OPINION: Why the narrative of being selfish is toxic, and why you should be more selfish


Bella Watson

Is it really “selfish” to put yourself first? Photo courtesy of Pexels

From an early age, I was taught that selflessness is one of the greatest attributes a person can have. Being selfish was always used as an insult, or at the very least carried a negative connotation. But as I progress in life I have started to wonder: “What is so wrong with being selfish?”

In childhood, the term selflessness usually describes a situation that looks like one child sacrificing something like a toy for the sake of another child. While I think teaching a child compromise and to share is extremely important, the narrative of “being selfish” has begun to manifest in a harmful way for many adults. For as long as I can remember I have been hyper aware of my own actions, and from an early age, I felt guilty any time I did something for myself.

It may be the fact that I am a self-proclaimed recovering people pleaser, but I found myself pushing my selflessness to a point where it compromised my needs and wants. I was focusing on what I could do to make the lives of others easier or to meet their expectations, but I was so over-extended that I couldn’t do that for myself. Doing this caused a rapid decline in my mental health, and self-care was a luxury I stopped indulging in.

It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that my perspective on being selfish changed. I was attending The University of South Dakota and I was assigned a new advisor after switching my major. Upon our first meeting she asked me to describe what I was doing in college, what my goals were, and if I were involved with anything on campus. My anxious mind began to list to her what I was doing: Greek life, Dance Marathon, serving full time, and taking a full course load.

She looked at me and said, “Now, what of that is serving you?”

It really made me stop and think. I enjoyed all of the things that I was doing, but I wasn’t fulfilled. My advisor explained to me that this wasn’t because I was doing anything wrong or because I wasn’t doing enough, but I wasn’t listening to my body and its needs. I could spend all the time in the world doing things for other people and participating in organizations, but I would not feel satisfied until I slowed down to figure out what I wanted to do.

The way society has guilt tripped people into thinking that they must give one hundred percent of their energy into doing things to appease others isn’t healthy. This toxic cycle may even be the cause of so many young people experiencing mental health issues.

After that I left her office, dropped Greek life, transferred home, and began to major in Media and Journalism. I did it because I wanted to. Up until that point I had spent my entire life trying to do what I thought other people wanted to the point that I couldn’t tell you what my goals were, because I wasn’t sure yet what everyone else wanted me to do. I was living to please others. Listening to someone tell me that it was okay to put myself first changed my life.

That is the goal of this reading—to inspire you to focus on yourself. Society has perpetuated an extremely specific path that is “correct”, but this path isn’t the one for most of us. People were not created to spend their lives meeting the needs of others, but rather to find what galvanizes them. It’s okay to go to the school of your choice even if it disappoints those around you. Take time off if it’s what you want to do. Travel, spend a month in bed, go to ten different colleges…just make sure you’re happy.