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When Being 'Selfish' Is a Good Thing

You can’t fully love others until you learn to take care of yourself

posted by Suzanne Braun Levine, January 19, 2013 More by this author

A woman treating herself to a day in the mountains to be self-full.

Suzanne Braun Levine was the first editor of Ms. magazine. She is the author of several books about women in Second Adulthood, including Inventing the Rest of Our Lives, Fifty Is the New Fifty and, most recently How We Love Now.


A woman treating herself to a day in the mountains to be self-full.
Noel Hendrickson/Photodisc/Thinkstock
The surest way to get a woman to back off from a position she is taking or a demand she is making is to call her selfish. My typical response has been to defend myself and explain that I didn’t mean to be, and soon I am lost in that discussion rather than the original one.

My reaction is, I think, not unusual. Women like me dissolve in shame at the suggestion that we are putting ourselves first — at the expense, the implication is, of those who are counting on us.

Until recently we’ve bought into the assumption that what nature intended is a woman who nurtures, supports, understands, lends a hand and is selfless in her devotion to those she loves. “Selfless” is an interesting word — as in having no self. 

As we grow up in our 50s, 60s and 70s, though, we are headed in the opposite direction: toward becoming self-full. We are learning to listen to our needs and instincts and assert them, letting the chips fall where they may. “One tough broad” is beginning to sound like a compliment.
 
This is all part of the reinvention process of moving past the roles of daughter, mother, employee and wife and into a new stage of life where self-expression and self-fulfillment are the priorities. It isn’t easy, and it is very distressing to discard the scripts we have been reading from for so long and write our own.

But we and our friends are proving to one another that when we go off the reservation, we feel free to claim more self-caring behaviors that are good for our emotional and physical well-being — and, let’s admit it, are more fun.
 
An important breakthrough comes when we learn to defuse that empowering and intimidating word “no.” Until now, it has carried the stigma of a four-letter word; as if merely uttering the word were a hostile act — a selfish act.

But as we learn that even menopause can’t keep us down, we find ourselves strong enough to take risks and confront our fears. Everywhere I go, I meet women who tell me how surprised — and delighted — they were to hear themselves blurt out: “You know what? I don’t care what people think anymore!”
 
(MORE: Why Even Strong Women Sometimes Have a Hard Time Saying No)
 
After a lifetime of pleasing, accommodating and soothing others, this is a declaration of war: war on all the limitations that have accumulated around growing up female in the middle of the last century. “No, I don’t want to do that.” “No, I don’t want to go there.” “No, I don’t like what you said.” “No, I don’t have to give up my self for love.” As one woman told me, after years of thankless generosity to her grown sister, “I just stopped being a ‘giving tree.’” 
 
Part of this rebellion may stem from caregiving burn-out, but most of the women I talk to are still caring and giving — especially to aging parents — but they are taking a (selfish) breath before saying yes to every demand; they are learning to distinguish real needs from mere “wants.”
 
People who know us may at first be startled by what appears to be a one-woman insurrection. Then they get scared. They worry that if we are claiming our own emotional, intellectual and personal authority, there will be no room in our hearts for them. What they don’t understand initially is that authenticity is the baseline for real love and caring, and that a heartfelt “no” is the first step toward a truly affirmative “yes,” regardless of the nature of the relationship.
 
Self-fullness is that yes. As one woman put it, “When I say ‘I don’t care what people think any more,’ it’s not that I don’t care at all what they think. Of course I do. It’s just that now I care more what I think.”

This does not mean putting yourself first all the time — just adding yourself to your to-do list, right up there with your other priorities. It means following a new golden rule: “Do unto yourself as you have been doing unto others.”
 
(MORE: Midlife Crisis — or Power Surge?

Once you begin engaging with your self, you discover how much there is to get to know and how much exploring still lies ahead. It takes time and some risk-taking, such as embarrassing yourself by forming a rock band, as one friend of mine did, or allowing others to be “disappointed” in you when you turn them down or suggest another approach that feels more appropriate to you.
 
With every experiment, with every confident no and yes, you are filling yourself up — becoming self-full — with the strength, authority, compassion and joy of a person who will never be selfless again.
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