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Recently someone asked me: What’s the difference between being selfish or loving oneself? Isn’t it better and healthier to put your full attention on helping others? Isn’t this what the Bahá’í Writings teach us?

This was such a great question! Not only did it stump me for a few days, but I realized that I NEEDED to know the answer to this question, because it’s plagued me for most of my life!

Early on, as a small child, I believed that the only way to get love was to become a people-pleaser; and I’ve invested over 50 years in perfecting this behavior.

I used to be called “selfish” and “egoistic” when I was little because I dared to ask for what I wanted. Now I understand it was what served me best after all!

It’s easy to find favor for eliminating any thought of self in the Bahá’í Writings, when you look at quotes and concepts such as:

Must forget his own selfish conditions that he may thus arise to the station of sacrifice. It should be to such a degree that if he sleep, it should not be for pleasure, but to rest the body in order to do better, to speak better, to explain more beautifully, to serve the servants of God and to prove the truths. When he remains awake, he should seek to be attentive, serve the Cause of God and sacrifice his own stations for those of God. When he attains to this station, the confirmations of the Holy Spirit will surely reach him, and man with this power can withstand all who inhabit the earth. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i World Faith, p. 384)

Bahá’u’lláh calls on the individual to kindle a fire within his soul and burn away every trace of self so that the concept and the very word ‘I’ may totally disappear from his being. Indeed this is one of the most profound teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. (Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh v 2, p. 43)

But what are the meanings of selfish; and self-love?

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the definition of selfish is:  concerned exclusively or excessively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure or well-being without regard for others. 

Selfish is when you take from others for your own gain without regard for anyone else but you. Self -full is when you fill yourself up with what you need so you have enough to give to others without being depleted in the process.

Baha’ullah tells us:

The beginning of magnanimity is when man expendeth his wealth on himself, on his family and on the poor among his brethren in his Faith. (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 156)

Notice the order He uses – first we expend our wealth on ourselves, and then on others. This “wealth” surely applies to our time and effort too.

There’s a movement in the schools called “bucket fillers”, which teaches that we all carry an invisible bucket around with us each day. This bucket contains our feelings. When our bucket is full, we feel happy, energized and able to serve; when it is empty, we feel sad, angry and resentful; and have nothing to give. The children are taught what they can do to fill up someone else’s bucket, or empty it.

Red Grammar has songs for children about this very concept



It reminds me of this Hidden Word:

Love Me, that I may love thee. If thou lovest Me not, My love can in no wise reach thee. (Baha’u’llah, The Arabic Hidden Words 5)

When we love God (who is closer than our life-vein) and therefore love ourselves, we focus that love inward (self-love), so that His love can fill up our buckets.

Considering what God hath revealed, that “We are closer to man than his life-vein . . .” (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 185)

‘Abdu’l-Baha might define selfishness this way:

As long as man is a captive of habit, pursuing the dictates of self and desire, he is vanquished and defeated. This passionate personal ego takes the reins from his hands, crowds out the qualities of the divine ego and changes him into an animal, a creature unable to judge good from evil, or to distinguish light from darkness. He becomes blind to divine attributes, for this acquired individuality, the result of an evil routine of thought becomes the dominant note of his life. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Divine Philosophy, p. 133)

If man were to care for himself only he would be nothing but an animal for only the animals are thus egoistic. If you bring a thousand sheep to a well to kill nine hundred and ninety-nine the one remaining sheep would go on grazing, not thinking of the others and worrying not at all about the lost, never bothering that its own kind had passed away, or had perished or been killed. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity, p. 41)

So given all that, I think selfishness is ego based, and self-love is soul based.

Self-love says:

“I love ME enough to care for myself AND you”

and selfishness says

“I care about me BUT not you”

Selfish is complete disregard for the rights and needs of others, and wanting someone else to do things for you.

Self-love on the other hand, is taking time for ourselves. With self-love, we fill up our buckets so we are better able to be of service to others. The motivation is entirely different, and motivation is key, as we see:

First and foremost, one should use every possible means to purge one’s heart and motives, otherwise, engaging in any form of enterprise would be futile. (Shoghi Effendi, The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 1)

Giving from our hearts actually feels good. We feel connected and open to the person we’re giving to. Giving out of the fear that we’ll be judged as selfish leaves us feeling tense and drained. The fear of being selfish can drive us to give to others, but in a measured dose and with very little enthusiasm.

In contrast, self-love makes us feel open, empathetic and eager to make a difference where we can. It invites in joy and ease. Everyone benefits because we show up as our best self.

One last note: How do you know if in fact you are selfish?

Typically truly selfish people you won’t even be concerned with this balance. If you’re genuinely curious it’s more than likely selfishness is not one of your challenges!

 We Can’t Give What We Don’t Have

Remember these old clichés?

  • Take care of yourself first or you will have nothing left to give others
  • We can’t give what we don’t have
  • Unless you have a dollar, you can’t give a dollar

If I am not empowered how can I empower others? I can only give what I have. This applies to our energy and time as well as our money.

We all have to get out of bed in the morning and put on some clothes (at a minimum) before we do anything for anyone else. This is what putting your needs before others looks like.

