling was “not good” and that we don’t have a better word to describe the positive, necessary element of what I really mean. I bet the Germans do. They have great words for lots of things we can barely say in a sentence – schadenfreude anyone? Looking back, too, I realize that simply classifying my feelings of self-care as a “fatal flaw” had me falling into the same negative stereotype that I am now trying to dispel. It’s not a flaw, it’s a strength.  And I am going to try to respect it.

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