The Feelings of Selfishness That Can Accompany Chronic Illness


Selfish – (adjective) (of a person, action, or motive) lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.

Guilty – (adjective) culpable of or responsible for a specified wrongdoing; to blame, at fault, in the wrong, blameworthy, responsible.

Early on in my diagnosis, I used to think I always felt guilty. I missed school. Was late turning in homework. Called in sick to work. Cancelled plans with friends to stay home and watch Netflix. Asked my mom and dad to do things for me that any adult should be able to do. But, after more than a decade of chronic illness, I realized it is not always guilt I am experiencing. I am feeling selfish. I am concerned with myself over others. When do I feel selfish? Often, especially during the scenarios below.

1. When I request my parents’ help.

As an adult who now lives on my own, nothing makes me feel as selfish as when I have to ask my mommy to come stay with me because I don’t feel well enough or am bedridden. I am taking her away from my three brothers, my dad and their home. I derail whatever plans she had that day, sometimes that week, for her to care for me. One would think self-care is well within any adult’s skill set; however, during a bad time, it is not a skill I possess.

2. When I can’t drive.

After taking certain medications, I am not comfortable driving. This means if I need a gallon of milk, prescriptions or to get to work, I have to ask someone to take me. I disrupt my friends, fiancee or coworkers to have them drive me places. Some ask why I don’t take an Uber or a Lyft, but there are times when I am in such bad pain that I would never want to subject an innocent bystander, so to speak, to the chaos and panic that can come with caring for a chronically ill person.

3. When I have to leave early.

Whether it is work, a family get-together or a social outing with friends, I hate having to leave early in order to take the time I need to rest. Taking time is always hard for me. This is usually when I experience the mixture of guilt and selfishness.

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4. When I tell my significant other I can’t contribute.

Owning a home or living on your own is a lot of work. I feel selfish when I have to ask someone else to pick up my slack. Doing the dishes, washing laundry or taking out the trash requires them to give their time to doing something I am responsible for.

5. When I plan things to accommodate my illness.

I only know two other people with a chronic illness; therefore, the majority of my plans are with “normal” people, for lack of a better word. When I am asked to make plans, I rarely schedule anything in the morning. I begin things in the afternoon and limit myself to only a few hours of activity because that is what my body can handle. I shorten trips and plan plenty of stops along the way, whether for food, rest or to re-medicate. I also steer clear of activities that are potential triggers of any of my symptoms, many of which are fun and a great time.

6. When I always take the bed.

Sleepovers have always been a great pastime of any teen or 20-something. After college, these plans died down, ushering in out-of-town weddings, business trips, family get-togethers and trips. Because of my pain, I need a good bed to not just sleep, but to rest during the day if I need it. Couches, futons, pull-outs and air mattresses can actually aggravate my pain and cause me to be miserable. I am not calling dibs on the bed to be “high maintenance,” I need it to keep my health in control.

7. When I take the front seat.

I get carsick easily, but I feel selfish when I take the front seat from someone when we are riding together since this can often split up couples or pairs. I also tend to need to recline to stay comfortable, forcing whoever is behind me to sacrifice their precious legroom.

8. Whenever I say “no.” Every time.

Whether I say no because I don’t have the energy, the activity is a potential trigger or it will cause too much stress to work out all the details, I feel selfish as I envision myself becoming a shut in. Depriving my friends, family and coworkers of experiences. Please know I am not saying “no” to be purposefully selfish. I am saying “no” as an act of self-preservation. To help keep me healthy.

It has taken a great deal of time for me to learn that guilt and selfishness often coincide for me and that it is often difficult to discern between the two. The best way I describe these two feelings is that they coexist like this: I feel selfish for taking or requesting something (time, resources) from someone. For example, I feel selfish asking for someone’s time/help. I feel guilty when someone goes without something or misses out because of me. For example, when they say yes to giving that time, they are missing out on something else for me and I feel guilty.

We often talk about guilt and being chronically ill, but it is important to know that guilt is not the only emotion I experience when making requests. Feeling selfish can be just as devastating to us spoonies, and we need to admit that we feel selfish, too.

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Thinkstock photo via heckmannoleg.

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