Maybe it’s my radar of late, but I have been hearing A LOT of people suggesting to their friends that they “deserve to be selfish”. And the reasons for deserving range from illness, to working too hard, or your children have been driving you crazy. Here’s the thing. I think we’ve maybe forgotten what the term selfish means, or we’ve applied a different, less weighty meaning to the term, or we just don’t have a large enough lexicon for reward.

Selfishness can be defined as a concern for oneself beyond the needs of others, in fact to the exclusion of caring about others. If one was to be truly selfish, one would not need to be reminded. And the person with illness or work stress or whatever, should not feel that taking time out for self care requires a complete lack of concern for others, in fact we now know that taking time out for self care is necessary to be able to properly care for others.

But, I want to peel this onion back a bit. Why is it a form of social disease of the twenty-first century, a century that has seen a rise, some might say, in narcissistic behavior, to be unable to take care of ones self without feeling guilty? In a century when it is possible to meet most whims at the push of a button, why do we persist in needing to justify our wish for a time out? In the inner layers of this onion I find Erik Erikson.

Erikson was a psychoanalyst who is best known for postulating stages of development. Starting in infancy with trust vs. mistrust through toddlerhood (autonomy vs. shame and doubt), early childhood (initiative vs. guilt), childhood (industry vs inferiority), adolescence (identity vs. role confusion), young adulthood (intimacy vs. isolation), middle adulthood (generativity vs. stagnation) and old age (integrity vs. despair), Erikson had a theory that in each of the developmental stages we had a task to complete. Further, completion of this task was necessary to move into the next stage.

When I watch Asher and Tova play or truthfully fight, I am aware of their profound ability to advocate for themselves. They think nothing of asking for the movie they want to watch, the food they’d like to eat and the portion they’d like to share.  As parents, Michael and I take great pains to encourage sharing and moderation, but sometimes when we step back and allow them to negotiate on their own, we find that they do just fine. Of course this is a rose -colored glass I’m looking through, one which romanticizes the sweet indulgence of childhood. Sometimes we need to model appropriate social behavior, something that is best accomplished through our respectful relationship with our children.

But the fact is that self-care is intuitive for a child. Their very existence in the early stages of life depends on having their needs met. And every relationship formed beyond infancy is based upon their psychic relationship with how well they were cared for as a baby.

Looking at the stages of adulthood I begin to wonder if this reluctance to slow down and care for ourselves has something to do with our feeling that self care somehow inhibits intimacy or generativity. Our upwardly mobile, 2.5 kids, 2.5 cars, 2.5 acres mentality would have us believe that any behavior not in line with those goals is inappropriate, and therefore something we have to first suffer gravely in order to “deserve”.

I want to encourage a sea change. I think we should no longer use the phrase “you deserve to be selfish” when what we mean is “you require self care”. This will feel antithetical to some. It will feel wrong to meet our own needs or to risk asking for them to be met. Honestly, some people in our lives may not like it but that doesn’t mean we don’t need it.  I would also suggest the people who judge or protest about our own self care are usually the ones in desperate need for it themselves.

This will require a channeling of our inner child; the one who had the strength to go to sleep when he was tired, even when there was work to be done. We may want to call upon that child who asked for more food when she was hungry, without concern of what people would think of her. We call upon these children and nurture them within ourselves, because in order to get to true intimacy, and be able to be truly creative, we need to first know our needs will be met. In adulthood, that sometimes means meeting those needs for ourselves, and that is absolutely not a selfish act.