Another example comes from the airlines – where we’re instructed that, in case of emergency, we’re to put on our own oxygen mask first, even before putting them on our children. If we can’t breathe, we can’t help them!

The following actions are often thought of as selfish:

  • saying no
  • having boundaries
  • honoring my needs and dreams when others might need something different from me
  • putting your needs before others

 But are they selfish or taking care of our needs in order to take care of others? Let’s see what the Baha’i Writings can teach us.

We’re a Role Model for Others

People are watching us! They see more than we think they do; and our behavior teaches more about the Faith than our words ever will.

The public is beginning to observe them, and they must therefore conduct themselves at all times as befits those who bear the glorious Name of Bahá. They must be forgetful of self, but ever mindful of the Cause of God! (Shoghi Effendi, Messages of Shoghi Effendi to the Indian Subcontinent, p. 264)

Not knowing the difference between selfishness and self-love is a prime cause of exhaustion, anxiety, and unhappiness. Only when we act out of fear of being selfish we wear ourselves thin. Ultimately we begin to feel overwhelmed, overloaded and perhaps even resentful. Worn out and trapped by our own guilt mechanism, we lose the ability to show up for others with joyful generosity.

Here’s an example from my own life.

Wanting to be a “good Bahá’í” and put into practice this injunction:

Deny not My servant should he ask anything from thee, for his face is My face; be then abashed before Me. (Baha’u’llah, The Arabic Hidden Words 30)

I would often do things for others even if I didn’t feel like doing them. A friend of mine challenged me one time – she said “I wish you’d just said no, rather than doing it with resentment!” I truly believed I was doing it with a pure heart, trying to overcome the self, but she could tell when my help was sincere and when it was forced.

When we put ourselves first, we give permission to others by our actions and deeds that allows others to do the same.

My friend had a right to ask me for help, and I had a right to say no. If I had said no, I would have been empowering her to find another solution to her problem; by honoring her ability to do so. By saying yes, when I wanted to say no, she felt my resentment and became disempowered.

When we act out of self-love- saying yes when it flows naturally, taking good care of ourselves, focusing on doing what we can to fill up our own buckets, it’s then that we are happy, engaged and alive. When we give from a full bucket, we are really present to others, not just going through the motions. At those times we naturally flow from abundance and generosity because we have more to offer. We become a beacon of joy that can helps others shine when they feel dark.

It’s OK to Take Time Off!

What does it mean to be a “good Baha’i”? Surely it’s someone who meets these qualifications:

For you I desire spiritual distinction — that is, you must become eminent and distinguished in morals. In the love of God you must become distinguished from all else. You must become distinguished for loving humanity, for unity and accord, for love and justice. In brief, you must become distinguished in all the virtues of the human world — for faithfulness and sincerity, for justice and fidelity, for firmness and steadfastness, for philanthropic deeds and service to the human world, for love toward every human being, for unity and accord with all people, for removing prejudices and promoting international peace. Finally, you must become distinguished for heavenly illumination and for acquiring the bestowals of God. I desire this distinction for you. This must be the point of distinction among you. (Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 189)

We all want to be in “first class”:

There are four classes of people.  The first is those who have accepted the teachings and occupy themselves spreading the Glad Tidings.  The second is those who are good believers, but make no effort to guide others.  The third is those who have heard the Message of the Kingdom but have not accepted it.  The fourth is those who have not yet heard of this Revelation.  (‘Abdul-Bahá, “A Heavenly Vista” The Pilgrimage of Louis G. Gregory)

The House of Justice defines it this way:

A good Bahá’í, therefore, is the one who so arranges his life as to devote time both to his material needs and also to the service of the Cause. (Universal House of Justice, The Importance of the Arts in Promoting the Faith)

So a good Baha’i has not only the right, but the responsibility to look after his material needs!

I’ve recently been reading The Maxwell’s of Montreal, which is the biography of Rúhíyyih Khánum’s family. We don’t hear much about her mother, May Maxwell, but May was a prolific teacher of the Faith, in the same calibre as her more well-known contemporaries such as Martha Root. Like Martha, she put the Faith first, and travelled the world, raising her daughter primarily by correspondence! Although she gave her all, she often drove herself to total exhaustion, resulting in physical and emotional breakdowns. At age 12, Rúhíyyih Khánum was looking after her mother in Egypt, alone in a strange country. Later, when she returned to Montreal, she was managing the household budget and hiring and firing staff in her mother’s absence!

Much of the book relies on correspondence between May and the Guardian. She consulted him on all of her teaching plans – the results and what she wanted to do next. When he gave his approval, he almost always encouraged her to look after herself first.

Surely quotes such as these were surely written with May in mind:

If you take better care of your own health, and build up your reserves, it would certainly be better for you and for your work. Then your sensitive, yearning heart, although you may still often suffer for and with others, will be better able to withstand its trials, and you will not get so exhausted, which is certainly no asset to your work for the Cause. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 279)

The Bahá’ís, in spite of their self-sacrificing desire to give the last drop of their strength to serving the Cause, must guard against utterly depleting their forces and having breakdowns. For this can sometimes do more harm than good. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 279)

He always worried when she did too much.

