Selflessness is very often thought of as the end all of character development and spiritual arrival. A truly selfless person always puts others first and never thinks of their own needs. This is true, that is what a truly selfless person does, but is that truly a path to peace and fulfillment? The classic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” in which the main character, George Bailey, lives his life in a selfless fashion, is a great example of the balance required between self-care and selflessness. Where did that path take George? To the brink of suicide! So what was lacking in this “George Bailey Syndrome” that left him unfulfilled and miserable?

Self-Care

Self-care is the ultimate act of giving to others. This is why on an airplane you are instructed that in case of an emergency first put your own oxygen mask on. Selflessness would tell us to make sure everyone else had theirs own first, though right? Wrong. How much good will you do helping during the emergency if you are passed out from lack of oxygen? Put your own mask on first, and then you are ready and available to be a help to others.

This is how self-care works. There are things, basic things, you need in order to be available emotionally and physically for others. If you constantly sacrifice these things in the name of “doing for others,” you are really limiting your ability to help at all. George Bailey never gave himself any oxygen, so then during the biggest crises of his and his family’s life he was unavailable emotionally and would have been permanently unavailable if he’d gone through with his suicide plans.

Balanced Selflessness

Help, both emotionally and physically, is something you can’t give to others in a healthy and fulfilling way when you ignore your own most basic emotional and physical needs. You will know your own needs are being ignored when you begin to resent helping others, when it stresses you out to give of yourself, when it does not bring you joy.

Start your day by meeting your own needs. Before anyone else wakes up or asks you for anything, fulfill your own emotional and spiritual needs. Do you need quiet time? Do you need to work in your garden? Do you need to read an inspirational book or meditate or pray? Do this. Put on your oxygen mask. Then as the day unfolds and you are needed by others you are well equipped to be selfless.