08/29/2012 08:41 am ET Updated Oct 29, 2012

'If I Love Myself, Won't I Be Selfish?'

As a counselor for the last 44 years, I can't tell you how often I've heard my clients ask, when I've encouraged them to learn to love and value themselves, "But isn't that being selfish?" It's very sad to me that so many people have a false definition of "selfish."

I grew up with a similar false definition of selfish. I was taught that if I did what I wanted to do -- with no intent to harm another -- rather than what someone else wanted me to do, I was selfish. For example, my orthodox Jewish grandmother lived with us. In her belief system, I was not supposed to do anything on Saturdays, the Sabbath. If she caught me doing my homework on Saturday, she would criticize me, yelling, "How can you be so selfish?" Being a good student was important to me, so I learned to do my homework in my closet, but I did absorb the false belief, from her and from my parents, that doing my own thing when someone else wanted me to do their thing was selfish. Years later, I finally understood that it was my grandmother who was being selfish in expecting me to give myself up for her.

Even the dictionary has a false definition of selfish: "Looking after own desires." How strange that taking care of our own needs and desires is considered selfish rather than self-responsible.

Here is my definition of selfish:

  • Being self-centered and expecting others to give themselves up for you.
  • Not caring about the effect your behavior has on others -- being inconsiderate of others.

There is a huge difference between being self-centered and being self-responsible. We are being selfish and self-centered when, like my grandmother, we impose our values on others and expect others to do what we want, rather than what they want. We are being selfish and self-centered when we do not consider the effect our behavior has on others, such as my grandmother not caring about the effect her yelling and criticism had on me. Her intent was to control me, while my intent in doing my homework was to take responsibility for myself. I cared about her feelings and I had no intent to hurt her, so I did my homework in my closet. But I felt sad that I had to hide in order to not get yelled at and criticized.

Selfishness comes from neediness, and neediness comes from self-abandonment. When we abandon ourselves -- by not compassionately attending to our own feelings, by judging ourselves, by turning to various addictions and by making others responsible for our sense of worth and security -- we create an inner emptiness that we then want others to fill. When we feel empty inside due to our self-abandonment, we then try to control others into filling us up. My grandmother wanted me to make her feel okay by doing what she wanted me to do, because she had never learned how to take loving care of herself. It was the same with my parents. And I did the same thing for many years, until I learned how to take loving care of myself through my Inner Bonding process.

Imagine what a wonderful world we would have if each person took responsibility for his or her own feelings and needs. When we take responsibility for ourselves -- learning to take loving action in our own behalf and letting go of trying to have control over others giving us the love that we are not giving to ourselves -- we can then share our love with others. We don't have love to share when we feel empty inside, and instead need others' love to feel that we are okay.

Our world would be a safe, happy and peaceful place if all of us were focused on taking loving care of ourselves. Far from being selfish, when we take loving care of ourselves we discover that the more we love and value ourselves, the more we care about, love and value others.

Margaret Paul, Ph.D. is a relationship expert, best-selling author, and co-creator of the powerful Inner Bonding® healing process, recommended by actress Lindsay Wagner and singer Alanis Morissette, and featured on Oprah. To begin learning how to love and connect with yourself so that you can connect with others, take advantage of our free Inner Bonding eCourse, receive Free Help, and take our 12-Week eCourse, "The Intimate Relationship Toolbox" - the first two weeks are free!

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