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Healthy egoism helps you to become self-aware and in this process become authentic. Being authentic means accepting your own weaknesses and sensitivities. Perhaps the main thing in the process of becoming self-aware is to accept yourself and to start loving yourself, says Joanna Zapała, psychologist and psychotherapist from SWPS University.

“We do not exist for ourselves alone, and it is only when we are fully convinced of this fact that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also love others. What do I mean by loving ourselves properly? I mean, first of all, desiring to live, accepting life as a very great gift and a great good, not because of what it gives us, but because of what it enables us to give to others”, wrote Thomas Merton, American writer, theologian and mystic.

It is undeniable that every person is a part of a greater whole, comprising everything and everyone. No one is more or less important than others. No one’s needs or health are more or less important than the needs or health of others. We are all equally responsible for the direction the human race, the society and our civilization are going, because WE are also OTHERS.

Only the realization that we are all responsible for the development and raised consciousness can provide basis for reaching one’s full potential, as described by Abraham Maslow, a famed psychologists, author of the Hierarchy of Needs Theory.

You have the largest impact on yourself

Curiosity, a need to explore, self-awareness and self-esteem are intrinsic to human nature. Change is also the inherent element of being, whether we like it or not, a change that leads to development and a change that carries within itself a potential of the future and motivates people to adjust to the new circumstances. Martin Seligman, American psychologist, founder of positive psychology, emphasizes that people are endowed with numerous resources, such as optimism, love, curiosity, desire, honesty, and wonder, which help them on the way to self-realization.

Therefore, it should follow that healthy egoism starts with self- awareness and with a recognition of one’s needs and values. It is easiest to start with yourself, isn’t it? You have some impact, albeit it might be limited, on everything, but you have the largest impact on yourself. Through conscious self-development, you can impact your whole environment. In other words, healthy egoism translates into taking care of oneself and, by extension, taking care of everything.

Healthy egoism starts with self- awareness and with a recognition of one’s needs and values. It is easiest to start with yourself, isn’t it? You have some impact, albeit it might be limited, on everything, but you have the largest impact on yourself.

The lights are on, but no one’s home

Many people tend to spend a large chunk of their lives on worrying about things that are beyond their control. They spend their energy on thinking about things that will never happen and by doing so they generate daily anxiety. Obviously, many people rationalize this kind of behavior by claiming that they are being responsible and that they are controlling the chaos of life, but in reality they are avoiding contact with themselves and evading real life experiences of here and now. The saying “the lights are on, but no one’s home” explains this situation well. These people might be behaving in this way to fulfil the needs of others in order to gain their approval. Nowadays, people seem to value action and “being busy”, which is often misconstrued as “being someone important”. However, this way of life makes people overstressed, overworked and anxious.

Perhaps in this fast-paced life we need time to do less and be more. But what does it mean “to be”? Nobody teaches you how “to be”. On the contrary, from an early age you get quite opposite messages, when your parents keep yelling: “Don’t do this!”, to bring you in line with the proper behavior aligned with their expectations and not with your needs.

First Step Towards Self-Awarness

Perhaps it is easier to assume up front that circumstances beyond your control will always cause you some frustration. However, if you lose self-awareness, you proceed towards helplessness and despair. But if you remain aware of yourself and the world around you, you build real experience, which provides support and helps you to cope with life. Everyone has this potential. And to realize it, you need courage and curiosity. Otherwise, you feel lonely, weak, powerless and robbed of your own identity or deprived of a solid ground under your feet. It is much better to get rid off the desire to control, possess or dominate and ensure that others do not treat you that way. How to achieve this? “Every journey begins with a single step” - everyone knows this maxim by Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism. So just do it! Firstly, take responsibility for yourself!

It is important to realize that you must first accept yourself, just the way you are, to accept life and other people. Dalai Lama often says that his true religion is love and compassion. “Tackling destructive emotions and practicing loving-kindness isn’t something we should be doing with the next life, heaven or nirvana in mind, but how we should live in the here and now. I am convinced we can become happier individuals, happier communities and a happier humanity by cultivating a warm heart, allowing our better selves to prevail.”

