Selfishness is the tendency to prioritize one’s own desires and needs above the needs and desires of other people.
What is Selfishness?
We are all born with a drive to stay alive and healthy, and selfishness may be a misplaced manifestation of this. A certain degree of selfishness is normal. For example, many people would choose to ensure their own food needs are met before giving food to others. But selfishness can also be a pathological personality trait. Selfish people may prioritize their own petty needs above the significant needs of others. For example, a person is exhibiting selfishness when he or she steals money from their mother to buy a comic book.
Some mental health problems can contribute to the development of selfishness. Many personality disorders, particularly antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder, cause people to be so wrapped up in their own desires that they either do not notice or do not care about the needs of others. Many other mental illnesses can cause extreme self-involvement, which can contribute to selfishness. A depressed person, for example, might be so wrapped up in his or her own feelings of suffering that he/she is unable to provide for his/his children or communicate with his/her partner.
Different Conceptions of Selfishness
Many religions decry selfishness and emphasize the virtues of compassion, empathy, and self-sacrifice. The pacifist movement, which draws on many religious traditions, is a radical answer to selfishness, and emphasizes non-violence even in the face of overwhelming hostility. Some religious gurus have advocated extreme self-sacrifice, emphasizing the primacy of others over oneself.
There is significant debate in evolutionary biology about the evolved nature of selfishness. Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene, for example, argues that our genes have the “selfish” desire to propagate themselves and do nothing else. Some biologists argue that people are innately selfish. Others, however, emphasize that helping others can ensure the survival of the species and argue that compassion, empathy, and self-sacrifice are as innate to people as selfishness. People are sometimes more likely to show self-sacrificing behavior for close relatives, and some biologists argue that this is an evolved trait. Many parents would give up their own lives for the lives of their children; one interpretation of this inclination is that when a child survives, the parent’s genes survive with the child.
- Hauser, M. D. (2006). Moral minds: How nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong. New York, NY: Ecco.
Last Updated: 08-24-2015
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L. T.December 3rd, 2016 at 7:37 AM
Interested in helping my brother, who suffers from extreme anti-social and paranoid behavior (obsessive narcissism). My father was anti-social, but extremely giving. I myself suffer from debilitating PTSD and major depression (from an especially violent car accident). My religion, Mennonite, emphasizes pacifism. My father asked me before he died, to care for his farm. I have. My parents have both passed, my father last, from complications of Alzheimer’s. He did everything for my brother and I-even got my brother his own job. Now my brother hoards money and repeatedly moved home to the farm from his 20s-40s. I am disabled but contributed in knowledge of my father’s endeavors and financially. My brother expects a handout, entitled, extremely selfishness. My brother has even aligned himself with my ex boyfriend who wants me to sell and move to be with him in Florida. He even has manipulated my brother to meet his needs, sold an asset of our farm below market level. Selling it (small airplane) wouldve given me more time to settle disability workers comp payment and buy my brother’s share of the farm. There are eager buyers waiting in the wings. Selling the property would render me homeless. I have been resourceful and am living below standards in sacrifice for my father’s legacy. None of the buyers wants to purchase half of property,however there are many leasing opportunities from property. I seek therapy and see a doctor for PTSD, numerous physical limitations (I can’t drive) –my brother will not. He listens to NPR excessively and has become violent with me. I love him but need to survive. It has been taken to the Orphans CT. My brother and my exboyfriend have been negotiating behind my back. My exboyfriend fears being arrested for breach of fiduciary duty. He is an extreme narcissist who came to console me and we briefly appointed him as a pr. Two days after my father’s death my common sense came to light and I kept the letters of administration. He convinced my brother to steal them out of my room. He did. After a year of trying, I finally had him removed. Sorry for the long comment. It is very evident that people should be brave, fight the stigma of mental illness and seek help from a doctor. The illnesses can ruin lives and cause irreparable damages. Thank you for your site.
MarkAugust 19th, 2017 at 7:34 PM
Thank you for sharing your painful story. It must be really hard to deal with. I hope you are able to get what you need.
SMay 6th, 2018 at 11:13 AM
I don’t know what you should do, sorry I’m not able to help. I wanted to thank you for sharing your story. You originally commented in 2016 so I hope that you have been able to figure some things out or get better. All the best and good luck.
AlsueFebruary 4th, 2019 at 1:40 AM
I think you should be more selfish. I know maybe that’s going to shock or upset you to hear, so please excuse me for feeling the need to say so, but hear me out, if you’re able. If these people are really narcissists, they are latching onto you because you’re good supply. To stop being good supply, you need to go no-contact and stop giving. I know that’s hard for people with high-empathy and a trauma history, but if you’re really serious about seeking a solution, that’s likely the solution. Narcissists do not hoover over people who give them no supply. I think putting yourself first will not only be healing for you, but will make a clear point that you are not a victim, and will eliminate their conviction that you are easy to control, and convenient narcissistic supply. If you are firm and consistent about this, they will back off, and go ruin someone else’s life. However, this means without them in your life, you’ll have to take ownership of the parts of you that are still leaking blood in the water before you attract new perps, so the real question is: are you ready for the responsibility of healing and taking care of yourself, because it’s a bigger job than it sounds. Blessings, and future happiness to you.
