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The Difference Between Selfishness and Self Love

Words can sometimes blow your mind. This happened to me my first day in grad school for Psychology. I settled into my seat, pen at the ready, and the teacher said the following: “You must learn to know the difference between selfishness and self love.”

A lightbulb went off. It was such a simple statement, but to me it was revelatory. Was there a way to attend to yourself without being selfish? And what did it look like to be really self loving?

Think about this: Do you often feel bad saying no to a loved one? Do you say yes to things you don’t want to do? Do you worry more on what others need than you do about yourself? Do you run yourself down trying to show up for people?

If so, the fear of selfishness may be blocking your expression of self love.

My own life was saturated with the semi-conscious belief that the following actions were selfish: saying no, having boundaries, and honoring my needs and dreams when others might need something different from me.

Of course, if you asked me point blank were these things really selfish my rational mind would say no. But how I felt on inside was a whole different story.

I’ve worked with hundreds of clients and it is clear. Not knowing the difference between selfishness and self love is a prime cause of exhaustion, anxiety, and unhappiness.

Many of you are suffering with what I call “fear of selfishness” syndrome. We’ve all heard the idea that to love someone else you must first love yourself. In Buddhism, the Tibetan word for compassion simultaneously means for both self and other because they cannot be separated. To feel compassion for another requires you to feel it for yourself. Yet a main issue my clients grapple with is difficulty practicing self love.

The fear of being selfish asserts that we have to do whatever it takes to be there for other people, even if it slows us down on our goals or drains us of our vital energy.

Only when you act out of fear of being selfish you wear yourself thin. Ultimately you begin to feel overwhelmed, overloaded and perhaps even resentful. Worn out and trapped by your own guilt mechanism, you lose the ability to show up for others with joyful generosity.

I once heard that “boundaries” are not just for protecting you, but also to protect others from the resentment or upset that naturally arise from you overextending yourself for them. I see this to be true consistently.

By recognizing when to be generous, and when to be self-attentive, you’re cultivating a powerful tool that creates healthier relationships and more peace of mind.

Then how can you identify when the “fear of selfishness” is calling the shots?

The fear of selfishness carries the energy of shame. You feel bad to say no. And often bad saying yes. You feel trapped – without a real choice. Retrospectively you may feel burnt-out, resentful or overloaded.

Giving from your heart actually feels good. You feel connected and open to the person you’re giving to. Giving out of the fear of selfishness feels tense and draining. The fear of selfishness makes us want to run to a cave and hide. It drives us to give but in measured doses and only with so much enthusiasm.

In contrast, self love makes us feel open, empathetic and eager to make a difference where we can. It invites in joy and ease. Everyone benefits because we show up as our best self.

One last note: How do you know if in fact you are selfish? Typically truly selfish people you won’t even be concerned with this balance. If you’re genuinely curious it’s more than likely selfishness is not one of your challenges.

Jim Rohn shared this beautiful sentiment “The greatest gift you can give to somebody is your own personal development. I used to say, “If you will take care of me, I will take care of you.” Now I say, “I will take care of me for you if you will take care of you for me.”

I couldn’t agree more. The moment we all decide that self-love is healthy and optimal for everyone is the moment we breed a more uplifted and whole society. For today, why not start with loving you?

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