Empathy Can Be Learned

It is easier to be good when you notice that people are all the same. It is easier to notice others when you are driven by empathy. Empathy - what is it? Marshall Rosenberg, who developed the Nonviolent Communication approach to living, said that empathy is an ability to go beyond your own feelings in order to understand the experience of another person. Empathy also means healing your own wounds by opening your heart to others. It is a transforming experience for both parties, an experience of being fully present and being heard, which leads to acceptance and understanding. Empathy allows you to be self-aware and be aware of your emotions and needs.

Empathy can be learned! Begin with yourself. Focus. Stop for a moment.

  1. What do you see and feel? Pay attention to your breathing. How does your body feel?
  2. What feelings are you experiencing? Name these feelings.
  3. Recognize your own needs. Which of those needs are met and which are not?
  4. Formulate a request to yourself, which will help you to take care of your unmet needs. Are there any needs that you yourself can meet?

Joy from Gratitude

In her self-help book Gifts of Imperfection, researcher Brené Brown talks about her studies on shame and gratitude. She discovered that people who regarded their life as happy, expressed gratitude and claimed that they owed their happiness to gratitude. They treated joy and gratitude as spiritual practice related to the belief in relationships with others and a power stronger than themselves. Brown emphasizes that “gratitude without practice may be a little like faith without works—it’s not alive”.

Here is an exercise in gratitude from a book Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer by an Benedictine Monk, Father David Steindl-Rast: Every night before going to sleep say thanks for something that you have never before expressed thanks for. For the first few weeks this exercise might seem easy to do, but as time goes on, you must really think hard to come up with something new. This transforming exercise strengthens your mindfulness and enables you to notice newer and newer things during the day that you can be grateful for.

Forgive and See How You Feel About It

Forgiveness may take a little bit of time, but it is one of the most valuable practices that will bring you inner peace. When you are focused on forgiveness, you must give up the stance of a person that is right in an argument or who is the only victim in the situation.

By recognizing your own pain and recognizing the limits of the people who have hurt you, the process of forgiveness allows you to develop empathy.

Here is an exercise in forgiveness: 

Focus on your breathing. Imagine that you are in a safe and holy place, where others can enter only with your permission. Imagine that to this place you invite a person whom you want to forgive or a person who could, you hope, forgive you. Talk honestly with this person. Focus on expressing your feelings and then on listening to the answer. How do you feel?


Think about yourself and become healthier!

Numerous studies indicate that the way you think about yourself and the way you look at the world may predispose you to various illnesses or may keep you in good health. The emotions that seem to be especially unhealthy include feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, hostility and cynicism. Social factors, i.e. the quality of your relationships with other people and the world also impact your wellbeing significantly.

Research shows that isolation is bad for people. Obviously, a proven link between personal characteristics or behaviors and an illness does not necessarily mean that you will get sick. Often the etiology of psychosomatic conditions is multifaceted and not fully examined. For example, we still do not know what dose of prolonged stress increases the risk of an illness.

The psycho-neuro-immunology is based on the link between stress and illnesses. It assumes that a stress reaction (the production of glucocorticoids, adrenaline, etc.) suppresses the immune system and increases the risk of illness by disturbing the defense mechanism of the body. Despite extensive research in this area, there are still many doubts. People vary in terms of what they experiences as stress. It stems from personal differences between individuals. Perhaps this is the point where we should go back and look for answers to the key questions related to your needs and values.

Healthy egoism helps you to get to know yourself and through this process become authentic. Being authentic also means accepting your own weaknesses and sensitivities. Perhaps the main thing in this process is to start loving yourself, because you cannot pass something to your children, if you do not have it in the first place. As Howard Thurman, African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil-rights leader said: “Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Those are merely the first steps, but they are crucial. What will your next steps be?


The article was first published in the Polish edition of "Newsweek Psychologia 1/18”

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About the Author

Joanna Zapała - clinical psychologist, psychotherapist, psycho-oncology expert and psycho-oncology supervisor. Director of the Integral Psychotherapy Center, President of the PSYCHE SOMA POLIS Association in Poznań, Head of Psychosomatics and Somatopsychology program at the Professional Certification and Training Department of SWPS University.