Selfishness Versus Self-Care:
Warranted Versus Unwarranted Guilt

Mirah Riben, author and activist
7 min readMar 28, 2022

Selfishness is negative. Calling someone or being called selfish is a pejorative, a stinging insult for good reason. Selfishness is synonymous with being self-centered; defined as being concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself; concerned with one’s own welfare or advantage in disregard of others; seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others.

Selfish people are often entitled narcissists who believe they and their needs are more important than any and all others. They will sit in a theater with a huge hat, take an extra seat on buses or trains for their packages while people stand. These are the people who will eat a third slice of pizza before making sure everyone at the party has had a first. They cut lines and park in handicapped or other reserved parking spots. It’s all about me, me, me. They matter more than everyone else. They are rude, boorish and discourteous. In extreme cases, they can become verbally or even physically aggressive. These are the people who commit acts of road rage as if the road belongs to them.

Because of the justified social stigma on selfishness, many of us become confused and think we have to be totally selfless. Not true.

Self-Care: It’s OK

Self-care is none of these.

The Journal of Counseling Psychology defines self-care as “a multidimensional, multifaceted process of purposeful engagement in strategies that promote healthy functioning and enhance well-being.” In other words, taking care of your physical, emotional, spiritual and mental health; being aware of signs of depression and anxiety and seeking help when help is needed.

More simply, it’s maintaining or improving your physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional health. The World Health Organization defines self-care as: “the ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability . . .”

The website has an excellent article on self-care that I recommend. It reminds us of simple things like getting enough sleep, eating well, keep in doctor appointments and taking our medication.

It’s OK to take some time for yourself. It’s OK not to be the best at everything. It’s OK not to volunteer for every extra chore, to impress your boss or be the “best” Mom or Dad. It’s OK to hire help you can afford. It’s OK to ask for help! That takes strength, courage and an ability to be vulnerable.

Prioritize! A Rumba is likely to clean the floors with less streaa and strain. Get a wheelchair at airports if you need one when you travel. Get a babysitter while you rest or read a book. Hire someone to weed your garden or shovel snow or hang the holiday decorations. See if you can find an assistant to do some of the heavy lifting at work or an intern to shoulder some of the busy work. Modify your hobbies. Become a mentor and share the knowledge and experience you’ve accumulated. Ask dinner guests to bring a dish to share, have all or part of the meal catered, or ask someone else to share the joy and kudos of hosting.

Communicate what you need and be clear that you are not seeking pity or making excuses. It may require some educating of those you need to understand and be more compassionate and/or helpful. Have your partner or roommate attend a doctor visit with you. Share articles they can read to better understand your condition, limitations or situation. Have a sit-down with your boss or HR to discuss ways to modify your duties, your hours or find another more suitable position. If it comes to it, enlist the help of your medical team to help you apply for disability. If that is what is warranted you are not being a slacker or loser.

If you find yourself in aguilt-ridden, exhausted trap, stop and decipher if the guilty messages are an old internal tape that needs rerecording or if they are externally produced. Then think about the announcement on all airplanes to put your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone seated near you in need of assistance. The first time I heard that announcement as new mother, I shocked. It sounded selfish to me! How could I not take care of my infant first? I needed to have it explained to me that we are no good to anyone else if we are dead or incapacitated.None of us are good to anyone if we are not being good and caring to ourselves.

Many of us need to reprogram the messages in our heads from family others or society; messages that it’s somehow selfish or self-indulgent to enjoy pleasures or relaxation or properly care for ourselves. Mothers of young children often have the most difficulty with this concept. Some act as if the word mother is synonymous with martyr. Men on the other hand, often believe that seeking help is a sign of weakness when it is the opposite.

This issue is especially difficult for people with chronic and/or invisible ailments which ebb and flow. The nature of most chronic ailments is a roller coaster of good days and bad days. You may have moments, hours, days or longer where you feel the veil has lifted and you can enjoy yourself, and then suddenly you relapse back into your disease flaring up and making simple thing impossibly painful. It’s hard for you to understand, let alone those around you.

Often people with such invisible ailments as RA, Lupus, Fibromyalgia, Colitis, etc. feel they are being or will be judged as ”slackers,” hypochondriacs, or “posers” when they have a bad day, week, month or more; days when that make everyday activities are painful and difficult. The nasty guilt gremlin gets in our way. So let’s discuss guilt.

Ditch the Guilt

Guilt is described as a self-conscious emotion that involves negative evaluations of the self, feelings of distress, and feelings of failure.

There are two types of guilt: warranted and unwarranted. The difference lies in intent and degree of harm. If you cause harm intentionally, guilt is warranted. If you commit a crime or moral wrong such as violating the trust of someone you care about, your guilt is warranted. Unintentional acts depend upon the severity of harm. Stepping on someone’s toe deserves an apology, but not guilt. Unintentionally causing a car accident, especially if someone is hurt or worse, might cause you to feel very badly; sorry you weren’t paying more attention; sorry you couldn’t’ have done things differently and avoided the accident happening.

Not living up to others expectations — or your own — does not warrant guilt or shame. Learn the difference between your own sense of right and wrong and externally inflicted messages.

We have to remind ourselves of this and not unduly burden ourselves because others do not live inside us and do understand our truth. If you know you are being honest, not seeking unwarranted sympathy or special accommodations, then feel confident that you are doing what is right for you. Either try your best to explain or learn to ignore others’ comments or looks. Their lack of caring and judgements are on them.

Think about all the judgments society makes that are totally wrong and off base. Many segments of the population victim-blame rape survivors for the way they dressed, drinking alcohol, or where they were. Many people question why victims of spousal abuse don’t “just leave” because they have not lived in such a situation and do not understand the complexities or the fact that leaving can put such victims in worse danger. The same is true of people living with invisible disabilities. Others judge without knowing.

Know your abilities and know your limits. Be confident in your ability to assess your needs and know that there is nothing shameful about taking good care of yourself, on the contrary it is unwise and costly to ignore one’s needs and it helps no one.

Taking an occasional a spa day for yourself. Playing a round of golf. Indulging in weekend of streaming a tv series or movies you’ve missed — in your PJs — hurts no one. In fact it likely makes you a better parent and/or employee. A nap is often the best way to recharge your batteries. When in doubt, ask: Is anyone being hurt or harmed by my doing — or not doing — this chore or activity?

Gulit says: “I did something wrong.”

SHAME says: “ I AM WRONG!”

Some gulit is warranted, a great deal is not. Learn the difference and if there is something you did wrong, learn from your mistake and try not to repeat it.

Shame is never warranted and it’s extremely TOXIC! Don’t allow anyone to ever shame you!