Redefining Selfish: How To Choose Yourself Without Being Self-Centered

Do you consider yourself to be a compassionate person?


Let me ask you this: are you compassionate to yourself on a regular basis? The disconnect between these two is where burnout is born. However, choosing compassion toward yourself is not likely something you have been taught or are encouraged to do.

Growing up, you likely heard things like: be modest, don’t brag, don’t be cocky, or don’t be selfish… creating and nurturing your inner critic. Most of us struggle more with our inner-critic than with being overly confident. Can you imagine how refreshing it would feel to relate to yourself kindly instead of trying to motivate yourself with criticism that evokes an “I’m not good enough” attitude?

I want to introduce you to one of my favorite researchers in the area of self-compassion, Dr. Kristin Neff. She talks about the difference between self-compassion and self-esteem.

Self-esteem has been the ultimate marker for psychological health for decades, but this marker encourages us to determine our worth by comparing ourselves to others. This shows up in thoughts like, “I can only feel good about myself if I’m doing better than someone else.” This sentiment impacts the way we experience any kind of heartache. 

You might even be telling yourself that your pain is not enough with thoughts like “it could be worse” or “I should feel grateful” or “I have to be strong for…”. These statements don’t offer compassion to you, the person who is hurting, because they compare you to others.

Self-compassion, on the other hand, is about relating kindly to yourself during times of suffering or challenge.

What does being self-compassionate look like?

According to Neff, the three components of self-compassion are:

  1. Treating yourself with kindness rather than judgment, the way you would treat a friend.
  2. Recognizing the similarities you have with others rather than the differences (common humanity).
  3. Being with what is in the present moment (mindfulness). If you can acknowledge and accept that you are experiencing pain, you will be more able to show yourself compassion.

My favorite of these is the idea of common humanity. Since we have been taught “laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone,” we tend to isolate ourselves in our suffering. Many of us proceed through pain pretending to be fine and strong for others, but this self-imposed isolation keeps us from sharing the feelings that unite us as humans. Feeling sad, devastated, frustrated, alone, ashamed, guilty, scared, or even joyful are part of life… everyone’s life. How we get to these feelings is unique; however, the feelings themselves are universal. In order to open our hearts to others, we have to begin by opening our hearts to ourselves.

Opening your heart to yourself, or treating yourself with kindness, starts with simply noticing how you speak to yourself. Try this easy, practical exercise: When you walk by a mirror and see your reflection, what thought do you notice? Do you criticize your body, wishing you were different? Try shifting that thought to one of love and gratitude for your body instead… something like, “thank you, body, for keeping me living and breathing” or “thank you, heart, for beating” or “thank you, hands, for giving me the ability to feel.”

Acknowledging these first two components of self-compassion will help you move toward the third one: mindfulness of the present moment. Recognize your feelings in the present moment and allow yourself space to experience them. As Glennon Doyle says in her book Untamed, “Being human isn’t about feeling happy. It is about feeling everything.”

While we often avoid our feelings, particularly the hard ones, because it feels selfish to take the time to process them, those we are pretending to be “fine” for benefit most when we demonstrate moving through our pain with self-compassion rather than avoiding or numbing it, which often leads to suffering.

So, next time you are feeling selfish for honoring your pain with self-compassion, think about the people in your life who benefit when you are mentally and emotionally well and reframe that taking care of yourself isn’t selfish, it is actually key to serving and loving others as your best self.