Embrace Selfishness: A Favorite Chapter from My Forthcoming Book

November 1, 2017


Here is an excerpt from my forthcoming book. It’s a little shocking (intentionally so). I look forward to your thoughts.


Skill 21: Resilient people embrace selfishness.


As a culture, we are ambushed with messages about the virtues of selflessness. John 15:13 reads: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” “Our prime purpose in life is to help others,” says the Dalai Lama. And countless officiants to brides and grooms recite the words: “Love is always patient and kind. It is never jealous. Love is never boastful or conceited. It is never rude or selfish.”


From the time we are children we are told that selflessness is the highest moral ideal. Our parents read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and applaud the tree as a model for how we, as humans, should give everything we have. Culturally, we revere those saints who dedicate their entire lives to serving others. We believe that the more time, energy, or money a person sacrifices, the closer he or she climbs to Heaven.


Selfishness gets a bad rap. The world expects you to reject the notion of putting your own interests first.


Resilient people know that they cannot be their best when they feel their worst. If you are not getting your own needs met, you will never be able to experience the most positive emotions. At best, you will feel bored and apathetic. At worst, you will feel powerless and hopeless. You might think that you are doing your duty by giving all of your time and energy to a spouse or loved one, but you will never be able to give anyone your best if you are unfulfilled.


As a result, resilient people get their own needs met without feeling guilty or “selfish.”


At the end of The Giving Tree, the boy grows to be an old man. The tree has already given him her apples, branches, and trunk. The old man wants a “quiet place to sit and rest,” and the tree offers the only thing she has left: Her stump.


The book ends with these words: “And the tree was happy.”


It’s a nice idea, but do we really have to turn ourselves into stumps to be considered good people? All of those exhausted and depleted parents, employees, spouses, friends and caregivers know that stump-hood is not what it is cracked up to be. If we give everything, we will be broken. In fact, having enough self-interest to get your own needs met is the only way to be resilient during life's inevitable obstacles.


Getting your needs met now, especially if your life feels out of balance and time is scarce, means that you will set a precedent for getting your needs met later, when your boss begins making unreasonable demands or when your spouse starts to neglect you.


Learning to meet your own needs is the foundation of resilience, and the most profound time to do it is when you are feeling challenged for time. By tending to yourself and caring for yourself, you can begin to feel a stronger sense of self. The sense of balance you will nurture will help you be your best when the most is being asked of you.


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