Some people cause problems for themselves and for others by simply ‘looking out for number one’ – that is, putting themselves, first, second and last. One of the problems with this approach to life is that it contributes to a vicious circle. The more self-centred people are, the more they contribute to other people feeling shunned, disregarded and even disrespected. While being treated like that may spur some people to be even more considerate to, and supportive of, others to counterbalance the negative experience they have had, that is not always the result. For many people there is a danger that other people’s selfishness and the negative consequences it brings lead them to withdraw into themselves, to adopt the attitude of: ‘Well, if other people are not going to consider my needs, why should I consider theirs? This is an example of a ‘category error’. ‘They’ becomes extended from ‘selfish, inconsiderate people’ (‘they’ don’t consider my needs’) to all people (so I will not consider ‘their’ needs). A specific category (selfish people) has now been extended to include people in general.
However, referring to this as a category error gives the impression that it is a rational matter, an error in thinking. In reality, though, it is more of an emotional response. It is more about feelings than thoughts. Being self-centred can be seen as a form of emotional protection: if I don’t get involved in other people’s concerns, they can’t hurt me. This is similar to the emotional ‘thick skin’ that people develop when they become burnt out, when they shut themselves off emotionally.
The other side of the coin, though, is when people are not self-centred enough, when they neglect their own needs – perhaps because they are anxious about being seen as selfish or inconsiderate. The technical term for this is being ‘other directed’ – that is, you focus first and foremost on other people’s needs. While in many ways this is a noble and positive thing to do, it is not without risks.
If we put other people’s needs first and last, we may end up neglecting our own needs. History is full of examples of people who created major problems for themselves (and for others) by not ensuring that their own needs were met. For example, I have met parents who have made themselves ill by sacrificing their own needs for the needs of their children – but their children then suffer as a result of one of both of their parents being ill.
What it boils down to, then, is that you will be ill-equipped to help others meet their needs if you are not attending to your own needs. I had a colleague once who gave up her job because she could no longer sustain the pressure of addressing other people’s needs while paying no attention to her own. The longer she remained in the job, the more convinced she was that she was heading for a ‘breakdown’. In addition, when I was a manager I had to work closely with one team member to make sure that she did not burn out because she had developed a dangerous habit of ignoring her own needs.
Looking after yourself is not about being selfish. Being selfish is a matter of focusing on your own needs at the expense of other people’s needs; looking after yourself is about making sure that you are in a strong, safe and healthy position to help others. The two things are entirely different, so we need to make sure that we are not falling into the (sadly all-too-common) trap of shying away from our own needs because we are falsely equating focusing on our own needs with being selfish. At times the price we can pay for making this mistake can be very high indeed.