Is Being Selfish Always Bad?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

My question has to do with selfishness. Specifically, is it always a bad thing to be selfish? Or is it sometimes okay?

I feel like our society makes selfishness out to be always bad, like it’s a character flaw. I’ve even heard it called immoral. I have a friend who thinks it’s a sin, no matter what form it takes. This makes me think about my behaviors and the way I conduct my life, and by that standard I guess I am pretty sinful. I am not sure what to make of that, but I can’t say it sits well with me.

Let me give you just a few examples of how I think I am selfish. When I am out with friends and they want to see a movie I don’t want to see or spend money on, I will make up a reason to get out of it. (This generally means lying, which I don’t like doing.) On my weekend, when I have my heart set on doing something and someone comes along and asks me to help them move or babysit, I’ll say I can’t, even though I technically have the time. (I would just rather spend it doing what I want.) When my mom calls during my favorite show or while I’m taking a hot bath, sometimes I will let it go to voicemail. (Sometimes I will even wait until the next day to call her back because I just don’t feel like dealing with it.) When the local fire department calls every year seeking a donation, I politely decline. (I donated once, years ago, which is why they keep calling.) Also, every year for my birthday, I tend to treat myself to something way nicer than I get for other people. (This year, I splurged on a week-long vacation to Chile. Meanwhile, I got my mom flowers and my best friend got a $30 pendant.)

Does all this make me a bad person? I am curious to know what a therapist thinks, but I am too selfish to spend the money to go and ask one in person, I guess. (That was a joke. But there is some truth to it.) —Self-Driven

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Dear Self-Driven,

Thank you for writing. I appreciate your joke; it helps to have a sense of humor.

It sounds like you are conflicted: on the one hand, you have a way of doing things where you feel a need to preserve your time/space—or perhaps even yourself—while at the same time part of you observes this, and with a stroke of the chin says, “Hmm. What’s up with that?”

I suppose the good news here is you have enough self-awareness and reflection to even ask the question. It sounds like you have a moral compass, or conscience, which wonders about the possible downside of conducting yourself this way. You do not sound like a stingy person; giving your mother flowers and your friend a pendant is not the same as giving a lump of coal! The fact you wrote in says something about your curiosity, always valuable in discovering more about ourselves and our relational world.

As human beings, we cannot help but make very personal psychological meaning of day-to-day events. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar (as Sigmund Freud is said to have said), but most of the time, it isn’t. We interpret and assign value (often unconsciously) to all aspects of our relationships according to our personalities, sensitivities, and life histories. It sounds like, at this point, you are valuing some form of self-protection over extending (or over-extending) yourself for others. Again, the good news is you are not actively harming anyone but rather questioning a way in which you choose, for one reason or another, to withhold “going the extra mile” for others in your life. Yet when you do provide for yourself this way, there are traces of guilt for feeling “sinful.” Sounds like a difficult position to navigate.

The benefit is you have more time/money for yourself, which sounds important for as-yet-unknown reasons; the “cost” might be some distance between you and others. So while there is more elbow room for you, there’s a chance you’re missing out on an emotionally closer—and perhaps more rewarding—way of being with others.

It sounds like you have a moral compass, or conscience, which wonders about the possible downside of conducting yourself this way. You do not sound like a stingy person; giving your mother flowers and your friend a pendant is not the same as giving a lump of coal! The fact you wrote in says something about your curiosity, always valuable in discovering more about ourselves and our relational world.

Is it possible you have felt, in the past, that too much of yourself was given away? Sometimes a defensive or avoidant (or self-protective) behavior becomes a “correction” for earlier emotional injury, even trauma. A child who was neglected may grow up in such a way that they need to be with others all or nearly all of the time, or for the most part alone and therefore safe—two common ways some people compensate for or self-regulate pain carried forward from early experiences.

It could also be that such requests feel like an “impingement,” as the great D.W. Winnicott said. An impingement means basically an intrusion into our personal “space” or psyche that feels distressing or threatening—a crossed boundary, as it were. Perhaps when you are approached for a favor, there is a part of you that becomes anxious or self-protective, and moves away to calm yourself in order to get back to “normal” (though what is a normal or a baseline state of being varies from person to person; there is no universal “normal”).

