Healthy egoism: improving mental health

You’re so selfish! Nobody wants to hear this reprimand. But sometimes it’s important to have the courage to say no and look after yourself. Why having the courage to say what you think can be healthy.

Text: Julie Freudiger; photo: iStock

Imagine that your colleague always applies for vacation without discussing it with you first along the lines of “first come, first served”. Or you help your friend move house,
look after their dog, and offer a shoulder to cry on when they are lovesick. But they
don’t have time to help you paint your living room. Everyone would say that
this is selfish behaviour! What on earth is positive or even healthy about that?

Stay true to yourself

Studies show that egotistical behaviour has been on the rise in the last few decades. Egoism is not a clinical term, it describes a disparity between give and take. The Cambridge English dictionary describes egotism as thinking only about yourself: An egoist is only interested in how they can get ahead, with no regard for the needs of others. Solidarity and empathy are not words in an egoist’s vocabulary.

‘Real’ egoism is not something to aspire to. ​ But the opposite is also not desirable. Someone who always acts selflessly, always says yes when they mean no, and always puts the needs of others before their own to avoid disappointing anyone – that’s not healthy. In her book “Eigensinn” (Headstrong), psychologist Ursula Nuber advocates a life where you don’t arrange yourself around the wishes of others. Your own life must be meaningful and right for you. A headstrong person protects their rights and interests, without hurting the feelings of others.

The key to mental health?

Nuber is convinced that being headstrong, or in other words having a “healthy ego”, is key for good mental health: “People who are very headstrong (...) are rarely troubled by questions such as what other people think about them. (...) they have found contentment within themselves, their spiritual immune system remains intact”. People who are not able to distance themselves from others and are always very committed are in danger of burning out. The same is true for people who constantly compare themselves to others, take on too much, don’t set any boundaries and are always driven by a sense of duty. There are many studies that have proven this.

The motto “faster, higher, further” is still celebrated today. According to the Job Stress Index 2020, only one quarter of those surveyed feel like they cope well with any work-related stress – the rest are just about able to, or are already struggling. “This outlook of being good to yourself has more to do with wellness than welfare”, writes psychotherapist Felizitas Ambauen in an article in the Tagesanzeiger. ​

Looking after yourself is not egotistical

Felizitas Ambauen does however warn about not taking care of yourself. “Not taking care of your own needs will make you ill sooner or later. And it won’t just affect you, it will affect your relationships too. We can only be there for others if we first look after ourselves. Like the oxygen masks in an aeroplane.” It’s simple really: You can only take care of others, such as your children, family, friends and colleagues, if you have enough energy.

But in order to do so, you need to learn to say no. In other words, be more egotistical. No to having a coffee with your neighbour, because you don’t feel like it right now. No to cleaning the windows, even if your home doesn’t look perfect. No to after-work drinks, even if your workmates insist. 

Learn to say no

Standing your ground and saying no sometimes is not always easy. How can you say no without causing upset?

- Don’t use unclear and indirect language. “Maybe”, “I’ll think about it” or “perhaps” create a false sense of hope. ​ Stand by your opinion. And trust yourself to say no firmly.

- Depending on the situation, you can propose an alternative. Say something positive first, then say no and make an alternative suggestion: “Thank you for the invitation. I can’t make it this week unfortunately. But we could meet for lunch next week.” However, if you don’t want to suggest an alternative, simply say no without feeling you need to justify yourself.

- Are you uncertain as to whether you can keep the appointment or want to keep the appointment? Sleep on it. This gives you time to ask yourself what you really want and how important this appointment or request really is.

- Stick with your answer. Even if your friend or colleague is trying to change your mind, don’t feel guilty.

- Don’t automatically say yes in group situations either. Stop and think for a moment and ask yourself: what do I want?

- Practice makes perfect Train your no muscles during simple scenarios. Consciously say no even if you would be able to do what is asked of you. For example, if your work colleague asks you if you want to eat your lunch in the canteen, even though you don’t like the food there.