In A Better You, Wellbeing

Being Selfish: Is it a Good or Bad Trait to Have?

There are multitudes of ideas regarding those who are selfish. Some say that to be selfish is okay, others say that it is not. Let us look at the idea and then come to our own conclusion on the subject. The definition of selfish according to Merriam Webster is, “having or showing concern only for yourself and not for the needs or feelings of other people.” Are you selfish or are you someone that gives of yourself wholeheartedly? On the other hand, are you somewhere in the middle of these two extremes?

Selfishness is necessary to some degree. Taking care of your own needs can be considered selfish; however, if you do not take this attitude you will never get anything done for yourself. Michael Jordan has said that, “To be successful you have to be selfish or else you never achieve… And once you get to your highest level then you have to be unselfish… Stay reachable… Stay in touch… Don’t isolate.” This is a healthy view of selfishness but often what happens is that people take the slant of the first part of the quote and forget about giving back after they have become successful and are able to help others. They are caught up in their selfish ways and it becomes all about them.

From a Psychological Perspective

“When you take care of yourself fist, you show up as a healthy, grounded person in life.” Bob Rosen. He also states that it is our own nature to take care of our own needs first. This can be perceived as an attribute that becomes the source of negative emotions, such as fear and guilt. If you are not giving from the heart but because you think that either it is the popular thing to do or what is expected of you, then giving of yourself can become full of resentment toward those to who you are giving, as it is not done freely but under duress.

When applied to roles of leadership Rosen also says, “Selfish people have a drive to succeed.” It is difficult for a person in a leadership of others to take care of others if they do not first take care of themselves. There is wisdom in this attitude, however, when does selfishness cross the line into something that becomes unhealthy for the individual and those around them? Again, when you let go of your own selfishness to do for others and the act is performed because of outside pressures, as opposed to your own willingness, resentment can set in. Being authentic in your actions is what is most important, whether it appears to others that you are selfish or not.

On Another Note

If we had a world of selfish people, who were opposed to helping anyone but themselves, the world would be a sad place to be. In the last twenty or thirty years, Americans as whole have become more selfish and less inclined to help others. Much of this can be attributed to modern family life where households are less likely to have two parents. Fewer people than ever have lives that revolves around the Church and its teachings. Children today or less likely to have positive role models, think that they are owed what they receive and have a tendency to be more selfish that those of the past. Whether this behavior is healthy is up for question.

The Virtue of Selfishness

Can there be virtue in selfishness? Ayn Rand wrote a book on the subject and states that, “In popular usage, the word selfishness is a synonym for evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends… and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.”

The dictionary meaning of selfishness says that it is a concern with one’s own interests. Looking at it from that perspective, there is nothing wrong with looking after one’s own self interests. If they do not, then who will? The issue is at what point one’s selfishness gets in the way of being a functional caring human being? There must be a balance struck at some point. A balance needs to be struck between caring for one’s own needs, yet giving to others or your time, attention, and caring. Without some form of selfishness, you would never do anything for yourself and then become a person who lacks self-esteem because every act that you perform is for someone else.

Suicide and selfishness

It has been said that suicide is a selfish act; however, many people who commit suicide suffer from severe depression and hopelessness. Suicide is an act of desperation of one who sees no other way to go forward in their lives. Depression is an illness and does not discriminate based on gender, race or cultural background. The fight that some individuals have with bouts of depression sometimes becomes so burdensome that the only way they see to get out of it, is to take their own life.

“Suicide is not a selfish act, say survivors who have attempted to take their own life.” ( They state that there mindset at their time of attempted suicide was one of hopelessness and that they wanted release of their mental pain. Drug and alcohol abuse was often a factor. Individuals of the study performed by “Sane” also stated, “Judgmental attitudes and stigma were contributing factors of their attempted suicides.

They wanted to end their lives to end the suffering that they were causing others due to their mental illness. Sane’s suicide prevention manager says, “The less judgmental we are about people who attempt suicide the more likely that people who are feeling suicidal will seek help.” Looking at suicide from this perspective, those who attempt or carryout their suicide are often acting out of selflessness toward their family and friends. However, losing someone in this manner is very painful and difficult to understand.

