Written By: Joanna Harris, Generation 3 Protege.
Were you raised to believe that selfishness was essentially the worst character trait you could have?
In my household, I was taught that selfishness meant that you do not care for others. It was negative – if I was told that I was “selfish,” I knew that I had failed to show that I was kind. I knew I was a kind person and yet, I internalized this definition of selfishness. Sure, I probably was selfish at times – but what kid is kind or caring 100% of the time?
As I’ve gotten older and had more experiences, the word, “selfish,” puzzles me.
Merriam-Webster defines the word selfish as “excessive concern or exclusive concern with oneself”.
Ah-hah! Did you see it? It’s right there – the reason this word is so puzzling!
Being selfish can mean that you show exclusive concern for yourself. But by definition, the word selfish can also just mean excessive concern for yourself.
Alright, well – what does “excessive” mean? According to Merriam-Webster, excessive is defined as “exceeding what is usual, proper, necessary, or normal.”
Now that I’ve dragged you deep into the English language rabbit hole, let’s dissect this together.
What the f*** does “usual,” “proper,” “necessary,” or “normal” mean? What is “normal”? What does it mean to be “proper”? Who decides what is necessary? What is the “usual” way of doing something?
“That person isn’t normal.”
“That person didn’t use the proper serving spoon.”
“That person is so unusual.”
Or my personal favorite, a quote from the movie Dodgeball: “Necessary? Is it necessary for me to drink my own urine? No, but I do it anyway because it’s sterile and I like the taste.”
These words, normal, proper, unusual, and necessary, are inherently defined by subjective social norms. As a society, we’ve created these rules for ourselves and live by them.
So, let’s revisit our original, icky word – selfish. It means excessive concern for yourself. People – we have an opportunity here! We have the opportunity to change the way we define, use, and feel about this word because WE define what it means to do something in excess.
At the beginning of 2021, I got sick. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease and was in the midst of a severe flare-up. I was losing weight rapidly, had no energy, and was in constant, excruciating pain. I was still working full-time and found out that my boss, a fellow #GirlsClubber that I admire and loved working with, was leaving the business. I felt a responsibility to fill the massive shoes that she was leaving behind. I was trying to be there for our team, as a strong female leader, while also trying to navigate our healthcare system (another full-time job), caring for my 2 dogs, being a daughter, partner, and friend, and guess what – I was sucking at all of it.
I was exhausted – mentally, physically, and emotionally. And while everyone feels exhausted now and then, what was new to me was the pain and loss of control over my own body. There were so many things I could not do; stand up straight, walk up the two flights of stairs to my apartment, visit with my family and friends without clutching my stomach, walk my dogs, and, despite how embarrassing this is for me to share, I sometimes couldn’t even make it to the bathroom in time. But I kept pushing myself. I didn’t want to admit that I “couldn’t do it.”
My symptoms continued to worsen, and I was more stressed than I’d ever been in my life. I was angry at my body for failing me. Angry with our healthcare system for letting me down. Angry with my doctors for not intervening more aggressively and more quickly. Angry that…
I couldn’t fix this one.
After 3 months, I ended up in the hospital – I pushed myself too hard, for too long and my body finally said, “no.” When I was rushed to the ER, I was insistent that I would return to work as soon as I was released. Initially thinking that it might be only a day or two out of the office. I was literally sitting in the ER waiting room, clinging to that blue puke bag, saying to my boyfriend, “text my boss to tell him what’s going on and that I’ll be back next week.”
My body had other plans. I needed to take medical leave from work and had to shift all of my focus and energy to getting better.
I’m type-A, a helper, and a self-diagnosed perfectionist. Being away from work was hard. I felt like I was failing my team (note: they did not feel this way – they are amazingly supportive). I kept thinking of all the projects and tasks that I’d left behind. I kept hearing my #GC mentor in my ear saying, “prioritize your health” and I tried to listen because deep down, I knew…
I needed to be selfish.
My body was screaming for me to be excessively concerned about myself.
I spent 6 days in the hospital, with an NG tube continuously pumping my stomach, listening to the doctors debate whether I would need surgery…and I finally started to realize that it was time – time to be selfish.
When I returned to work a few weeks later, things were busy. I was behind, had projects waiting for me, and loads of emails – oh my, the emails…but, generally…everything was fine! I slowly caught up and tried to get back into a groove.
Today, I noticed signs of another flare. Do you know what I did? I messaged my team and told them that I needed to take it a little easier today.
Was my type-A brain yelling at me, saying, “BUT THE TO-DO LIST!!!?” 100%. But I needed to be selfish. I needed to take the day to take excessive care of myself, stay healthy, and rest when I needed to.
The lesson: be selfish and own it!
Take time when you need it. Prioritize your mental and physical health. Start being selfish and don’t apologize for it.
You’ll thank yourself for this “abnormal” amount of concern later!
About the Author:
Joanna Harris is a sales operations analyst who is passionate about creating positive change in the workplace. She works with organizations that are looking to improve their internal processes and solidify strategies for future success. Her social work background taught her that when there is a problem, it is important to analyze the issue from the micro, mezzo, and macro perspectives, in order to develop and implement smart and effective solutions. She graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a BA in Religious Studies and the University of Southern California with a Masters in Social Work. Joanna won the award for “Superstar of the Summer” for her participation in #GirlsClub Summer Camp 2020 and is a certified protégé from Generation 3. In her free time, she loves to sing, travel, and snuggle with her pups.