Being called selfish is one of the most cutting insults you can receive. How many of us have been accused of selfishness by our parents when we were teenagers? Maybe our partner during an argument? Even our friends? But what if selfishness wasn’t such a bad thing?

In the constant rat run of people-pleasing and never-ending social and work plans, have we lost sight of the importance of, at least occasionally, putting ourselves first?

“We need to make sure we’re meeting our own needs and not compromising our own mental wellbeing for that of others,” says Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic.

“Putting ourselves first doesn’t mean shutting yourself off and only looking out for number one – on the contrary, it is about managing the expectations of others while never losing sight of what really matters to you.

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“Ultimately, overgiving does no one any favours; it can only lead to imbalance and resentment. As the saying goes, ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup.’”

When we look at selfishness through another lens, a different picture emerges – one that helps us to have a healthy respect for our own health, happiness and freedom.

Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman labelled this form of self-prioritisation “healthy selfishness”, which he claimed could have a “positive effect both on the self and others”.

Sounds pretty idyllic, doesn’t it? So for one week I decided to take on the challenge of being “healthily selfish” to see how it affected my work, social life and mental wellbeing.

I have to admit that, as an avid and dedicated people-pleaser, I struggled with the thought of putting myself first. I’m the person who turns up at a party I don’t want to be at and then stays until the end because I feel bad for leaving early, and I very rarely say no to things.

Emily Cope enjoing a week of being selfish Image supplied via Emily
Ditching babysitting plans to spend time with my friends was a welcome relief

That’s not to say I’m a saint – I have many flaws – but I’d like to think I’m a fairly selfless person, most especially with my time. If someone needs me to help them move house, I’m there; if someone asks for help painting their new nursery, I’m there; and if a friend needs a shoulder to cry on over a drink, I’ll be there with a cocktail in hand, even if I had vowed to have an alcohol-free weekend.

It can be exhausting. My social battery is currently running on near-empty and squeezing in quality time with my husband is a never-ending game of Tetris. So I knew the week ahead was certainly going to be a challenge, but quite how eye-opening, I had no idea.

Cancelling plans

First, I had to set boundaries that helped me to define and refocus on my own needs and projects. That may sound fun, but when you have a full social calendar, it’s hard to make any space, and I was forced to start the week by cancelling dinner with friends.

Just the thought of messaging them to say I couldn’t make it gave me anxiety, but after explaining that I was exhausted from the weekend and needed to sort some life admin, they were incredibly understanding. It was a welcome relief to the annoyance I’d been imagining.

Day two started well, too. I had no evening plans and hoped to have a mini spa night to myself. Thankfully, no one suggested impromptu plans, but the main obstacle came from a friend asking whether I could make a cake for her charity bake sale the next day.

Usually I would say yes but, attempting to stick to my boundaries, I politely declined and promised I would donate money instead. The reply? “OK” – which as every millennial knows is code for: “It’s definitely not OK and I’m livid with you.” I was a little taken aback, given I’m always happy to give my time to others, but I surmised that she was under a lot of pressure to raise money and tried not to take it personally.

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My next challenge came that very evening when my husband, Chris, was snoring next to me in bed. I hate snorers and most of the time I grin and bear it, but not today. Giving him a good shove, I asked if he could go and sleep in the spare room. I felt guilty watching him trundle off with a pillow and blanket, but I woke up the next morning refreshed from the best night’s sleep I’ve had in a long time.

The following day, I decided to do an early morning workout in my flat – even though I’m often worried about what the neighbours might say – and then took a day away from my phone. WhatsApp demands a lot of my time (I’d need a PA to reply to all my messages) and I spent the entire morning with my fingers twitching, wondering what messages I’d missed out on and if any were important.

By the end of the day I was still aching to be on my phone, but taking in my surroundings as I walked to the Tube was a delight. Usually I’m head down on my phone, replying to friends and family the entire way home, but I spent my evening commute reading a book and then went out for dinner with Chris. It was incredibly refreshing not to have my headspace taken up by so many questions and invitations from other people, and to focus on myself and Chris for one night.

Safe to say, when I logged on the next day my messages were out of control. All the pressure and anxiety to be near my phone came flooding back, so I made a promise to be uncontactable for one day a week –although, it is probably best to warn people beforehand.

Harsh reality

As the week went on, I found it easier and easier to prioritise myself. I skipped Friday night drinks to see a film I wanted to watch at the cinema; instead of buying a new extractor fan for the flat, I bought a jacket; and I declined babysitting my nephew so I could see my friends for brunch at the weekend.

However, despite going into Sunday evening feeling more refreshed and relaxed than ever, I knew I’d annoyed some people. I could understand the reasoning behind a few of their gripes (refusing babysitting duty was probably the worst offender), but others I was a little upset by – being called “boring” for turning down a night at the pub felt particularly harsh.

I hate when people flake on plans if they are constantly doing it, but I’ve never been one to drop out at the last minute. Surely a real friend would understand that, occasionally, I need to put myself first?

Happy woman hugging heart shaped cushion
Set boundaries that ensure your social battery can be fully charged for those closest to you (Photo: Flashpop /Getty/Digital Vision)

I found that those who were most annoyed with me were the people who I often find emotionally draining. My closest pals completely understood that I was feeling burnt out and needed a break, and while my family were a bit miffed I’d gone missing from WhatsApp for a while, they simply called the next day to catch up.

At the end of my experiment, I came to the conclusion that saying no to some social events and responsibilities helped me be more present with the people closest to me and made the time I spent with them even more valuable.

It can be hard to give yourself the time to recharge, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes. That’s not to say you should be selfish all the time – helping a friend or family member out when they need it is important, as is going to the odd party you don’t want to be at.

But if you’re feeling burnt out, then ask yourself: are these drinks, or this favour really serving me or those close to me? If not, maybe it’s time to put yourself first and say no. If this week has taught me anything, it is that being selfish every now and again is healthier than you think.

@emily_cope1

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