You should certainly safeguard your nerves and force yourself to take time, and not only for prayer and meditation, but for real rest and relaxation. (Shoghi Effendi, The Importance of Prayer and Meditation and a Devotional Attitude, p. 19)

Shoghi Effendi himself was a good example of someone who looked after his needs – going to Switzerland in the summer, to rest and rejuvenate. He recognized that he couldn’t serve if his bucket was empty!

Shoghi Effendi had to take a “leave of absence” from his job “under the weight of sorrows and boundless grief” until “by the grace of God, having gained health, strength, self confidence and spiritual energy” he was able to return. (Ruhiyyih Rabbani, The Priceless Pearl, p. 42)

Once when Shoghi Effendi took some time off, ‘Abdu’l-Baha approved!

We also have a Tablet of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá addressed to Shoghi Effendi, expressing His concern about his health, but at what period it was written I do not know:

He is God! Shoghi Effendi, upon him be the glory of the All-Glorious! Oh thou who art young in years and radiant of countenance, I understand you have been ill and obliged to rest; never mind, from time to time rest is essential, otherwise, like unto ‘Abdu’l-Bahá from excessive toil you will become weak and powerless and unable to work. Therefore rest a few days, it does not matter. I hope that you will be under the care and protection of the Blessed Beauty. (Ruhiyyih Khanum, The Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, p. 7)

A friend of mine has Chronic Fatigue. She used to be a very active Baha’i, and is now bedridden. She often bemoans the fact that she’s not able to do more for the Faith. She wrote to the House of Justice about it; and included in their response to her was this quote:

There is no object in over-taxing your will power and strength by forcing yourself to do things for the Cause. You should let your mind rest in the thought of the infinite love, Mercy and Forgiveness of Bahá’u’lláh, and cease to fret about whether you are or are not doing your share until you fully recover your health. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 282)

When I was dealing with the aftermath of my own childhood trauma, I needed to take time off to heal, but didn’t feel like I could because the job I had allowed me to teach Baha’i consultation to the larger community. I struggled on day by day, finding it harder and harder to go to work. I too wrote to the House of Justice, who told me:

You are encouraged to follow the advice of your therapist in regard to the absences which you should take from your employment in order to facilitate your healing from the trauma you experienced in the past. The time taken away from work beneficial to society would doubtless be more than compensated for by the increase in effectiveness with which you will be able to perform such functions when your healing is more advanced. (The Universal House of Justice, 1985 Dec 02, Child Abuse, Psychology and Knowledge of Self)

Another friend wrote to the House of Justice when she was finding it difficult to participate in community events and Assembly meetings; and she was told:

You have asked what to do since psychological problems sometimes make it difficult for you to participate in community events and Assembly meetings. In striving to follow the Teachings and the best medical advice you can obtain, you will want to remember that the healing you do now is an investment that will enable you to better serve in the future. Ideally, you would combine concentrating on healing with avenues of service which do not interfere with it. (The Universal House of Justice, 1985 Dec 02, Child Abuse, Psychology and Knowledge of Self)

Finally, another friend was told:

You should have no doubt that the completion of any act of service is contingent on one’s health and well-being, and you are urged to let go of the misconception of failure you have been carrying. In the course of life, unforeseen circumstances occur that can interfere with the achievement of our goals. This is part of life in this world and must not be regarded as a dereliction of duty. (Universal House of Justice to an individual, 12 January 2010)

From all of these, we learn:

The permission

  • a good Bahá’í devotes time to his material needs
  • from time to time rest is essential
  • rest a few days, it does not matter
  • we must take better care of our health and build up our reserves
  • we must guard against depleting our forces and having breakdowns
  • excessive toil leaves us weak and powerless and unable to work
  • being exhausted is no asset to our work for the Cause
  • giving the last drop of strength to serving the Cause can sometimes do more harm than good
  • we should safeguard our nerves and force ourselves to take time for real rest and relaxation
  • there is no object in over-taxing your will power and strength by forcing yourself to do things for the Cause
  • follow the best medical advice you can obtain
  • don’t fret about whether you are doing your share until you fully recover your health
  • the completion of any act of service is contingent on one’s health and well-being
  • let go of the misconception of failure you have been carrying
  • this is not a dereliction of duty
  • let your mind rest in the thought of the infinite love, Mercy and Forgiveness of Bahá’u’lláh
  • we can return to work when we’ve gained health, strength, self-confidence and spiritual energy

The benefits

  • it’s better for us and for our work
  • our sensitive, yearning hearts will be better able to withstand its trials
  • we will not get so exhausted
  • the healing you do now is an investment that will enable you to better serve in the future
  • time taken away from work beneficial to society would doubtless be more than compensated for by the increase in effectiveness with which you will be able to perform such functions when your healing is more advanced

So now that we’ve learned it’s OK to take care of ourselves without feeling guilty, let’s look at how to do it. For more information, please see:

How Do We Start Taking Care of Our own Needs?

What’s been your experience learning to take care of yourself? How has this helped give you permission? Post your comments below!