It’s Ok to be Selfish…

Self-care is commonly referred to in relation to looking after mental health and wellbeing and is often mis-understood. I have heard it described as being indulgent or selfish, putting personal needs above those of others and as a practise for people who want to spend time alone.

Broadly speaking, self-care is about looking after yourself and it seems like common sense and pretty straight forward doesn’t it? 

Human behaviour tells us time and time again that common sense is not so common. There are many examples of seemingly obvious choices that would benefit our health and wellbeing, for example eating less junk food, exercising more frequently and yet we don’t do it. We have looked at why this happens in What is Stopping you from Starting? 

Self-care is another classic knowing-doing gap (see Turn Your Plan into Action for more on this). On a basic level it makes perfect sense and not many people would disagree – and yet we don’t always think this applies to us. 

This article will help by:

  • Improving awareness of what self-care is and what it isn’t
  • Challenging thinking about your current self-care approach
  • Sharing practical Top Tips on how you can broaden your range of self-care resources and practise it more of the time.

Let’s start with one of our favourite stories…

Put your own oxygen mask on first

Cartoon picture of a woman and child sitting in airplane seats, the woman with an oxygen mask on and putting an oxygen mask on the child.
Put your oxygen mask on first before helping others

In the safety briefing before take-off the flight attendant explains that if the cabin loses pressure, oxygen masks will automatically appear from above the seat. They demonstrate how to attach the mask so it fits securely and finish with the instruction to always put your own oxygen mask on before trying to help others

Why? Because if you can’t breath properly you are not going to be at your best, which means you are less likely to be able to function well… in anything.

What does self-care really mean?

Using the oxygen mask metaphor, self-care is not about being selfish, it is about prioritising what is essential to keep you fit and healthy, physically and mentally.

We think describing self-care as selfish or indulgent is a blinkered view. Self-care is not always about pampering or expensive treats, despite the marketing persons’ best efforts to extol the virtues of a new cosmetic range and spa treatments.

In fact, I experienced a Spa day with my daughter (pre-lockdown of course) and whilst the experience was pleasurable, it was no more beneficial for my mental health and wellbeing than a more recent social-distance walk we enjoyed with the dogs. We didn’t have to spend any money, we spent time with each other, sometimes talking, sometimes in silence, and we laughed – a lot. Particularly when I had to fish Pepper (our youngest, maddest hound) out of the canal after she jumped in for a swim and then realised the canal bank was too high to climb back out. That’s a springer/labrador cross for you!

Don’t get me wrong, a Spa Day might feature as a special treat in a self-care plan at some point. It is a nice experience. Defining self-care can be tricky as it means different things to different people and depends on the situation. Self-care means:

  • Eating well and having time to enjoy what you are eating rather than grabbing a sandwich and eating on the run.
  • Exercising well and doing the exercise you enjoy, whatever that may be.  This includes trying a new class or exploring a new place to walk.
  • Taking time to get your eyes checked and update your glasses, going to the cinema and meeting with friends. 

It is not always about being alone and reflecting or spending copious amounts of time on yourself. It might include some of this, it isn’t just this. 

It is as much about giving yourself permission to think about yourself and what you might need as it is about what you do. What you need to take care of your wellbeing, enjoy yourself and have fun, just for the sake of it.

4 bubbles with be yourself, accept yourself, value yourself and forgive yourself written in them
Practise self-compassion

So, in essence self-care is about self-compassion, and is whatever you need it to be at the time, to look after yourself and feel good. And remember, if you are unwell or stressed, you are less likely to be able to help others. 

There is of course a balance. Self-care is not about putting your needs above others and it shouldn’t be at the cost of someone else. It does mean you value you and what you need as highly as that of others. It might mean that time available for others is not always immediate, and that is ok. It is not about being perfect. Remember the oxygen mask.

Why is practising self-care difficult?

There are a number of reasons this can be true, the most common being lack of time. It is easy to blame not having enough time in the busyness of our lives. Although, in this time of lockdown, for some, time is less busy with less demands on it. A luxury that can open up lots of possibilities. 

At Eat, Move, Be Happy we think self-care is more about mindset, how you think about self-care, how you define it and how much value you place on your own wellbeing, or, your level of self-compassion. Brene Brown, researcher, professor and author, talks about compassion and people’s ability to empathise starting with how kind they are to themselves. Her research describes being kind to yourself as accepting personal vulnerability without shame.

This means accepting that sometimes you will feel angry, frustrated, fearful and acknowledging those emotions as human and moving on. Without beating yourself up. It also means accepting you are not perfect and that you will sometimes make mistakes. Another human trait and yet how often do you tell yourself, “I should have known… I should have done… Why didn’t I think/do …”. 

Typically we are brought up to be selfless and think of others before ourselves. In its extreme this can mean self-compassion gets forgotten. How often do you think about others before you think about what you might need? This is particularly true if you are caring for others for example, children, parents, partners, colleagues. It is easy to lose sight of self-compassion then for example:

  • Miss your lunch break to squeeze in an extra meeting with a colleague who has asked for help.
  • Cancel a night out with friends to visit elderly parents who can’t get their TV to work properly.
  • Miss your exercise class to read your children a bed-time story because they asked you to.

Remember, for true self-care there is a balance. Sometimes it might be right to choose to do those things… as long as it isn’t everytime and at the cost of your health and wellbeing.



  1. How do you define your self-care? 
  2. How are you kind to yourself?
  3. How can you improve your self-care?

Some simple Top Tips to improve your self-care:

  1. Be kind to yourself – talk to yourself like you talk to your friends. 
  2. Practise mindfulness – 10 minutes a day has proven to benefit mental wellbeing. Practising some time is better than none! (More on mindfulness and how to practise it coming soon).
  3. Do something each day that brings a smile – for you and others.
  4. Think about your strengths and how you add value – write them down.
  5. Take time to relax and appreciate yourself at the end of the day – even if this is when cleaning your teeth.

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