Updated: Oct 13, 2019
By Lindsay Aldrich
If you have ever flown on an airplane, you may have heard this statement during a pre-flight safety demonstration:
“If cabin pressure should change, panels above your seat will open revealing oxygen masks …
Secure your own mask first before helping others.”
Have you ever wondered when the act of doing something for yourself becomes selfish as opposed to self-care? In situations such as securing your own oxygen mask first, scheduling some alone time, or splurging on a spa day, it may seem difficult to draw the line between acting selfishly or engaging in self-care.
Let’s begin by looking at the definitions. “Self-care” can be broadly defined as “taking an active role in one's own happiness,” while being “selfish” can be defined as “concerned with one's own personal pleasure” (Lexico, 2019). At a glance, these two descriptions do not seem all that different, but they do have very different interpretations in our society. According to a scientific study on personality traits, selfishness was ranked the second least desirable trait out of sixty options (Todosijević, 2003). On the other hand, the World Health Organization recognizes self-care as one of the most important practices one can follow (WHO, 2019). While the definitions of selfish and self-care seem to imply that these two ideas are nearly identical (and their interpretations seem to imply that they are almost opposite) the reality is that self-care is actually in the middle of selfish and selfless.
Scientists have long been studying whether humans are naturally more selfish or selfless for decades. Darwinian evolution and its “survival of the fittest” narrative seems to reflect characteristics of selfishness, wherein competition among organisms for limited resources results in the success of one individual at the cost to another (Page, 2008). However, there are plenty of instances in evolution where organisms will be selfless at times as well. For example: honey bees will sacrifice themselves by stinging predators, a lethal act, to protect their hive; monkeys will emit a warning call, revealing themselves as targets, to alert their group of danger; and penguins will volunteer one member to jump into a body of water first, risking themselves, to test it’s safety for their group (Nectunt Mores Hominum, 2019). The truth is, like with many things, moderation is key!
Self-care is being selfish and caring for oneself, with the contingency that one will then be able to be selfless and care for others as well. You will often hear self-care described as the need for one to care for themselves in order to better able to care for others. Therefore, looking back at our airplane example: selfish would be putting on one’s oxygen mask first to then sit back and relax, while self-care would be putting on one’s oxygen mask first to ensure their prolonged ability to then help others - hence the “before helping others” part of the statement.
The ideology of self-care has been around for decades, and was largely popularized through its use by Black women’s rights activists. Without being able to rely on the support systems set in place by the government, Black women often had to rely on themselves and their community’s selflessness to overcome the impacts of the discrimination they faced. Audre Lorde, an influential civil rights and feminist activist once perfectly described this as: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” (Boyle, 2019). Unfortunately, this history partially contributes to the negative connotation that can sometimes surround the practice of self-care. This politicalization of self-care, as it is often used by women to counter their ascribed position as unlimited caregivers, can lead to social backlash (Zalis, 2017). In addition, our capitalistic economy has since rebranded self-care to market products towards women such as bath bombs, smoothies, and anything to do with “treating yourself” (Laurence, 2017). This oversimplification and commoditization of self-care can also lead to a negative connotation. Studies have found that the majority of consumers are generally distrustful and avoidant of the messages that corporations advertise, potentially leading to individuals writing-off the concept of self-care entirely (Edelman, 2019).
Despite the negative connotations that self-care can sometimes receive, science has supported its enormous importance in our everyday lives. Whether it be scheduling alone time or seeking out discussion groups, practicing meditation or getting involved in the community, splurging on a face mask or giving a friend a gift, self-care is all about remembering to take care of yourself however you best see fit while continuing to be the caring person you already are.
Boyle, S. (2019). Remembering the Origins of the Self-Care Movement. Retrieved from https://bust.com/feminism/194895-history-of-self-care-movement.html.
Edelman. (2019). 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: In Brands We Trust? 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: In Brands We Trust? Retrieved from https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2019-07/2019_edelman_trust_barometer_special_report_in_brands_we_trust.pdf
Laurence, E. (2017, October 29). Is self-care getting too selfish? Retrieved from https://www.wellandgood.com/good-advice/plus-factor-is-self-care-selfish/slide/3/.
Lexico. (2019). Self-Care: Definition of Self-Care by Lexico. Retrieved from https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/self-care.
Lexico. (2019). Selfish: Definition of Selfish by Lexico. Retrieved from https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/selfish.
Nectunt Mores Hominum. (2019). Altruism and Selfishness in Animals. Retrieved from http://nectunt.bifi.es/to-learn-more-overview/altruism/.
Page, M. L. (2008, April 16). Evolution myths: 'Survival of the fittest' justifies 'everyone for themselves'. Retrieved from https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn13671-evolution-myths-survival-of-the-fittest-justifies-everyone-for-themselves/.
Todosijević, B., Ljubinković, S., & Arančić, A. (2003). Mate Selection Criteria: A Trait Desirability Assessment Study of Sex Differences in Serbia. Evolutionary Psychology, 1(1), 147470490300100. doi: 10.1177/147470490300100108
WHO - World Health Organization. (2019, January 31). Implications of self-care for health service provision. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/97/2/18-228890/en/.
Zalis, S. (2017, November 7). Why Self Care Isn't Selfish: Equality Starts With Taking Care Of Yourself. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/shelleyzalis/2017/04/18/why-self-care-isnt-selfish-equality-starts-with-taking-care-of-yourself/#69e5f8f662fd.