Psychotherapy Handout: Defining Selfishness

One of the most challenging topics I face in my practice is teaching people the importance of prioritizing their own needs. Over and over again I come up against resistance to self-care, with the claim that attending to one’s own needs is “selfish.”

One example I have relied on, to explore the necessity of self-care, is the instruction we are given when we get on a airplane. The safety lesson includes the direction to put your own oxygen mask on before assisting other passengers, including small children! Flight attendants often use the statement, “Don your own mask first.” I use this as an example of the need to care well for one’s self before assisting others.

On many occasions I have written the words “Don your own mask first” on a post-it and sent it home with a client with the instruction to put the note on their dashboard or mirror so they can see it frequently. I suggest they consider, when they encounter the note, whether they are taking good care of themselves at that moment or in that day.

To explore this issue of self-care more deeply, I created a handout to examine the definition of selfishness and contrast this with self-respect and self-neglect. This handout asks the reader to fill in a chart to distinguish the differences between these three categories of behavior: selfish, self-respecting, and self-neglecting. Breaking actions into these categories helps clarify the behaviors and consequences of each.

Clients can see, through their own definitions, that the actions they choose, out of fear of being called “selfish” (externally or internally), often lead them to a position of self-neglect, and ignoring exploration of a self-respecting option. It becomes evident, after filling in the chart, that self-respect is not the same as selfishness and a whole lot healthier than self-neglect.