Many – maybe even most – people today feel guilt and shame around the idea of putting their own needs first. Women and parents, in particular, may work hard not to be called selfish, constantly putting their partner or children’s needs above their own. But exercising healthy self-interest or self-care isn’t just allowed, it’s necessary. Learning how to assert your self-interest and put your own needs first can be the first step to living a happy and fulfilling life.

What is Healthy Self-Interest?

Exercising self-interest is essential to stay happy and healthy in life. Healthy self-interest means taking care of yourself, but not at the expense of other people. This can take many forms over the course of life. You can exercise healthy self-interest by:

  • Taking time off work to recover when you are sick;
  • Making sure you get enough sleep, even if it means leaving social events early;
  • Eating healthy food, even if it costs more;
  • Spending money on training and personal development;
  • Taking time away from helping others to exercise or care for your body;
  • Setting aside time for yourself and your hobbies;
  • Budgeting to build savings at the expense of everyday luxuries or gifts;
  • Using saved money to invest in yourself or your comfort;
  • Asking for a raise based on experience or positive performance reviews;
  • Prioritizing mental health over others’ expectations.

Self-interest can be healthy when it is focused on improving your circumstances and your ability to help or support others. Not every self-interested action will have an altruistic result. But self-interest avoids turning to selfishness by keeping the focus on others even while meeting your own needs.

Get Help Exercising Healthy Self-Interest Today

Meet with a psychotherapist to learn how to establish healthy boundaries without being selfish.


Selfishness vs. Self-Interest

As opposed to healthy self-interest, selfishness means satisfying your own needs and wants at the expense of others. Rather than simply putting a priority on your own needs, selfishness means taking from others to get what you want. Selfish people focus on themselves first – often to the exclusion of others. They act in ways that are inconsiderate or even hurtful to others. They often feel no remorse because they had not considered the negative effects of their actions.

There is a long-used idea that “it is better to give than receive.” But if you are always the one giving, eventually you will run out of time, money, energy, or things to give. Unless you take some time to fill up your own reserves, eventually you will run out and not be able to help anyone. This is especially true in times of crisis.

It can also sometimes be “selfish” to refuse to receive from someone else. If you reject a gift because it deprives the giver of satisfaction or good feelings, or are ungracious about the effort people expend toward you, you can be selfish even without taking from someone else.

Setting Boundaries is Not Being Selfish

Unfortunately, many people who are used to others serving them will label any act of self-interest as “selfish.” But this isn’t true. If the thing you are “taking” from someone else is your own energy, time, or attention, you aren’t being selfish, you are asserting healthy boundaries.

People who confuse self-interest with selfishness often view the world as a “zero sum game.” For you to have more, that means they must have less. But exercising self-interest often allows you to give more to more people, without being a drain on resources yourself. That is because you have met your own needs first, before offering to help others. By taking a few hours to yourself, or spending a bit more on your own training, for example, you will then have access to greater reserves or resources to help others in the future. You aren’t taking a bigger slice of the pie, you’re taking time to bake a bigger pie for everyone to share.

If you tend to give when you’d rather not, it may be out of a sense of anxiety, or an effort to avoid conditioned guilt or shame around being selfish. To overcome this and begin exercising healthy self-interest, you need to reframe your thinking in terms of supply and demand. To meet the demands of your family, partner, employer, or community, you must make the effort to build up your own supplies first. Exercising healthy self-interest isn’t selfish. It equips you to be a better parent, partner, employee, and person in the future.

David Stanislaw is a psychotherapist with over 30 years of experience. He helps adults and couples balance self-interest and others’ needs through short-term therapy or ongoing counseling. Contact David Stanislaw to get help today.