Are You Selfish?

Find out why there's nothing wrong with putting yourself first


Photo by Max Abadian

I am selfish. Well, more accurately, I’m learning to be selfish. And it’s no easy task. When I turn down a speaking engagement or decline a meeting, I am exercising a muscle that has grown flabby from years of neglect. Putting my own needs first makes me something of a revolutionary among my workaholic friends. But I’m championing a new movement.

Long before that fictive Wall Street anti-hero Gordon Gekko made it cool to be self-serving, novelist Ayn Rand was the literary pioneer of the “rational self-interest” movement. Rand sought to elevate selfishness to virtue. In fact, she went so far as to argue that by making selfishness synonymous with evil, the advancement of mankind would be thwarted.

It’s an argument that may, at first, sound illogical. I mean, isn’t human progress a triumph of altruism? In short, no. What ethical egoists, such as Rand, purport is that in order for mankind to thrive, each individual must prioritize her own needs. In other words, you put your own oxygen mask on first.

There aren’t many therapists/gurus/talk show hosts who would argue with that logic, but somehow selflessness, not self-centredness, has become the paragon of virtue. We build shrines to martyrs. We celebrate sacrificial lambs. We promote workaholics. You don’t see awards handed out to the brave women who say no to their bosses. Nobel Prizes are not named for women who refuse to let someone else’s crisis become their own.

No, when someone calls you selfish you know you’ve been seriously dissed. We equate concern for self with lack of concern for others. Example: You tell your college roommate that you simply can’t commit to being in her bridal party. Gasp. Wait for it. “You’re so selfish.” Translation: All you care about is yourself.

In fact, putting your own needs at the top of the priority list does not mean you don’t care about the needs of others; it just means you care about your own needs more. “Self-centred means putting yourself at the centre of your universe,” says Marina Bluvshtein, a psychotherapist and professor at the Adler Graduate School in Minneapolis, Minn. “It does not negate the universe.” Doug Sawin, a psychologist in California, agrees. “There’s a distinction between being self-obsessed and self-centred,” he says. “When I’m self-centred, I don’t lose track of you; I just put myself first.”

Of course, not all great thinkers concur that self-centredness is a value worth cultivating. Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky famously wrote, “One person is nonsense, one person is nil.” But then, he shot himself.

Subjugating your own needs for those of others is perilous. The failure to set limits or the inability to say no compromises our emotional and physical health, not to mention our ability to perform at work and in relationships. Let’s face it: Martyrs aren’t fun to be around, nor are they, in the long-run, reliable role models.

The truth is, selfishness may just be the new humanitarianism. But can we handle the truth? Is this continent of stressed-out superwomen ready to make self-help the greatest form of succour? It’s time we took the sting out of that cruel barb and turned “You’re so selfish” into a high form of praise.

Without question, being self-centred is regarded as a sin worthy only of the Lindsay Lohans of the world. It buys you a one-way ticket to bitchdom. And who wants to go there? Well, maybe more of us should brave the journey.

According to Penny Kendall-Reed, a Toronto-based naturopath who deals with chronically ill, stressed-out superwomen all the time, 90 percent of the women who come into her office believe that saying no is bad, bad, bad. So they don’t say no—to anything. They can’t.

“What I see is that women don’t know how to say no,” says Kendall-Reed. “We multi-task all day long. We have more on our plates than ever before, and with the increased ability to keep working and keep connected all the time, we no longer have the ability to turn off—unless we make the conscious effort to do so.”

And that’s a problem, because, says Kendall-Reed, “Our bodies are only designed to handle one stressor at a time…Chronic stimulation of the fight-or-flight pathway stimulates the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn has a cascading effect that leads to increased weight gain, especially around the abdominal area, insomnia, and increased heart rate, blood pressure and cholesterol.”

Put plainly, we burn out. And that burnout, says Sawin, is associated with increased risk for disease, dependency and addiction.

Yet the toll isn’t just physical; we also sacrifice our own spiritual growth when we put others before ourselves. “Selfishness” says Sawin, has historically been a shame-based word. “If I want to control you, or manipulate you, I shame you. I call you selfish. It’s become one of the tools used by other people to get what they want from you.”

But being someone else’s puppet is not conducive to our own growth. Following our own leads, using our own strengths and listening to our own inner wisdom is crucial to being centred in self. “To be selfish is really just to focus on the self,” says Sawin. “That’s just good sense.”

Sawin and Bluvshtein are just two of a multitude of practitioners who point out that, at a very fundamental level, we bring more to the world when we are full, versus empty. By fuelling our tanks when they are empty, by pursuing our interests, ?by nurturing our friendships, we grow, we evolve, we become stronger—and the world as a whole benefits from that physical and spiritual health.

But Bluvshtein says it goes beyond that. She points out that self-love is key to loving others. “We don’t know the worth of others until we know our own worth. We need to study ourselves.”

