Selfishness is not something to which we are taught to aspire. It’s not quite up there with murder, adultery and coveting thy neighbour’s wife, but if there was an eleventh commandment or an eighth deadly sin, I’m pretty sure it would feature.
As we grow up we are rightly told about the virtue of helping people, doing a good turn and treating others as we wished to be treated. Added to that the guilt and brain-wash indoctrination of forced humility and modesty that those of us brought up inside the Catholic Church were afforded and you have a powerful combination. The message was clear; being selfish is not just bad but wicked. A sin. Something to be ashamed of.
But over the last few years – the years of my breakdown, recovery and ongoing, day to day effort at keeping me head above water – I have learnt to question this teaching. Incidentally, this is not the first time that something handed down to me from the Vatican in my younger days has not aged well as I have clocked up more miles. But this is not a post taking aim at the Church and its creeds but instead a realisation as the penny around my mental health dropped so too did the belief that being selfish – putting yourself first – can be an essential part of staying well.
I am not advocating the abandonment of responsibilities or commitments that we each have; nor am I saying that you are the sun and everything should revolve around you. But I am advocating a more questioning approach to life and the choices that we all make on how we spend our time – not simply doing things that are expected of us or that we have always done.
Like many people who suffer from anxiety and depression, I have struggled my whole life to relax; to switch off; to take it easy. I have always felt guilty about taking time out to do nothing and focused instead on all the things I could and should be doing with this time. I always seen that downtime as a) self indulgent and selfish and b) hard to enjoy. In truth I never enjoyed it because I was so racked with guilt about it and I didn’t really know how to do it properly. It was actually mores stressful than following my normal routines as I spent the whole time mentally beating myself up.
That has changed. It has changed partly by necessity. Since my breakdown I find that I need more rest and that I do need the occasional Saturday or Sunday afternoon nap to recharge my failing batteries or a few minutes of quiet sitting just to settle myself or to fight off or deal with an impending panic attack. It has partly changed too by design. I have worked really hard – that sounds like an oxymoron – at relaxing. It was a lot harder than I thought. But I have been retraining myself. This training is ongoing as I still feel I have a long way to go to reach David Cameron levels of “chillaxing”. I want to be able to unwind easily and quickly to help replenish myself with some simple techniques and activities.
Now some people would see my ideas of relaxing as far from it but there in lies the trick – relaxing is in the eye of the beholder. My idea of relaxation (golf, writing this blog, doing the cryptic crossword, reading books about counselling and pyschiatry, supporting LFC and the Boston Red Sox, reading a daily newspaper, running, listening to Puccini and working my way through Delia Smith’s complete cookbook) may be your idea of hell – and yours may be mine. But that’s ok. I have learnt the importance of being clear what are those things that replenish you – that help you settle yourself and be the best version of yourself – and then make time – really, proper, detailed, dedicated time for them.
This last part is often the hardest of all. Although some of the people I know, either as colleagues, friends or in my coaching role with them, can take some time in working out what they actually enjoy doing so immersed are they in work and other commitments.
Ultimately the secret to success at replenishing yourself – which in turn helps you to build up your resilience and your mental health – is making the time to do it. This is where choices are needed and some selfishness is required. You cannot be all things to all people; you cannot please all the people all the time. You must – in my view – start by pleasing yourself. This means putting your own health and wellbeing above just agreeing to do stuff and go to places because others want and expect it of you. There’s a good chance that they won’t even miss you at that party you skip, that catch up you swerve or that family meal you pass on.
I was something of a people pleaser in the past, feeling pressured into doing stuff I didn’t really want to do to avoid the awkwardness of saying no. Not any more. I now put my own wellbeing first; thinking about the rest I need; avoiding travel I don’t want to undertake; seeking out the quiet, me time that deep down is what I really want to be doing.
Today, I went to Lytham (pictured) with Dr J, Miss J and Mrs J Senior. If the truth be told I could have happily passed on the trip – this has been a very tough week and I am feeling tired and more than a little stressed – but I really wanted to spend time with these three generations of wonderful women. But I was able to make it work but finding an hour of just me time – on my own in my favourite cafe in the town – to sit and write this blog and have time that was all about me.
Was it selfish of me? Most probably. But was it necessary? Definitely. Do I feel guilty? Not a bit of it. I am already feeling the benefit this afternoon of making that time to help replenish myself. I feel a little better already and am now looking forward to going for a run listening to LFC on the radio later. It’s these small, simple things that makes the difference for me. But to make them count, I know that I’ve got to make the time. In hindsight perhaps that should be the final commandment; thou shalt make time for me. I would say “Amen” to that.