As a psychotherapist, I’m willing to bet there is a reason for these self-protective maneuvers. To better understand, I would want to know more about what specifically happens internally when a request is made of you—to interrupt your favorite show, to give up an afternoon to help a friend move, and so on. Is it anxiety? Anger? Numbness? What would happen if we were watching a movie of your life, in a scene where someone asks you to babysit and give up your afternoon? What would register on your face if we went to slow motion? A grimace? Fear?

I would also want to know, in a neutral way, why you sometimes feel the need to lie, which also gives you some pangs of doubt, implying you prefer honesty. From a psychological point of view, it sounds again like a covering up of sorts; perhaps there is shame or guilt in saying “no,” as if you are needing to protect your time or personal space while feeling, at the same time, it is wrong or sinful, as you put it.

I’d be highly curious to know what you associate with all of these feelings and emotional interactions. It could be something like, “Earlier in my life I was too giving and super responsible, with nothing left over for myself,” or, “I feel people take me for granted, and I resent that I’m always the first person everyone asks for help,” or, “It’s so hard for me to say no, so I fell into the habit of turning down such requests,” or, “My mom/dad was always leaning on me for things they or my siblings could have done, and it made me feel unappreciated.” Some or all or none of the above might apply here; the point I’m making is to cultivate curiosity and nonjudgmental exploration of the emotions accompanying these transactions and what their roots might be.

I would imagine that, were you sitting in my therapy room, there would be a time where I might ask you to work with me regarding something—a schedule change, an increase in fee, my vacation, and so on—and that would bring up similar feelings, which we could then process. That, to me, is one of the neat things about psychotherapy—you can raise these issues into direct awareness and reflection as they are happening.

You could also discuss this with a trusted friend or adviser. If you want to do something really courageous, you could ask for honest (and nonjudgmental) feedback from a friend regarding whether they have noticed this tendency of yours and its impact on them. I would reiterate to yourself and the other person that this is not a “sin” but a struggle, in that part of you does this somewhat reflexively, though not without questions and some uneasiness.

Finally, I would encourage you to conduct an experiment and say yes to such requests once in a while, and see what happens. There’s a chance that a part of you wants to be more available or closer to others in your life. There is a balance, difficult to find, between giving for others versus saving for ourselves. I have found that, more often than not (and as corny as it sounds), what we give to others does return to us in some way. I often tell people in therapy (and myself!) that it’s good to move a little outside our comfort bubbles from time to time; we don’t want to push ourselves too hard, nor become too numb to habit or ritual. The warmth of gratitude you feel from the other person might make it worth it. If you do feel taken for granted, it can be worthy of a discussion, or even saying yes to someone else. It can also create a sense of abundance (maybe there is more time and space available to you than may be perceived at this point).

Thanks again for writing. I hope some of this was helpful.

Respectfully,

Darren

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
  • 7 comments
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  • berta

    berta

    December 16th, 2016 at 5:48 PM

    Why does it always have to be perceived as being something bad when all you are doing is taking care of yourself and your own needs? Why is that a bad t hing ?

  • Leila

    Leila

    December 19th, 2016 at 8:58 AM

    I guess we have to look at it as is what we are doing hurting someone intentionally or are you truly doing it as a means of protection for yourself? I think that if you look at the motivation behind the action then it might make more sense to you.

  • Holden

    Holden

    December 21st, 2016 at 10:23 AM

    If it isn’t bad then why do we inevitably always wind up telling our children to play nice and not be selfish? wouldn’t this be giving them the wrong message, and that in fact sometimes it will actually be ok to be a little selfish?

  • Zack

    Zack

    December 22nd, 2016 at 6:31 AM

    I would say that some of the most successful people financially and business wise that I have ever encountered are probably some of the most selfish people I have ever met. It is probably because they care very little what others think about them and their actions that has let them get ahead in this way. Now for me there are always going to be more important things than just being a financial success but for some people this is what defines them. To each his own I suppose.

  • nicolette

    nicolette

    December 26th, 2016 at 1:49 PM

    It’s not that being selfish is bad but you do have to admit that this is the message that we are always being given so naturally this is what most of us believe. But I don’t, not always any way. There is a time for everything.

  • wtwct

    wtwct

    December 31st, 2016 at 11:16 AM

    Self care, not selfish. However, be careful avoiding your mother. She can be gone in a heartbeat. My world is forever changed without her.

  • Sam

    Sam

    December 31st, 2016 at 1:21 PM

    I do hate it too that sometimes we have to lie in order to preserve some of our time for ourselves, But what do you do? Be brutally honest and tell someone no I have the time to do this but I really don’t want to do it?

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