The word "selfish" has a bad rap.

I get it. Being "concerned chiefly or only with yourself" seems like kind of a jerky thing to do, but is that always the case? I don't think so. The "Screw you, suckers!" variety of selfishness deserves it's critics, but what about the kind of selfishness that simply means you're taking care of yourself?

I dove into this with a client the other day. She was reluctant to take some much needed vacation time at work. She felt greedy, guilty, selfish about taking time off when her colleagues would have to cover her workload while she was gone.

"You mean the way you did for them when they were on vacation?" I asked.

We talked about feeling bad for simply claiming what was rightfully hers and the word "selfish" kept coming up. This word often comes up with many of my clients who struggle to balance work with self care, and are dangerously close to burning out. So I asked the question, What's so wrong with being selfish, anyway? With putting yourself first? 

What's wrong with taking your vacation time? What's wrong with not being the last one to leave the office every night? What's wrong with not picking up the slack for your colleagues?

               I'll feel bad.

               I'll feel guilty.

               I'll feel greedy.

               It's selfish.

               These are the typical responses.


What do you think is going to happen if you put yourself first?

It might seem selfish.


Somebody might not like it.


Somebody might not like me.


The fear of being perceived as selfish is often really about the fear of not being liked. It's approval-seeking. So you work hard to make sure you don't ruffle any feathers or make waves. You're careful not so step on any toes, which seems really nice, but it's not altruistic, it's self-defense against disapproval.

Except that kind of passive self-defense doesn't work very well because you never actually get what you want. Everybody likes you because everybody gets their way. You're easy, accommodating...likeable. So there you are, as likeable as the month of May, with your finger perpetually stuck in the hole in the office dam, gritting your teeth through your forced smile and waving at passers by.

I get wanting to be liked at work. I get wanting to look good, like you have it all together and you're dependable and you'll happily take one for the team. But how can you expect to get what you want (and deserve) unless you sand up and ask for it, unless you're a little selfish?

It's like we're always waiting for permission, to finally get what we deserve, our recognition, our reward, our day in the sun. But the truth is sometimes that day only comes because you grab it and make it happen. You claim it.

Being a little selfish isn't just good for you; it's also good for the rest of your team. A work culture where people push themselves to the limit until they burn out isn't  sustainable. Not even close. The people who work for you are watching you. They're afraid to go home on time or to take their vacation time because your actions send a message. Your actions say, this is what's required. Be careful there. Do that for long enough and you'll have a whole team that is burning out, getting sick, quitting, or zoning out like zombies at their desks.

It's time to take your finger out of the dam and put yourself first. Get a little selfish. You need it, and so does your team.