Here’s an unpopular opinion for you: I hated the book Eat, Pray, Love. I first read it in 2007, like every other woman my age it seemed. But unlike most of those other women, who turned into Liz Gilbert fangirls and crowded her book signings to tell her just how much her book had changed their life, I had an almost visceral reaction to every page. I hated it and I hated her. I thought the book was the self-absorbed musings of a vapid, shallow woman who thought and acted like everything was all about her.
Of course, my feelings about Elizabeth Gilbert weren’t about her at all. They were a reflection of myself as they usually are. I was going through a hard divorce at the time, I felt overwhelmed as a single mom and walked through most days in a depressed fog. I needed a break as much anyone possibly could need one but I kept on going day after day, making the lunches, worrying about money, going to work and putting everyone first except myself. I kept going, that is, until the day I woke up and couldn’t force myself to get out of my bed. My body had betrayed me and I wasn’t able to take care of anyone else until I finally took care of myself.
I learned the hard way that I can’t take care of anyone if I’m not taking care of myself and over the years I’ve actually become a little militant about providing myself with the self-care I know I need. As an introvert, I need a lot of rest after spending time in the real world and I make sure that I get it. I also need some regular infusions of joy or I’m not able to bring joy to others. I’ve learned, in other words, that focusing on meeting my own needs is the least selfish thing I can be doing for the important folks in my life.
Here are some reasons why you are actually serving others when you focus on what you need to thrive.
Joy is Contagious – as is Depression
Your energy influences everyone you come in contact with. Who do you enjoying sharing a meal with: the friend smiling and enjoying her salad, or the friend on a diet sullenly eating the salad because “it’s the only thing on the menu she can have”? (I’ve been both women and so I’d like to take this moment to apologize to everyone who’s shared a meal with me when I’ve been dieting.) Your joy gives joy to others who will take that joy and infect still more people. It’s the ultimate way of being the change you wish to see in the world.
You’re Modeling the Behavior You Want Others in Your Life to Follow
What kind of future do you want for the people you love? Do you want to see them plodding joylessly through life putting everyone else’s needs first while they slowly lose any idea of who they even are? Or do you want to see them engaging in activities that allow them to become their joyful authentic selves? The people around you take their cues on appropriate behavior from you and seeing you take care of your own needs gives them the freedom to do the same.
You Can’t Take Care of Others if You Aren’t Taking Care of Yourself
You can’t be fully present for the important people in your life if your mind is occupied by your own problems or if you’re just so tired you can’t focus on anything. I cringe when I look back at the time in my just after my divorce. I vividly remember driving down the road with my kids feeling numb and exhausted while they laughed and talked around me. I couldn’t pay attention to them until I took some time to rest and refuel my own tank.
Being there for the people you care about takes physical and emotional resources. How can you give to the people in your life if you have nothing within yourself to give? You actually have a responsibility to take care of yourself so you can be there for the people who need you.
You Relieve Others of the Burden of Taking Care of You
If you burn yourself out to the point where you can’t function, someone who loves you will no doubt try to step in and help you take care of yourself. And, honestly, sometimes self-care means knowing you need help and accepting it when it’s offered. We’re all fellow travelers through this life and we need to help each other out and accept help when we need it.
But if you are perpetually burned out and refuse to take care of yourself, you’ll eventually become a burden to the people who love you. Instead of bringing them happiness and helping them refuel, you’ll be a constant drain on their physical and emotional resources. It’s much better for everyone if you take care of your needs first so you can focus on those you love.
You Can Serve the World Best by Knowing and Using Your Strengths Rather than Engaging in Self-Sacrifice
I’m going to return to my old buddy Liz to help me out with this one because now I can appreciate and value the lessons I learned from her. In Eat, Pray, Love she decides during her time at an ashram that she will observe a vow of silence. She’s by nature a friendly, outgoing person so she expects that observing silence instead will make her purer and that everyone there will admire her discipline. Instead, she’s asked to handle greeting and welcoming guests to the ashram, a job that requires her to meet new people and helping them to feel comfortable.
She’s a natural extrovert so this job is a perfect use of her strengths. But, like so many of us, her first impulse was to deny the gifts that make her special and to instead seek to become her vision of the perfect devout student who would be a woman unlike herself in all ways. But as Gilbert’s guru says, “God dwells within you, as you.”
God dwells within you as well. As you. And it’s your job to shine your special gifts on the rest of the world. To do that, you need to be the best version of yourself: happy, rested, and ready to serve others. So take a little time every day to make sure you’re doing everything you can to make yourself happy. When you do that, you are serving the world in the highest form.
Focusing on yourself and understanding what you need to be your best self, then, is the very opposite of selfish.