Being called selfish doesn’t feel like a compliment, but the trait can actually make you a better person, psychology experts say.
"When you take care of yourself first, you show up as a healthy, grounded person in life," says Bob Rosen, author of Grounded: How Leaders Stay Rooted in an Uncertain World (Jossey-Bass, 2013).
Oriented around survival, Rosen says it’s in our nature to take care of our own needs first. The instinct eventually got a bad rap, however, and became the source of negative emotions like fear and guilt.
"As we evolved, we developed higher order needs, [such as] becoming community centered," he says. "Our theory of human development is based on a model that you’re either selfish or you’re community oriented. The truth is that you need to be both. It’s not an either-or."
Melissa Deuter, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, agrees. "Selfish is an ugly word but it can mean two different things," she says. "One connotation is that you’re unkind and inconsiderate of others. The other is that you take responsibility for getting your personal, emotional and physical needs met, and that’s an important part of becoming an adult."
Rosen and Deuter say that the key to healthy selfishness is being self-focused instead of self-involved. Schedule some "me time," and you might discover these four benefits:
Selfish people tend to take better care of themselves instead of giving too much energy away serving the needs of everyone else, says Rosen. He interviewed several executives for his book and found strong physical health to be a common trait of a good leader.
"Instead of spending all of their time at work, these men and women carve out time for themselves," he says. "For example, Dennis Nally is global chairman of PwC (formerly PricewaterhouseCoopers), and he travels more than any other person I know. Exercises all the time, and eats well. He knows in order to sustain his travel agenda he has to take the time to take care of himself."
Studies have shown that acting in your own self-interest you may give you an advantage in leadership roles, says Deuter.
"Selfish people are more confident and less likely to give up on goals," she says. "They go after what they want unapologetically, and they’re not afraid to ask for the raise or promotion."
Rosen agrees. "Selfish people have a drive to succeed," he says. "There is often a higher purpose to be a great leader—taking care of other people. But if you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t care for others. Being selfish is critical."
People will have a harder time manipulating or taking advantage of you if you’re selfish, says Deuter. "Setting boundaries means knowing where you end and other person begins," she says. "If you have trouble being self-focused, you might have trouble saying no."
"To be a healthy, grounded person, you need to be selfish," says Rosen. "If you’re looking to a partner to fill your emotional needs, your relationship is vulnerable. The best relationships happen when two adults show up and enjoy each other."
Selfish people spend their time doing activities they like to do.
"If you have a well-developed sense of who you are, what you enjoy and the ability to communicate this to others, you’ll be a happier person," says Deuter. "Putting yourself first is not a negative quality; it’s your job to take care of yourself and get what you need."
Rosen says Linda Rabbitt, founder of Rand Construction, is a good example of someone who takes care of herself emotionally. "She is very self-aware and is always asking for feedback," he says. "And she’s a generally positive person. When you’re able to focus within, you’re much more authentic and much happier."