By making a study of “self” we learn our likes, we learn our limits—and we are able to recognize and respect the limitations of others, a crucial aspect of compassion. This ability to look both inward and outward allows us to turn self-interest on and off, like a switch—putting our own needs first when that is called for, and caring for others when we are able. Sometimes that means saying no to your best friend’s last-minute babysitting request, but saying yes to a planned, weekly food delivery to a needy neighbour.

This highly deliberate approach to self-care is a canon that, at its core, sees selfishness not so much as a personality trait as it is a tool that can be picked up or put down as the situation dictates—a primal self-protective instinct that can be activated as needed. In this light, self-centredness isn’t a vice; it’s a choice. A good one.

OK, so putting self first has merit. It serves our own physical and emotional needs and it ultimately serves others too. But how? In an era that equates selfishness with evil, adopting a self-centred approach can draw fire. (“What do you mean you can’t stay late?”) So I surveyed some of my friends—some of my monstrously brilliant, frighteningly ?powerful friends—for tips. Such as Jayne Danska, a senior scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children and professor at the University of Toronto. Here’s a woman so sickeningly smart that she could find a cure for cancer. (No, seriously. She’s researching the gene for a childhood cancer.)

This is what our conversation sounded like:

“So Jayne, what does the word selfish mean to you?”

“Well Liza, I’d love to discuss the varied facets of the word, but I have a multi-million dollar grant application due next week so this conversation will have to wait.”


So I asked my pal Ellie Rubin whether she viewed selfishness as a trait worth nurturing. After all, she wrote the book on ambition. I mean, she literally wrote a book (her second) on ambition and how to get it. This is the email response I got.

“Liza, can’t talk now. I’m taking some much-needed time off to ski at Tahoe. Can it wait?”

Hmm. It seems that one of the lessons we can learn from highly successful women is limit-setting. To say these women know how to say no is facile. Rather, they have come to appreciate that frequently what’s contained within the “no” is a “yes, but.” A request to spend your Saturday at the office could be answered with: “Yes, I’m happy to put in some extra hours, but Saturday won’t work for me.” It’s a subtle yet powerful shift that makes selfishness more digestible for the masses, but also more palatable for you.

Still, practising self-centredness in the era of the selfless requires sang-froid. “Saying no to others requires bravery,” admits Rubin. “You can’t allow yourself to be afraid of how others will respond to rejection. But saying no to others is often a way of saying yes to yourself…It requires you to know yourself.”

Knowing herself—what she wanted and needed—was an exercise Rubin set for herself early in her professional life. After the birth of her second child and a cross-country media tour for her second book, Rubin made the tough decision to cancel a promotional speaking tour. “I was completely worn out. Although I knew the consequence would be a loss of sales, I had to say no to them and yes to me.”

Was her agent disappointed? Yes. Was Rubin disappointed? Absolutely. But she decided to put herself and her family first. “It was a realization that even I had limits on what I was willing to do for success.”

Saying no to others and yes to self isn’t without its consequences. You run the risk of being called a non-team player, or being accused of not being fully devoted (to your job, to your friendship, to your partner). But what many women of backbone have come to realize is this: You can do it all, you just can’t do it all at the same time. “Superwomen—these women who are working, and on committees, and caring for kids—need regular injections of selfishness,” says Bluvshtein. “She needs the courage to let something go and prioritize.”

It’s no easy task, but selfishness is as personal a practice as your yoga postures. “I don’t practise nearly enough self-centredness and pay a price for it,” says Danska. “I’ve cared for others—my mother, brother, father, spouse, daughter—for so long that I nearly always have a line running in my consciousness about things I need to do for others…Learning to say ‘Thanks, but I am over-committed’ has been a revelation.”

Making yourself a priority, setting limits and enforcing them is key to self-preservation. As Danska points out, it isn’t just your emotional health that’s at stake, but your professional future too. “The tendency to place the needs of colleagues, trainees and superiors ahead of my needs fragments my time, energy and focus with negative long-term consequences on my professional advancement.” In short, neglecting self sabotages your ability to be at the top of your game in the office.

So let’s start a trend: Martyrdom is out; backbone is in. Self-centredness is the newest form of generosity.

5 easy steps to rational selfishness:

1. Know yourself. Figure out what you want, what you need, what your limits are. Before you can centre on self you have to know self.

2. Know the risks of your so-called selfishness. What will result from saying no? Understanding the effect of refusing (your boss, your mother-in-law, your best friend) doesn’t mean you won’t do it, it just means you’ll be better prepared for the consequences.

3. Cultivate bravery. Moving from “other-centred” to “self-centred” makes you a revolutionary.

4. Check your ego. Have you become a yes-woman because you feel no one else can possibly fill your shoes? Or because you are a control freak and can’t let go? Learn to let some things go. No one is indispensable. “If you pull out, someone else will pull in,” points out author Ellie Rubin.

5. Reframe. Contained within almost every “no” is a “yes, but.” So when your supervisor asks you to take on additional work, you can say “yes, but not until next month.” And when your best friends asks you to host her birthday dinner, you can say “yes, but you owe me one!”