Self-love is not selfish

As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, March 3, 2005

Women are nurturers and proud of it.  Selflessness is often central in our determining whether we are worthwhile people.  This value has influence in the lives of even the most ardent career women (if only as an anti-role) because it is so culturally prevalent.

Being nurturing is soft and warm and wonderful… unless it defines you.  Then you are at risk for reducing yourself to no more than a function for others.  You ignore your own needs and wants, thus depriving your mind, body, and spirit.  If you do try to take care of yourself, you are weighed down by feelings of selfishness.  The result is that you feel drained from the guilt of being selfish or from the exhaustion of trying to do it all.

To become an emotionally healthy woman, you must learn to love, respect and value yourself. This requires that you accept some of the following realities, rather than the myths, of womanhood.

Myth:  You are primarily valuable as a nurturer.

Reality: You are valuable because you are you.  Overemphasizing the role as a nurturer erodes your self-esteem because you believe your value lies solely in caring for others.

Myth: You must always be available to support others in all the ways they need support.

Reality: You have limits to how much or in what ways you can support others.  Constantly overriding your needs and wants inevitably leads you to feel unimportant.  This kind of thinking often leads to poor health; you are likely to forgo proper eating, sleeping, and self-care.

Myth: You are a bad friend or family member if you burden others with your problems.

Reality: We all need the support of others at least sometimes, so this myth leads to feeling alone and maybe even depressed.

Myth: You may attend to your own needs if it does not interfere with attending to others (especially your children). — If you take time to attend to your own needs, then there is someone who, or something that, is not receiving your attention.

Reality: You must attend to yourself in order to have the reserves to give to others.  We all need to be nurtured (with food, sleep, social support, etc) so that we have the strength to care for others.  If you have children, it is healthy to make them a priority, but you still need to be nurtured to care properly for them.  Also, when left to their own devices at developmentally appropriate times, your children will benefit from learning to develop their own strengths.

Myth: You must have done something wrong if someone is hurt by your words or actions.

Reality: You may be sympathetic to someone else’s painful feelings and still be ok with your actions. (Feeling “bad” for someone or being sympathetic does not mean you are guilty of doing something wrong.)

These myths of womanhood have a strong hold on us and can be quite destructive.  Once you allow yourself to let go of them and grasp onto the realities, then you can have greater emotional health by allowing yourself to learn to:

  • Know what is nurturing for you.
  • Accept nurturing from yourself and others.
  • Be able to prioritize and accept limitations.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