How to be Selfless by being Selfish

And why it’s okay


Photo by Giulia Bertelli on Unsplash

I like going for runs, hanging out with friends, playing sport, and having really hot baths while watching Netflix. I like doing this even when I know that I should be spending time with my family. It often makes me feel selfish, but

I’ve learned something very valuable, you need to be selfish if you want to be truly selfless.

I have learned how to be selfless by being selfish.

You’ve all heard the analogy, you can’t fill from an empty bucket, but what does it actually mean? You know those days you get home from a particularly testing day at work, or the time you spent at a friend’s children’s birthday party. You sometimes just sit in the car in the driveway and audibly exhale.

You’re mentally fatigued. And — you know that as soon as you walk through the door you walk into a list of tasks, chores, demands, and noise. In those situations, you are really low on reserve, and you will never be at your best. Your bucket is empty.

It is important to recognize at those points, that you need to recharge, you need to replenish your bucket.


Running on empty

We’ve all felt that flat, heavy, sluggishness of running on empty. Being short-tempered but offering a half-smile trying to trick everyone into believing everything is alright. There are moments of feeling like crap and trying to take quick hits of something (food, trashy TV, alcohol, etc.) to make you feel better. These never work. You are running on empty because of something else that is missing, not an absence of these personal vices.

The thing you are missing is a connection. I am not talking about a connection with someone else, at least not necessarily, I am talking about a connection with yourself. You have forgotten to spend some of your energy connecting with your inner self. I’ll talk to you about doing this soon, but it is important to recognize that there is a gap because of it.

You give to your family and friends, you give to your job and commitments, you consistently give. This is what it means to be human, the reciprocity of connection. You put good into your community; you get rewarded for it. These rewards differ, for some you receive payment, for others you receive goodwill and favor, for some you receive love and affection.

But each of these can be a withdrawal from your energy account. If you continually make withdrawals without making deposits, the bucket continues towards empty. You do this for too long, you start running on empty.


Photo by Zoe Ra on Unsplash

Finding your spark

I wonder if you know what it is that really gives you energy? You will often say sleep and holidays. Some of you might say a good conversation with friends or sitting down with a good book.

These things may be true, but do you know why they are important for you?

I want you to think about what it was you were doing where you lost track of time. What were you doing? Were you playing a board game? Cooking a batch of cupcakes? Finishing a Sudoku? Walking along a forest trail? Colouring in? Candle making? Driving along a beautiful road?

Whatever it is for you, this is your groove, where your brain has disconnected from the thinking part and you are in the moment. You do not have a list of other activities running through your mind, you are focused on what you are doing right now. Do you know who the best in the world at this are? Children.

Kids do not really care what is happening next, they are just doing the thing they are doing. There is no worrying about the complications of life or the stress of the next activity, they simply play.

As you turn into an adult you forget how to do this. You forget how to stop thinking about what is next.

I can hear you saying, but there are so many things to do, so many responsibilities, so much stress. That may be true, but there is still time for play. This is what I mean by choosing to be selfish. If you commit to doing these things, regularly if not frequently, you will have more of you available to give. You will have a deeper connection with yourself. You can then be more selfless.

What is your definition of play?

Here is a way to find your version of the play. A few things you need to do to find a reference point for replenishing your energy. Your moments of disconnection from thinking.

  1. Losing track of time. You need to go back through your memory banks and find the activities or people you were spending time with where you seemed to lose track of time. The other day I played FIFA on the Play Station for 2 hours without realizing it. I only started to focus on something else as my body made me realize, I was getting hungry. During the week, I had a chat with one of my mentees about life that went for over an hour. It was only my alarm going off for the next meeting that made me realize how long we’d been chatting. These are some of my moments. You do not need to lose hours for it to make the list, it could be shorter times that seem to hang forever, the key component is that time seems to distort. Write your list.
  2. It makes you happy. Do you remember leaving a conversation, maybe over a coffee with that friend that always makes you laugh? You may have even had a few tears when they told that really funny moment. You are walking to your car and you think to yourself “that was great, I really needed that”. Perhaps you have just walked off the sporting field, knowing that you did something hard but really enjoyed it. You look over at your teammates or competitors and smile. You may have just walked out of the local museum and realized how inspiring some pieces of art are. Each of these things that make you happy, that lift you, write them on the list.
  3. Connects you to something bigger. There is power in connection with others and ideas bigger than you. There is a reason some people are very active in their community or volunteer groups. People who make the church a regular part of their lives. These people do this to connect to this larger than the individual community. For some this connection comes with nature; surfing or bush-walking, sitting under an old tree, gardening, bird-watching or star-gazing. Whatever it is that helps you feel connected to something bigger than yourself. This is also very important. Write it on your list.

By now you should have a list with a fair few things on it. Some point to time alone, some point to time together, some point to time with other people. You know have a list of things for you to prioritize into your life.

Bravery and Control — Why you can’t have both
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How to be selfless

You have an obligation to yourself to continue to prioritize you. From this place of replenishment, you have the energy to be present with those people requesting your time. You have the energy to give to your work. You have the energy to do those ever-present chores.

By prioritizing yourself, by making time to connect with that part of yourself where you stop thinking about what is next, you have a reserve for those activities that do not give you as much as it takes.

You are being selfless in every moment where you are giving of yourself. In some moments that is the reward in itself, in others, it takes from you.

You might be thinking, perhaps I should just say “screw everyone else, I’m just going to do me”. This is not the right attitude. You have been hardwired by evolution to make a contribution to the tribe, whatever your tribe is.

If you choose this, it may work for a period of time, but you will grow to resent yourself. Contribute to your community, your work vision, your family and friend’s growth and you are being selfless. If not this, why are we here at all?

To get to a place where you are content in making this selfless commitment, you need to be a little selfish. So, look at the list you have prepared, or even just the thoughts that immediately crossed your mind when you read the list of recharging moments and make some time for it in your life. The investment is worth it.


I’m a writer with a keen curiosity for people, human nature, leadership and growth.

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