Isn't Personal Growth Just Selfish?

Screen shot 2009-11-17 at 8.10.30 AMIn reference to attending my leadership training, a client said to me, “Can’t be selfish at this time in my life.”

He’s in his mid-thirties and has been miserable for years. Not happy in his marriage, not happy as a father, not happy in his job. The guy is in a ton of pain. Recently, he had some big breakthroughs and started to get honest, admit everything above, and begin the work toward a different life.

My client’s statement is not new and one I know well. I remember when I first started working on myself–going to therapy, evolving and growing. I was going through a ton of intense shit and no one in my family and none of my old friends understood or could relate. The label they gave me? Selfish and self-absorbed.

There was even bitterness in their voice. Many said it to my face with an extremely judgmental tone.

Wow. Here I was finally taking a look at my habitual, neurotic patterns that caused me, and others a ton of suffering, that might just make me a better person, and I received zero support or validation. Ouch. It was a painful time. For a lot of you, this attitude is what you are up against.

So, I want to settle this once and for all with you confused men out there that think to work on yourself is selfish and that that is somehow a bad thing. It’s understandable why you might be confused because in our culture, we get conflicting messages about what it means to be selfish.

On the one hand, there is permissible selfishness. If you are on a plane and it is going down, you are supposed to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before your child. You can’t save someone’s life if you don’t save yourself first.

On the other hand if you rush to the front of the line, you are selfish. If you talk about yourself a lot, you are selfish. If you don’t give to charity, you are selfish. If you spend money on yourself, you are selfish.

It seems what’s valued in this culture is acting “selfless” and hiding your selfishness, even though you can be selfish much of the time. In other words, you put on your mask in social situations by being a do-gooder.

For example you might put others first, even though deep down you don’t want to put someone else first. Maybe you are judging them, irritated by them, and in your heart, you may not really care that much about them. But you put on your happy face and act polite.

My client’s attitude is not uncommon. He believes that by helping his family and co-workers (most of which he said he didn’t like) while ignoring his own needs, everything will be okay.  For example, he believed he should spend no money on himself and direct it all to his family.

Some 12-step recovery programs can have a similar attitude. The saying goes that if you are feeling shitty, just help someone else and it will help you feel better about yourself. But ask yourself if you are drowning, do you want another person who’s drowning to be helping you?

The irony here is that once your basic needs are met, the more you can spend money on yourself (I’m not talking about superficial “stuff” like fancy shoes or a new car) such as your personal and professional development as a man, the more you will be available, open, and generous in other areas of your life.

There are a few ways to look at this. Let’s come at it from 2 different angles.

The conventional, mainstream view

The conventional, mainstream view is that working on yourself is selfish. Okay, so freakin’ what? Who cares? My response to this attitude? This is what I found myself saying a few years back and trying to convince my family and friends that I was doing the right thing…

“Good. It’s about time I started giving a shit about my own happiness. If I can figure that out, perhaps I’ll be much more pleasant to be around and perhaps more effective in helping others.

You say I’m a selfish SOB because I want to work through my blocks? I’m selfish because I finally am taking a look at some unfinished business in my life that I’ve suppressed, stuffed, and avoided? I’m selfish because I know that if I work on me, I’ll be a better man, lover, and friend? Great, call me selfish then.”

In this case I had to react, push back, and rebel against someone’s else’s view of me being selfish. At the time, it felt good.

The new view–redefine the term selfish

So, in the grand scheme of things, if you honor yourself, who cares what someone else labels you? Who cares if they call you a self-centered pig? If you know in your heart, you are doing your best to be the person that you know you are capable of being that is to be celebrated!

So, practice redefining what it means to be selfish. The new view is that by turning your attention inward and liberating yourself, you can liberate others. By loving yourself fully, you can love others. By attending to the garden of your own life in an ongoing way, you can give the fruits of your hard labor away for all to relish in. By judging yourself less, you will become less judgmental toward others. And on and on. To know this is to be free of another person’s judgments about how and where you spend your time, money, and energy.

But how to I put myself first if no one supports me doing it?

  • Redefine selfishness as stated above.
  • Begin to notice and evaluate all the ways you abandon yourself and what you want because you have some idea that you are “putting others first.” Pay attention to resentments you might have as a result.
  • Have the balls to tell your loved ones why it is paramount you put more stake in YOU.
  • In other words, take full responsibility for your life and put you FIRST. Go after what you want.
  • Give yourself permission to take good care of yourself and be kind to yourself first and foremost.
  • Consider that the more you put yourself first, the more happy and fulfilled you will become.
  • Read the next post on Idiot Compassion versus True Compassion (coming in a few days).

The good news about my client? He’s more on track than ever to putting himself first and negotiating that with his family.  What about you?


  • Frank

    Reply Reply November 18, 2009

    This is a great post! I absolutely agree with this topic. I can totally relate too what your client is going through. I am a pleaser by nature and for years thought that I was MAKING myself happy by doing things for others. I was completely wrong. You must take care of yourself and what you want first and realize that their happiness is not your responsibility.

    BTW – I really enjoyed the book “Hold On To Your Nuts” by Levine. It helps with this also.


    • jayson

      Reply Reply November 19, 2009

      Thanks Frank. Yes, I have the book and dig Wayne and his work. best,

  • Davis7an

    Reply Reply November 20, 2009


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