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The importance of being selfish: How to rid your life of drama and toxic people

It's time to rethink the definition of being "selfish."
Many people — especially women — feel guilty about setting boundaries, but you do people a service in your life when you look after yourself, author says.
Many people — especially women — feel guilty about setting boundaries, but you do people a service in your life when you look after yourself, author says.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

When was the last time you said “no” to something you didn’t want to do or decline an invite from a person you didn’t want to see?

Maybe it’s time to be more selfish — in the healthiest sense of the word.

After the stresses of the pandemic, many people crave self-care, but are still reluctant to prioritize their own needs, said Michelle Elman, author of the new book, “The Joy of Being Selfish: Why you need boundaries and how to set them.”

“A lot of people are really on board with this idea of self-love,” Elman, a London-based life coach, told TODAY. “But they don't realize that to actually create time and energy to do any of those things, you need to be more selfish.”

Here is how to put yourself first more often:

Recognize the signs that you need to be more selfish

When you are burned out and exhausted, or when there are people you can't trust in your life, either because you fear confrontation or engage in excessive people pleasing, it’s time to prioritize yourself, Elman said.

“If you're constantly feeling angry, if you're constantly feeling resentful, those are warning signs that your boundaries are constantly being crossed and not being reinforced,” she noted.

Rethink the definition of ‘selfish’

Think of it as vocalizing what you want, asking for what you need and being very clear and honest about your boundaries. Many people — especially women — feel guilty about being direct or saying “no,” but they need to stop thinking they’re hurting others by doing so.

“You actually do people a service in your life when you look after yourself,” Elman said. “To set boundaries or be selfish, you actually need to believe you deserve to.”

Practice by saying ‘no’

Elman tried an experiment she called her “Year of No.” She decided to say “no” to anything she didn’t want to do — without having to give a reason. Sample answers to invitations included “I thought about it and it’s a no from me” or “Unfortunately, I can’t make it work.” It felt awkward and clumsy at first, but towards the end of the year, it became second nature and she’s still following the rule today.

“Just because you're invited to something doesn't mean you're obligated to attend,” she said.

“A lot of these politeness rules are actually quite flawed to begin with… it's about creating space between everything you've been told and actually checking in with yourself, checking in with your body.”

Learning when to say “no” makes your “yes” more powerful — people no longer take your presence or agreement for granted.

To get comfortable saying “no,” it may be easier to practice with strangers first, then trying it with friends and family.

Banish guilt or the fear of being disliked

Rather than guilt, Elman often feels relief or pride after saying “no.”

As for being disliked, “there are 8 billion people in the world and there's no way that everyone can like you,” she said. “Boundaries will never make the right people leave your life — they will only make the people who are taking advantage of you leave your life.”

Set boundaries at work

As a Brit, Elman has been taken aback by the blurry boundary between work and personal time in the U.S.

For people who feel compelled to answer their work email at night or on their days off, she advised practicing not doing that — perhaps adding an out-of-office reply that says, “This weekend, I'll have no access to emails. I'll get back to you on Monday” or putting the phone on airplane mode at 6 p.m. during weekdays.

Be more ‘selfish’ with loved ones

Elman’s main advice is to just ask for what you need rather than expecting your partner to automatically know it — you will get it 90% of the time.

“Often people say, ‘If they loved me, they'd know.’ But people are not mind readers. People are not robots. You are not a predictable person,” she said.

Let others know when they’ve crossed a boundary

If someone is being passive aggressive or outright saying hurtful things in a conversation, a simple technique is just to exclaim “wow” or “ouch” — it pauses the conversation and lets that person reflect on what they've just said without turning it into a big confrontation.

Elman used to let hurtful comments slide and feel the resentment build up in her afterwards, but now she employs those simple words in the moment to signal a boundary violation. “You are worth protecting,” she writes in her book.

Silence is another useful tool: You don’t have to participate in a conversation that makes you feel uncomfortable. People do notice, Elman said. If they don’t and insist on engaging you in an uncomfortable topic, she suggested saying, “Can we change the conversation to something more interesting?”

Expect life to change

Being selfish in a healthy way means people stop taking you for granted. It also often means ending toxic relationships in your personal and professional life.

“As soon as you start setting boundaries and build that self-esteem, you realize that a lot of people in your life don't treat you the way you deserve,” Elman said.

“Having come through that journey myself and lost a lot of friends as a result is that I don't regret it for a single second because… any relationship that was lost due to boundaries, these are relationships that should have gone anyway.”