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Self-care or selfish? – that is the question!

Article by Doreen Gowing

Some years ago when I stopped to have a look at my life, it was about the same time as another relationship came to an end, work was plodding along, I watched too much telly and I was nearer to 50 than 40.

I found the words, “Are you someone who is very good at looking after everyone else to the almost exclusion of yourself?”  jump out at me. Even though I didn’t see myself in this light at all, they somehow stuck in my brain, funny how that happens.  The more I thought about it the more I realised I was labelling myself selfish for being busy, busy, busy. I was into distraction and the bottom line was I wasn’t taking care of myself, you know eating rubbish, drinking too much, dashing from one adventure to the next and one relationship after the other,not getting enough sleep and my mind racing a hundred miles a minute. It was amazing how it had all crept up on me over the years without me even noticing. I see this now more as self neglect.

Judging myself harshly

It got even worse, my feeling of being selfish lead me to put all those who were really good at looking after other people on a pedestal, now I was feeling really bad about myself. Talk about abuse, I was getting very good at it. Yes, indeed it’s true it looked like others were doing a great job of being there for everyone and taking care of other people’s needs.  I wanted to shake off my selfish label and be in that space. The harder I was on myself the harder I found I was on others.  Thoughts like ‘they shouldn’t …. ‘ or ‘they should ..’. would pop into my head.

Life was running away from me? It was going to continue to gain speed unless I put on the brakes.  They weren’t the brakes to stop living, but the brake on life running me, rather than I running my life.

The big leap

There was nothing for it, I just had to clean up my own act, deal with my own business before I could even attempt to help anyone else and get rid of this selfish feeling. I signed myself up for some serious self-development, call it what you like it was time to take a good look in the mirror and see who is looking back at me.

Now, I’m not saying it didn’t have it’s downs, which I now refer to fondly to as my ‘breakdowns’ knowing that they will lead to a ‘breakthrough’. I’ve reached the stage now where I almost look forward to the ‘breakdowns’ wondering what the next leap forward will be.  Life never stands still,we are either going back, forward, up or down depending on which direction we see things going.A part of me was still thinking when doing all this looking in the mirror and even deeper inside that this was all very selfish and self centred.

The oxygen mask

Then it dawned on me there is a very good reason the air crew remind us to put our own oxygen mask on first before we even put on our child’s mask.  Yet in life we can often run around the aircraft without our mask helping everyone, then wondering why they are all doing fine and we are totally exhausted.

Still, I was having a problem with this ‘selfish’ label.  The idea of really looking after my own needs sounded selfish, arrogant and uncaring?  So … why was that?

No matter what the parents get the blame!!!

Well, of course it all went back to the poor parents again, they can’t do right for doing wrong. We just learn as a small child that looking after everyone else’s needs are more important than looking after our own. Being rewarded with words of praise or treats when we sacrificed our own needs we learnt this is how I get rewarded. Back then our only real need was to feel safe, loved and approved of by those who took care of us. I wonder what messages you received when you wanted to play with your favourite toy? Can you hear that tone of voice now making you wrong or praising you for knowing what you wanted in life?

I could see how our need for love and approval was satisfy as a child strongly influences our behaviour as an adult. When I was pinning my happiness on the approval, acknowledgement and love from others I was having one hell of a bumpy ride.  Where was it written we are to love others MORE than ourselves?

I thought about how would it be to not take on any commitments which are done out of resentment or obligation?  Phew! That felt scary and at times the guilt was overwhelming like the time I helped my aunt move into a care home rather than choosing to look after her at home.  I took myself off to a therapist to deal with feeling riddled with guilt.  Now I visit my aunt once or twice a week most times and if I miss a few I am gentle on myself knowing she is in good hands.

Light at the end of the tunnel

I’m talking about valuing self not being selfish. When my cup felt empty from exhaustion, hurt,guilt, disappointment, anxiety and fear of what others might think of me. I really couldn’t offer others love and support?

I’m talking about when my cup is full of love, peace, joy and a positive outlook, I feel in a much better place to share and support.

I’m talking about loving myself and by that I mean looking after myself.

I am much calmer now on the inside.  I love my work. I make more time for my family and friends. I take down time to just sit in my garden or cycle the banks of the Thames find a lovely tree and sit under it to admire the world go by.

What a wonderful life

Having said all that, since turning 50 I have started my own business Shamrock Hypnotherapy. I cycled with a friend from London to Paris in 24 hours (yes, 24 hours in a relay of 2).  With a group of friends we raise £23,000 for MacMillan nurses by cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats. Just to add some variety to life I joined Toastmasters International.  Learning not to take myself too seriously allows me to wear life like a loose garment. I love that image it feels so free.

Yes, loving myself does not feel selfish, it feels empowering. Self love I now see as a gift we share with others because we have it to share. We cannot give what we do not have.

Life over 50 feels like an opportunity with a lot more experience than the first 50 and an invitation to take the time to ‘Stop and stare’.


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  1. Jo Carroll

    August 28, 2012

    If we can’t look after ourselves, how can we hope to look after anyone else?

  2. Babs (Dumphimlove)

    August 28, 2012

    Hi Doreen thanks for this well written post. I fully agree with you. It’s important to take care of ourselves. It is not selfish and when we can do that we can truly help others. I wish you every success with your business. One example speaks louder than a thousand words 🙂

  3. Kay

    August 28, 2012

    Brilliant article Doreen,

    We often forget that both Selfish and Selflessness need to exist in our lives.
    When you come from the place of your true self, you nurture those you care for the most.
    Putting on the oxygen mask first at midlife is the only way forward.

    Drop by http://www.SensiblySelfish.com to see more.

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