Self-care and selfishness are not the same

Do you often find yourself engrossed in the problems of others, trying to help your friends and family make it through the trials of life? Do your needs drop into the background, forgotten amongst the seemingly vital concerns of others?

There will always be times where we have to make sacrifices, to look after others and put them first, but for some, the well-being of others comes at the expense of self-care. Looking after yourself can seem selfish, with thoughts and feelings that you are a ‘bad’ person for neglecting the needs of others. Over the long term, not looking after yourself or your needs can lead to many issues such as stress, anxiety and burnout, or finding yourself in unhealthy relationships over and over again.

A feeling that others needs come before yours, or even instead of yours is often related to having low self-esteem, with a feeling that your needs aren’t as important as everyone else’s, however painful your experiences. Often the message taken on board is that you must be strong for others, you will be OK if everyone else is happy, or others will look after you if you look after them. However, all too often this hoped for support from others doesn’t materialise, leading to anger, frustration and disappointment, and sacrificing more to help others with the thought that ‘if I’m just a bit more supportive of others, then they’ll support me back’.

You may have an imaginary list of people who need looking after, containing a large number of friends and family, and even some vague acquaintances too. However, often the one name missing from that list is yours. Looking after yourself can feel like it’s opposed to the image of you being a ‘caring’ person. One of the first steps towards self-care is to add yourself to that list, to realise that you are also one of the people that needs looking after.

Adding yourself to this list can be difficult to do. The urge not to be selfish is strong. However it’s important to define selfishness and self-care:


Lacking consideration for other people; concerned chiefly with one's own personal profit or pleasure.

(Oxford Dictionary)


The practice of activities that are necessary to sustain life and health, normally initiated and carried out by the individual for him or herself.


The two are not the same. Self-care is taking care of what is necessary to sustain your health, and at times this means putting yourself first. Selfishness is about lacking consideration for others. The most important word is the definition of self-care as necessary – we all need to self-care as part of healthy living, and this means taking time for yourself and building your energies so that you’re more able to deal with the demands of life. 

Having your name on that list of people to be looked after means it’s OK to look after others, but reminds you that this needs to be balanced with looking after you too. In fact it’s necessary to look after you. Others are deserving of your love and care, but don’t forget that you deserve that same love and compassion too, and part of this comes from you.

A counsellor can offer a safe place for you to explore any barriers that prevent you looking after yourself, and can assist you in working out what your needs really are. A counsellor will also be a source of support to you during the process of re-balancing your self-care with the needs of others

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Bristol, BS7 8NT
Written by Chris Mounsher, PG Dip, MBACP (Accred)
Bristol, BS7 8NT

Chris Mounsher is a BACP registered humanistic counsellor working in private practice in Brighton. He offers both long term and short term counselling and has particular experience working with anxiety, addiction, depression, low self-esteem and relationship difficulties.

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