CONVERSATIONS: "What is Positive Selfishness?"

It's a common refrain - "Being a woman today is exhausting"

By Michelle Valigursky, Shari Berman 93C 96L, Jennifer Finkelstein 93C

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Jennifer Finkelstein and Shari Berman joined forces to research and explore the issues women face today.

Last month, Michelle Valigursky met up with Shari Garelick Berman 93C 96L and Jennifer Cabot Finkelstein 93C in Princeton at Mediterra. Nestled into Palmer Square, the restaurant serves as the informal home to their monthly meetings to write and discuss their work for Real Women Talking Now. Finkelstein is a licensed clinical social worker practicing in the Philadelphia area, and Berman is an attorney who previously worked with Kenneth Cole Productions and who now researches and writes from her home office in northern New Jersey.

After five years of researching modern motherhood, co-authors Finkelstein and Berman know the therapeutic value of, and the critical need for, Positive Selfishness. Read on to understand just what it really is.


Jen: As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I have been teaching women the concept of Positive Selfishness for many years through my clinical practice. Thousands of women have told me about their persistent and pervasive feelings of personal drain, and related feelings of being overscheduled and under-supported. Based on my favorite theoretical perspective, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), our concept positively spins the term self-care, turning “selfishness” on its head, and offers us all a mantra that really sticks. The basic principle of CBT is that our thoughts have great power in influencing our feelings, and our feelings influence our behavior. We think it is time for women to reframe, rename, and prioritize self-care.

Shari: In addition to Jennifer’s clinical practice, as we interview women nationwide for the book we are currently writing: Rx for Real Women: Positive Selfishness (because all this leaning in and out has left us feeling bent and contorted), we hear repeatedly that “Being a woman today is exhausting!"


Shari Garelick Berman 93C 96L

It no doubt is, and after a short time researching, we quickly recognized a few topics that applied equally to mothers of all shapes and sizes, causing them all considerable angst. We relied upon our attorney-therapist backgrounds to catalogue the responses, see the trends and come up with important takeaways for this melting pot of moms who share a common ground – all seem pressed for time. Our research indicates that stay-at-home moms as well as those who work outside the home are equally in need of practicing Positive Selfishness. Both camps can be left feeling “not quite good enough,” and not able to “do it all.”

Jen: From our research we heard that modern motherhood is “like being on a treadmill that keeps going faster and faster as the incline gets steeper and steeper.” If you have ever tried to run, let alone walk, on a treadmill with the incline and level both increasing, you will know it’s hard to maintain one’s sense of balance. When we surveyed women nationwide about their self-care (or lack thereof), we sparked a multitude of responses, all powerful and incredible in their range. Women answered so fast, our inboxes were screaming. Some answered, “Does wine count?” We learned that Positive Selfishness takes various forms. We also learned that even just a few minutes dedicated to oneself can make a difference in one’s wellness.

Michelle: We’ve all been told that selfishness is a negative trait, yet you talk about it as positive and necessary. Can you explain?

Shari: Yes, you are right, it seems we’ve been fed messages from an early age about how thinking of one’s self is negative. And, if one only thinks of oneself all the time, at the expense of others, that is selfish. That isn’t what we are writing about or advocating. We are encouraging mothers to believe that their needs matter, not in place of, but in addition to, the needs of their family, friends, work, and community. Before we can begin to convince women (and men for that matter) that focusing on self is vital, we have to re-frame what too many women see as selfish into a fuller understanding of the genuine need to take time and care of self. From my experience as a working mother – working full-time, part-time, or as a consultant, my time as a full-time stay-at-home mom, and from listening to the women we’ve had the pleasure of speaking to at focus groups, women’s conferences, at the sidelines of the soccer fields, in the stands of the ice rinks, the pediatrician’s waiting room, via our website and social media, the happiest mothers seem to be the ones that figure out imaginative ways to put themselves on their ever growing “to-do” list. When we follow suit, the results are inherently positive -- not just for ourselves, but as an added bonus, for those in our care and with whom we share relationships. 

Jen: But, Positive Selfishness does not always mean “doing something.” Positive Selfishness is also a mindset. It means setting limits and boundaries when needed. It also means saying “NO!” at times, in order to preserve much-needed energy and take care of oneself as an also urgent necessity. Do I dare say that it means putting one’s own needs above others at times? Yes, I do.

Shari: While Positive Selfishness doesn’t always have to be about “doing something,” it can be about doing something. When we asked what women do for self-care, we received a myriad of answers involving doing something - ranging from relational activities to relaxation. For many stressed out, over-worked, or just plain exhausted moms, a twenty minute manicure, curling up with a book club book or watching a movie (on demand or in the theater) is the perfect way to recharge. Others shared that going for a run, or taking a yoga class was restorative. For me, personally, having time to write or read is a great source of self-care, as is connecting with the people I love. Catching up over dinner, a movie, a walk, or coffee with one of the many women in my “village,” or taking a Bar Method class while my 2 ½ year old son happily goes to the childcare offered there brings me happiness.

