Self-Care or Selfish-Care
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | April 2019
This article examines the fine line between selfish pursuit of individual goals while ignoring others. Self-care sounds good but can easily morph into more sinister selfish care. We must seek a healthy balance, nourishing our soul while not ignoring the greater need for connection.
Self-care is a popular topic in the positivity crowd. And rightfully so, we must nourish our souls with compassion and kindness. Self-care nurtures and strengthens us by creating a congenial environment that encourages growth. However, within self-care practices is some selfishness and protective adaptations that can disconnect the self from others. Self-care, like other psychological concepts, when isolated from larger contexts can be harmful, ignoring the greater whole and the ultimate purpose of wellbeing.
In many circles, suggesting that self-care can be selfish sounds alarms of blasphemy. At first glance, self-care behaviors appear flawless, a gentle avenue to mental health, needing no additional qualification. However, we must be wary. Uniform acceptance of broad concepts is dangerous. The term ‘self-care’ is vague, leaving undefined the path and purpose, opening exercises in selfish exclusion and narcissistic behaviors. Under the high-minded goal of self-care, many nasties infect and destroy the underlying goal of self-nurturance.
Self-care is essential for service workers in emotionally demanding industries. Without attention to the self, workers became emotionally exhausted, suffering from an empathy burnout. Continual exposure to human tragedy has an emotional toll, wearing down resilience. Over-exposed workers disconnect, losing the capacity to empathize, protecting the drain by replacing living people with faceless characters.
Under the high-minded goal of self-care, many nasties infect and destroy the underlying goal of self-nurturance.
Initially, agencies provided training in setting emotional boundaries to combat empathy fatigue. These early teachings have failed and are being revised. Empirically driven changes no longer push for emotional boundaries. They discovered that the disconnected workers were suffering new ailments, along with a decrease in the quality of service. New studies published found that firm boundaries between professional and personal life strained communication. By stripping professional contacts of humanity both the person being helped and the person helping suffered (Bressi, S., & Vaden, E. 2016).
The new direction is resilience—not boundaries. Self-care is most effective when the purpose of tending to self is focused on developing emotional strength (resilience) so workers can better engage in the draining work. Instead of a protective approach, standing behind immovable separating barriers, effort is given to emotionally strengthen employees to endure the repeated demands.
After twenty-five years as a police officer in a large city, I unknowingly raised my own barriers. During a normal day, I encountered people on the worst day of their lives, suffering unimaginable tragedies. But for me (the officer), witnessing the brutality of human existence was expected to be quietly absorbed while remaining professional and aloof. I soon discovered that these protective walls don’t dissolve on command. Spending significant time in a disconnected protective world quickly spills into our personal lives. We excuse the practice of becoming a stranger to emotion because it is self-protecting, but the repeated disconnections damaged the soul and stymied growth.
As a society, we are learning that too many protective barriers fail. The lack of human warmth divides communities and leaves citizens deprived of the comfort available from a concerned service worker committed to the well-being of the community. The officer often emerges from a career only partially alive, remnants intact but great chunks of emotional stability missing. For the officer, social worker or nurse, the constant collisions with life hurt, and the traditionally practiced protections only exaggerated the problem. A better solution was needed.
Self-care lessons from service industry studies applies to all of us living in the real world of occasional thorns and hurts. Building resilience is the answer. Self-care enhances our ability to connect. We care for ourselves not with a rallying cry for selfish individualism, avoiding relationships that matter (not just matter to us but matter to the world). Self-care prepares for the work of attunement through a personalized selection of practices that build resilience so we can engage with others in an unpredictable and frightening world. We don’t grow with protective barriers; we strengthen our abilities through rejuvenating activities and grow with permeable boundaries that simultaneously protect and allow openness to the many joys and sorrows existing outside of ourselves.
Learning from connection doesn’t include haphazardly jumping into the fray of dangerous relationships. We must be wise, protecting against the unscrupulousness of hurtful others. We live in a world of both good and evil. To protect, wisdom always applies. The all-or-nothing thinking that everything is safe, or everything is dangerous carries detrimental consequences; the former opens us to victimization and the latter leads to missed opportunities.
The new self-care mindset focuses on emotional preparation instead of impassable boundaries. We build instead of limit. The expansion of emotional capabilities doesn’t force the world to march to our limited capacities; our growing capacities creates the strength to keep pace with a dynamic world.
Many behaviors dressed in the brightness of noble self-care allow nasty behaviors to exist. Selfishness lives in these shadowy chambers. While we willing take, we grudgingly give. Our practices, expected to nourish, may be laced with the toxins that poison growth. Protecting our autonomy is essential but too much protection ignores the essential connection to the whole. Along with misguided practices of self-care, the toxins of selfishness stow away on an uncriticized journey of hurtful disconnections. We gain but lose at the same time. These trade-offs must be monitored and adjusted to invite healthy minds while still allowing emotional connection.
Self-care practices of joyous social outings, interaction with internet friends, grueling exercise routines, and restful meditations can snatch great chunks of precious time, with the appearance of good, the endeavors disease our souls with selfishness. Practices must be designed to rejuvenate rather than escape, leaving sufficient time and strength to engage in living.
We have been blindsided with the faulty doctrine of taking care of ourselves, making self-care the end goal; instead of taking care of ourselves so we can better attune to others. We dupe ourselves into believing that if something pleasures our souls in the moment, it must be supreme. This is false. Brain science has repeatedly shown that development is the product of deepening connections. Our future wellness depends on healthy relationships. Children thrive when early connections provide the warmth of emotional attunement, not from a solitary diet of secluded activities alone—no matter how engaging those activities are.
We must build practices that heal our souls, giving the necessary strength to bond with others. We should be part of this joyous and ailing world, empathetic to suffering of others (both in and outside of our particular groups). The dividing attitudes prevailing in the world stem from growing practices of disconnection. We act selfishly and decorate the behavior with faulty logic. We empathize with in-group members, call it kindness, but hastily judge those outside. We need greater circles of connection. We need self-care that leads to world-care. We need to give life, love, and happiness to more others—not less. We can give and we can suffer with more people than only those we deem worthy of our attention and protection. We must mature, growing beyond the simple pettiness of differences, beyond the fear, and reach for a world of connection.
Bressi, S., & Vaden, E. (20 16). Reconsidering Self-Care. Clinical Social Work Journal, 45(1), 33-38.