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Healthy selfishness is an important ingredient in living a full life, and its presence -- or lack of it -- can be felt in both the biggest issues as well as the smallest details. Actually, if you want to know the truth about a couple's relationship, examine their bathroom. Whose stuff gets more territory or the most convenient space? Does the couple share towels, razors, and toothbrushes? Who gets more time in there, and whose schedule takes priority?
If you want some insight into yourself, your bathroom habits will reveal that as well. How much time do you take in the shower or tub? Do you take care of your kids while you're in the bathroom? Do you feel compelled to answer the phone in there, too? Do you wish you had more time to relax, all alone, behind a closed door?
Bathrooms are among the few remaining sanctuaries in our daily lives. They offer us a respite from interaction and stress and even have the potential to provide emotional and spiritual replenishment. In this sense bathrooms make a good metaphor for the pleasures of healthy selfishness -- the commonsense approach to getting what you deserve out of life without feeling guilty. Healthy selfishness is a way of thinking and acting in which there is a deep appreciation and concern for yourself. It includes a willingness to respect your own feelings, desires, and needs as well as to trust your knowledge, ability, and experience. Healthy selfishness involves accepting your weaknesses and imperfections without beating yourself up. It means nurturing yourself and loving yourself unconditionally. In a practical sense, it means doing such things as resting when you're tired or asking for emotional support without apology.
Many psychologists see healthy selfishness as a higher level of mental function that can help you reach your full potential. People who practice healthy selfishness have a zest for living, a joy that comes from savoring one's accomplishments. Healthy selfishness opens the door to a life of freedom -- freedom from being ruled by the opinions and demands of others as well as freedom from the voices in your own mind, often left over from childhood, that judge and blame you relentlessly.
However, for the majority of Americans, healthy selfishness remains just out of reach. What we practice instead is self-denial, the sacrificing of our needs and desires in order to fulfill those of others. Self-denial often stems from guilt and feelings of unworthiness. It can be a hallmark of a childhood in which we may have felt fearful and powerless, our needs were disregarded or ignored, we were judged unfairly and found wanting (especially in comparison to others), and our efforts and achievements were rarely acknowledged or appreciated. Self-deniers give up their most basic needs not because they want to, but because they find it almost impossible not to. Their feelings, thoughts, and ways of coping do not stem from any shortcomings but are the results of having denied themselves for too long. The characteristic feelings, thoughts, and ways of coping among self-deniers are the exact opposite of those who have a healthy degree of selfishness. The former are typically anxious, indecisive, and sensitive to criticism, while the latter feel peaceful and content, make decisions confidently and accept constructive criticism. Self-deniers are often perfectionists who worry obsessively; their counterparts are realists who actively solve their problems.
The true cost of self-denial is high. In failing to put our own needs first, we hope or assume others will give to us as we give to them. But they don't. And an unhealthy dynamic begins: We attempt to comfort ourselves with rationalizations and to convince ourselves that others would give back if they could. We attribute their inability to overwork and other pressures and tell ourselves they're unaware that their lack of sensitivity or concern causes us pain. We may accuse ourselves of being "overly sensitive" or of "making too much of it." Finally, there are the old standby excuses that totally absolve others of all responsibility. "That's just his way," we say, then shrug and pretend to let the matter go. But we don't let it go, and our resentment of this lack of reciprocity festers within. Ongoing self-denial can lead to bouts of depression, extreme impatience, fits of rage, or unexplained tearfulness. In the grand scheme of self-denial, these warning signs likely go unheeded.
"You're making me sick!" "You're driving me crazy!" Even as you are saying the words, you may fail to hear the truth in your remarks. These are not simply random shouts of frustration, but powerfully poignant descriptions of what is happening to your body. You experience self-denial as stress -- an inevitable result when you've exhausted your time, patience, and energy. Denying your need to stop taking care of someone else may be one of the greatest stresses you can endure. Stress can lead to headaches, digestive problems, skin disorders, and insomnia. High levels of the hormones cortisol and insulin, which are associated with stress, have been shown to damage arteries and increase the body's ability to make and store fat; they also accelerate wear and tear on muscles and organs -- even bones. An increase in stress hormones has been linked to stroke, heart attacks, and cancer.
So think of it this way: Your sacrifices for the good of others may end up being far more of a sacrifice than you ever imagined. While putting your needs ahead of the demands of others can't guarantee that you'll stay well or live to your 100th birthday, a fair portion of healthy selfishness is likely to reduce the psychological and physical stress that can lead to illness. A daily dose of healthy selfishness may do more than make you feel good -- it may be just what the doctor ordered.
How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb? Just one, but the lightbulb has to really want to change. In that joke lies a great truth. If you want a better life and to get what you deserve, you have to want it, and badly. The desire to change lies below your fears, deep down in your soul. It's that part of you that longs to say, "I'm tired of this and I'm not going to take it anymore." When you feel this strongly, all you need is a bit of guidance and encouragement. Wanting to change doesn't mean that you must do it right away. It's your choice to move slowly, moderately, or quickly, based on circumstances and personal preference. And it's best to tackle one problem area at a time so you don't get overwhelmed. This is your first official act of rebellion against the voices that dictate your most private choices. Put yourself in control. Here are your options:
Small steps. This involves a commitment to change by staying focused on your needs. These are actions you take every day, choices that may seem insignificant individually. For example, reading this article is an action of intent that shows you want a more productive life. Small steps can also make your life and relationships more rewarding while reducing the resistance you might encounter. Let's say you're constantly chauffeuring your teen daughter around; maybe you're not ready to refuse her request, but you can simply not offer to drive.
Longer strides. This requires a commitment to taking action by finding a middle road of compromise. Longer strides lead to intentional actions, setting boundaries, and holding your bottom line. For instance, you might tell your daughter that you intend to limit the number of times you'll act as her driver and ask her to come up with a new arrangement that would fulfill both your needs. At times, longer strides may lead to a rocky path of confrontation and opposition. This is the choice of the truly frustrated, sometimes brave and often desperate.
Life-changing leaps. This involves making unilateral decisions and acting on your own behalf without the input of others. Life-changing leaps are reserved for people who feel they have no other choice. Although quick, profound change can be exhilarating, it can be followed by self-doubt and fear of repercussions. For example, you might place strict limits on the number of times you'll act as driver for your daughter, along with requirements regarding how much advance notice you'll need. Then, if you weren't given enough notice, you'd refuse the request even if your daughter responds with threats or temper tantrums.
As you begin to focus on your needs, you'll see it can make a world of difference. Saying no to a pushy mother-in-law's insistence that you have holiday dinner at her house can make you feel like a new woman. Refusing to feel guilty and running to the rescue when your teen is out of money can make you feel like you're the kind of parent you always knew you could be. Telling your mate that you're too tired to make love instead of just going through the motions can make you feel far sexier the next time. Freedom and joy come from simple, single acts of healthy selfishness, and each act feeds the next until suddenly you discover that you are living the honest and satisfying life you always dreamed of.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, February 2006.