How to Practice Self-Care Without Being Selfish

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The National Center for Biotechnology Information says that only 6.6 percent of Americans with health conditions ages 25 and older practice self-care on a daily basis. This alarming statistic is a reminder that many people who live with health conditions don’t put self-care first. When this is not a priority, it can make any condition worse and make it much harder to enjoy life. “Self-care is crucial,” says Krystal Reddick in her article “Self-Care as Revolutionary Action.” “It is critical for your mental and physical health. And it is critical for stress management.”

As a person in recovery from mental health challenges, I am working each day to make sure that self-care is one of my top priorities. Every so often, I wonder if focusing so much on self-care may be selfish, and I am not alone. As a mental health advocate, I have learned that many people who live with mental health challenges don’t prioritize self-care, because they believe that doing so is selfish.

When I don’t practice self-care, my depression, anger, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder take complete control of my life. In my recovery, I’ve had to work hard to overcome the guilt I sometimes feel when I began putting self-care first. It's taken me time to learn to do this unapologetically.

It’s important that, together, we make it a social habit to put self-care first.

In an email interview with HealthCentral, mental health professional Leslie Bennett says: "Self-care is foundational to our mental health recovery and living a life you love. If you are having feelings of selfishness and guilt when it comes to taking self-care actions, I believe there are seven ways to combat those feelings. The most important element is that you have now noticed something about yourself and how you are feeling, and now you have the choice to do something about it. Just by this acknowledgment, you are on your way to feeling less selfish."

Here are the seven tips that Leslie suggests we consider in order to feel less selfish about self-care:

  1. Reframe the feeling: Guilt is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, it can show us where we are out of alignment with our values. It can thus get us into action. Think of it like a yellow highlighter — guilt highlights what we know we need to do for ourselves. Once you highlight it, take action!

  2. Try to ignore the pangs of guilt. These are just your default behavior, that is, your unconscious, or as some people call it, “your machinery.” Its sole purpose is to have you survive life rather than thrive in your life.

  3. If you know feelings of guilt and selfishness exist, try taking one small action. If self-care is new to you and uncomfortable, taking one action a day or week will ease you into it slowly.

  4. In those moments when you feel guilty, check in with yourself and ask why. By reflecting, you will be engaging in self-care. My preference is to journal about it. Keep asking yourself the question, why do I feel this way? Write as much as you can and don’t edit yourself.

  1. Work with a professional to learn why you are feeling selfish or guilty and how to practice self-care.

  2. The people I work with seem to thrive in their self-care when they have a structure around it. Being accountable to someone other than yourself for your self-care will provide the support required for taking action, even if feelings of guilt and selfishness are present.

  3. No matter where you are with your self-care, be compassionate with yourself. You only have one you.

Once you begin to embrace this idea of prioritizing self-care, you will more than likely feel some resistance from yourself and from others. So, what do you do if someone in your life makes you feel bad about putting self-care first? What if this hurts their feelings? And most importantly, where do you find the time for self-care?

The answer to all of these questions is the same: boundaries. Henry Cloud, M.D., and John Townsend, M.D., write that “boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom.” Their book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No can teach you more on the topic. Learning to be clear and consistent with your boundaries will go a long way toward helping you prioritize self-care.

Changing how you approach self-care is a necessary step in your recovery. It’s important that you start to believe that your self-care is one of the greatest gifts that you can give both yourself and others in your life.

See more helpful articles:

7 Suggestions for Caregivers’ Self-care


Mike Veny is one of America’s leading mental health speakers and a high energy corporate drumming event facilitator. He delivers educational, engaging, and entertaining presentations to meetings and conferences throughout the world. Mike is fiercely committed to wellness, suicide prevention, and helping people work together more smoothly. Mental Illness is An Asset, his compelling TEDx talk, has been used in college classrooms and received sensational reviews.