What Is the Difference Between Practising Self-Care and Being Selfish?
By Bradley Hambrick
This question seems like it should be easier to answer than it is. Actually, for many Christians, it is exceedingly difficult to answer and the source of significant debate. Internally, we often feel guilty to practising good self-care. In conversation, we often have a hard time differentiating self-care from selfishness.
In order to engage with this question, I will offer three metaphors and then seek to extrapolate three summary principles.
Metaphor One: Oil Change
Nobody assumes that getting the oil change for your vehicle is selfish. Yes, it costs money and takes time. But it is universally seen as good stewardship of a larger investment–namely the vehicle. Actually, someone who neglects getting their oil changed is seen as foolish and lazy.
Oil changes and comparable maintenance result in the vehicle lasting longer and serving its purpose better. If we see our physical and emotional health as commodities to be stewarded, then the self-care parallels for this metaphor are strong and plentiful.
Metaphor Two: Airplane Instructions
If you’ve flown, you’ve heard a flight attendant say, “Put the oxygen mask over your face before putting it on your travel companion.” Initially, the thought of putting the mask on our face before our child seems selfish. But we realise doing so preserves our capacity to be available to care for the child during the potential adverse circumstance.
With this metaphor, we experience the same emotional angst we often experience with the self-care question. We realise that the choices being made are not made in an idealised bubble. They are choices made in a context where life is hard, and we are finite. We don’t get the luxury of making choices in a perfect world with unlimited resources. We make choices in a broken world with finite resources (i.e., energy, time, money, aptitudes, etc.).
Metaphor Three: Enjoying Art
Art is something that could easily be portrayed as wasteful, but rarely is. Music, painting, poetry, and other forms of artistic expression are viewed as valuable. Learning to appreciate these forms of art is seen as improving oneself. Creating these forms of art is seen as being a good steward of one’s ability.
Why is going to a symphony seen as valuable, but a parent seizing the relatively rare opportunity to take an afternoon nap is often viewed as selfish? I believe the answer is that the arts are more naturally seen to expand our capacities while a nap’s ability to restore cognitive functioning and enhance emotional regulation is not.
After thinking through these metaphors, let’s articulate a few summary principles.
Self-care, like an oil change, increases the longevity of our ability to love God and love others.
Self-care, like airplane instructions, increases our availability to love God and love others.
Self-care, like enjoying art, increases the capacities with which we can love God and love others.
In these ways, good self-care is the opposite of selfish. Just because an activity is personally beneficial and enjoyable does not mean it's selfish. Common self-care practices (i.e., resting, eating favourite meal, engaging a hobby, time with a friend, etc.) are enjoyable and beneficial.
By contrast, selfishness is more about motive than action.
Selfishness does not care about the longevity, availability, or capacity to love God and love others.
Selfishness focuses on the optimal enjoyment of one’s own life to the neglect of loving God and others.
Do these principles resolve all our question? No. Because we live in different situations with different resources and abilities, we will answer the question about self-care differently. There can be no universal rule about when self-care becomes selfish any more than there can be a universal rule about how many minutes a 6th grader should study for a math test.
But there is a theological point that needs more attention if we are going to engage this question well; namely that we are embodied souls. Our bodies have a strong influence over our souls. When we neglect our bodies, it becomes more difficult to express the virtues our Christian souls want to express. Jesus acknowledged as much when we said to his sleepy disciples, “Your spirit is willing, but your flesh is weak (Matt. 26:41).”
Hopefully, you have begun to realise that the better question is not “What’s the difference between self-care and being selfish?”, but “Where’s the line between the two? When does wise self-care become excessive and begin to become selfish?” This is how we think about most virtues. When are we so honest we become rude? When are we so generous we become frivolous? When are we so frugal we become greedy? When are we so compassionate we become gullible?
Again, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to these questions. Answering these questions requires self-awareness and situational wisdom. My hope is that, with the three metaphors and principles provided, your freedom of conscience to practise good self-care grows and your discernment about when self-care is being prioritised in unhealthy ways also grows.
We grow in wise-balanced self-care the same way we grow in being humbly honest, wisely generous, or compassionate-with-discernment… a bit at a time and little more with each passing month. If this reflection has given you a few tools to take the next step in that growth process, it has done all it was intended to do.
Brad serves as the Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, NC. He also serves as Assistant Professor of Biblical Counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a council member of the Biblical Counseling Coalition, has authored several books including God’s Attributes: Rest for Life’s Struggles, and served as general editor for the Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused (churchcares.com) project.
This article was first published on the author's blog here. Republished with permission.