How to be More Selfish

If you happen to be one of those individuals who are completely selfless, stop it. Being selfish has gotten a bad rap. “It is okay to be selfish—it’s just the term selfish has this negative connotation,” says clinical psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., author of Better Than Perfect. When we take time to take care of our own needs first, such as how much we sleep, what we do to have fun, and with our relaxation time, we tend to be better parents, partners, employees and members of society in general.

It can also be healthy to withdraw from the hustle and bustle of life in order to recharge. This may appear to be a selfish act but if you are not operating at your optimal level, you can be more of a drain on others due to your diminished performance. Finding the right balance between a healthy level of selfishness and one of giving back can be a challenge but it can also become a healthy way of life if you can find that happy medium.

The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins

In “The Selfish Gene”, Mr. Dawkins states, “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.”

Looking at babies, they can be considered entirely selfish. This is not considered a bad thing, as it is what it is. Babies require a lot of care and selflessness on the part of parents. It is as we grow and explore the world, that we begin to understand the concept of selfishness and selflessness. It is not a concept that we attain on our own, as children are inherently selfish until they are taught otherwise.

“Any altruistic system is inherently unstable, because it is open to abuse by selfish individuals, ready to exploit it.” (Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene) Therein lays the problem. At what point do you say no when you are wont to give totally of yourself? You can be so selfless that you lose your own identity due to someone else’s selfishness. This behavior is unhealthy for both parties.

Selfish Love

When we think of love, selfishness is not how it is usually viewed. Love of itself is a very selfless act and is seen as such by most individuals. However, selfish love is a very real phenomenon and can be attributed to a lack of self-confidence. It is not unusual for there to be one who gives more and one who takes more in a relationship. The problem in this type of relationship arises when either the giver or taker begin to resent their role.

There are ways to deal with a selfish lover that can make things work out but it will take active action on your part. According to Srini Pillay, M.D. in Debunking Myths of the Mind, “a selfish lover is easily threatened, so complaining to them, or about them rarely works.” He suggests that you find other places to invest your loving energy, which will reduce your own torture. Confrontation of your own pain may illicit empathy on the part of the selfish lover, allowing them to see your emptiness as a mirror to theirs. He also says to, “differentiate between the need to resuscitate an internally dead person and actual love. If the selfish lover brings out the craving in you, do not think of it as “life”. Instead, recognize your own addiction to this behavior.

Are you Healthfully Selfish?

Taking care of yourself and your needs sometimes requires that you exhibit selfishness. This is not behavior that is wrong; it is behavior that is healthy. If you push yourself to the point of exhaustion, you are not going to be able to support your spouse, your children or your boss. Taking the time to recharge your batteries by taking a nap, or going off by yourself may be seen, as selfish but don’t let yourself be guilted into giving up these quiet pleasures to make someone else happy. When looked at in this context, selfishness is not bad. It is good for you and for those with whom you associate. If a thirty-minute nap or a long walk makes you feel better then you will be more prepared to deal with everything that live throws your way. Stopping to smell the roses is a healthy attitude.

The Role of Selfishness

As we progress through life, our attitude towards selfishness will likely change. As children, our world is insular and we don’t see the big picture, so life tends to be all about us. That is unless you live in a large household where there is very little in the way of resources or time for anyone to be very selfish. When we hit our teen years, we can very easily become totally self-absorbed or become that person that is always there with a kind word and a ready hand to help everyone. As adults, we may find ourselves in a situation where we must give more than we receive or where we take more than we give.

Finding your own balance within relationships and your job is up to you. Only you can set the boundaries that you require to be comfortable in your relationships. Giving to excess can be as unhealthy as being selfishly self-absorbed. Finding where you fit in the overall scheme of things may take time and soul searching. Working with family members directly and allowing them to know how you feel on the subject will help give you and them a semblance of balance. They too, may see that they are being too selfish or not selfish enough. When parents work together to rectify imbalances in their relationships, they pass valuable life lessons to their children.

In Conclusion

As you can see, the concept of selfishness is a two edged sword that can be both helpful and harmful, depending on your attitude and awareness of the topic. It is a rare thing to see someone who is so selfless that they will give their all to a cause or relationship and is more common to see those who are so completely self involved that the plight of others never occurs to them. However, finding a balance of selfishness and selflessness can help you with your relationships and can give you a better understanding of who you are and what you want from life. This understanding can also help you with the relationships of others who are not as giving as you may be.

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