Jen:  For me personally, I often take a few mini Positive Selfishness moments throughout the day, since I rarely get an hour to myself. I cannot wait until I have “free time,” to add some Positive Selfishness to my day, since this seems more a myth that a reality. I try to find creative ways to get me into my own life. I find that just walking a few extra blocks from work to my office can help me de-stress, and making a phone date with a friend for a chat during a commute home can add some fun to my day. My modus operandi is racing to and from work and my twin boys. But while I am racing, I can find mini, creative ways to capture some me time. 

Shari:  We are always racing, whether working full time, part time, flex time, or choosing to stay-at-home with our children (and frankly, there are few stay-at-home mothers I know who are ever actually at home). We are volunteering, and are busy, active, ambitious, educated, and tired. The research is clear, we need to give ourselves permission to take some time away from that daunting to-do list and meeting the needs of others in our world, so we can meet our own needs. Mothers should understand that self-priority shouldn’t be a pipedream, nor should it be a sign of “neediness.”

Jen: That’s true.


Jennifer Cabot Finkelstein 93C

However, many of us have still been socialized like previous generations of women to be caregivers, first and foremost, and even at our own expense. According to our research, another obstacle that prevents us from practicing Positive Selfishness is guilt. So many of us feel the role of mother, partner, spouse, friend, daughter, neighbor, citizen, should always come first, before self-care, even if the lack of self-care is taking a toll on us. Guilt is a powerful emotion and seems to be one of the driving forces preventing Positive Selfishness.

Shari: Some mothers who work outside the home revealed that they feel guilty when working because they are "missing out" on milestones, the ability to volunteer in the classroom as much as they’d like, watch dance class, basketball practice, etc. But, then stay-at-home moms shared their stories about their financial stress due to becoming a single income household or just how physically exhausting mothering 24/7 is, and how little time for self there is left after the kids are asleep, homework, permission slips and snacks tucked into the backpacks, lunches prepared for the next day, and yes, that last load of laundry tossed into the dryer. As if guilt wasn’t enough of a barrier, we are bombarded by media images suggesting that we are not doing enough, not perfect enough, and not thin or young enough either. Adopting a mindset of being less judgmental of others and less self-critical is essential in today’s day and age of mothering.

Jen: On the surface it seems like women enjoy amazing liberties, and theoretically should be happier and more empowered than any prior generation. However, so many are walking around feeling depleted, anxious, stressed and even feeling a bit crazy on their worst days. This is because, in part, we do not have many examples of women living the lives we do. So we are improvising as we go, which while open to possibility, is also constrained by a system that does not yet reflect the shape and complexity of our roles and lives.

Shari: Yes, so true. Unlike our childhoods, where many of us simply played at home, or ran around our own neighborhoods after school until being called in for dinner, the post-school hours have radically changed. Mothers are chauffeuring and carpooling for hours on end now most days of the week while fielding phone calls, and pausing to respond to a barrage of emails. In addition, many mothers are navigating special diets given the growing incidence of food allergies, and so many of us are trying to help our children excel in every which way from the soccer to science, as the pressures towards academic achievement and athletic success keep intensifying. 

Michelle: Do you think a mother’s role varies significantly from that of a father’s?

Jen: Yes, although more men today are co-parenting than in previous generations, mothers are still the CEOs of their households. Despite increasing involvement from fathers, our data tells us that it is the mother, more often than not, who still feels primarily responsible for the emotional and academic well-being and development of their children and still doing the lion’s share of coordinating our children’s lives and running our households. 


For more insight into women’s lives today, please visit the Real Women Talking Now website.

Shari: None of this is going to change anytime soon – certainly not until our workplaces, marriages, policies, and institutions catch up. Even though we landed on the Moon in 1969, it took an additional twenty four years before we passed the Family Medical Leave Act, the first national policy designed to help working Americans meet the dual demands of work and family. And yet while 164 countries worldwide have found a way to guarantee paid maternity leave, ours still has not. Although changes are being made, none will happen as fast as any of us would like. So, we need to make changes, however incremental, to make us happier and healthier. Self-care is not a luxury item – the goal should be thriving as a mother, not just surviving.

Jen: We think Positive Selfishness is a change worth making now. We hope you’ll make Positive Selfishness your go-to phrase. Like Nike’s “Just Do it,” this is a slogan that works, if you work it. 

Shari: We can only hope that sharing our research on this topic ignites women to not just think, but to change the ways they live their lives now.

Michelle: Thanks for sharing such great insight, Shari and Jen!

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Michelle Valigursky