TJanuary 20th, 2019 at 5:33 PM
It’s been awhile but I have been displaying selfish behavior. Based on the contents of this site, my source of selfishness could have stemmed from years of feeling depressed and lost within my own problems. I’m getting help this year and hope that my issues will be resolved. It has come to a point where I can’t empathize with others because of my pain, it’s not healthy and it’s destroying relationships. Suicidal thoughts and actions are getting stronger either against myself or others. I miss my happiness. I wish the world we lived in was more open about the idea of “it’s okay to not be okay”. If you understand what I mean.
KerriFebruary 1st, 2019 at 7:48 AM
I am sorry I don’t have the magic words to say to change your situation instantly. I just wanted you to know someone has read your words and cares about you even without ever meeting. Please know when I say that I truly mean it. It is not a cliche or something nice to say. I care about you. I am worried you’re going to hurt yourself after reading your thoughts. Please don’t! You are so important! This world needs you. We need you in lots of different ways! I am not going to pretend that I know why you, specifically, are in this world at this exact time. BUT I believe if you decide to kill yourself, this world WOULD NOT BE A BETTER PLACE!!! We need you! I needed your words today to distract me from my own selfishness or resentment of my loved ones selfishness and point me toward self-reflection. (I haven’t figured out yet who’s to blame in our situation which is probably the real underlying issue for me – needing to know who should be ‘fixed more’ to make this marriage work… LOL!)
But bottom line, every. single. day. this world needs you! And every single day this world is a better place because YOU are in it!! You have so much to contribute even when you can’t “see” it. Maybe even, Especially-when you can’t “see” it!!! Thank you for helping me today by letting me read your words! ~K
TDecember 4th, 2019 at 6:20 PM
Hi Kerri, so late but I just saw your reply. It’s Decmeber now and I’m in a much better place right now. Thank you so much for caring enough to reaching out to me. I have realised thus far that my feelings of selfishness could be as a result of guilt and shame and sometimes other people reminding you of your past. When in fact it’s the past and you don’t live there anymore, so neither you nor anyone else should be expecting or looking for you there.
ReneFebruary 14th, 2019 at 3:30 AM
I am this person
groundDecember 1st, 2019 at 10:59 AM
I am hell
FelixJune 27th, 2020 at 10:32 AM
I don’t know for certain why I’m feeling this way, but I’ve withdrawn into my shell to sort out my personal problems, and I feel that I can only be of help to other people when I’m done addressing my own problems (especially financial problems). I’m the type of person who reaches out to people I care about, but currently without the resources to do that, I’ve just let everyone be, But I think it has made me selfish, and I seem to no longer think of my loved ones even when their problem is staring at me, and the solution could be only to give them a listening ear and offer an advice. I really need to get out of this condition.
TimAugust 21st, 2021 at 5:13 PM
Where selfishness begins is no mystery. As with everything there are exceptions to the rule but for the rule you need to look no further than children. We are born selfish and have to be taught that it’s wrong. From there on it becomes a personal choice. Many at least to some extent resist it but others make no effort at all to do so. I’m a very giving person it comes very easy but it does not come natural I watch for it and I fight it when I feel it. It sneaks in there trying to justify why it would be okay just this once not to help because you would like the money for so and so or tell you the person you are going to help has always been irresponsible and will likely be with this why should I do without to cover for someone that is asking and asking again because they make no effort and have no concern for how their actions affect you. Thankfully it’s far between those types of battles with my selfishness as I know it’s in there somewhere resenting me for for never letting it out. It’s not if but when it will make it’s next break for freedom as it’s been there from the beginning and will be there at the end. What shape it takes at the end kind of goes like that story if you have fed it will show you see that in the way extremely close family member up to that point had been great to each other until the one entrusted to distribute the inheritance does something nobody saw coming and that is to leave the person they were likely closest to in life with nothing and does not have one bad feeling about doing it at all. I watched my sisters boyfriend go through it. To this day I cannot wrap my mind around how someone could do that. They appeared to always have each others back and be very tight. Until a large amount of money became involved and that guy completely shut off any sense of shame or conscience he had. The fact that him and his brother would not ever be that close again more likely have never spoken to this day did not make him hesitate for an instant it was full steam ahead for operation screw my bother.
MonroeFebruary 6th, 2022 at 11:37 PM
1) “A depressed person, for example, might be so wrapped up in his or her own feelings of suffering that he/she is unable to provide for his/his children or communicate with his/her partner” You put his/his instead of his/her (my apologies if this is rude). 2) What does it mean if someone suddenly feels extremely selfish?
AnnaApril 23rd, 2022 at 7:40 PM
I’m here in 4/2022, 2 yrs after our World Pandemic invaded our lives. I was very interested to see opinions about selfish people, as I’ve been reflecting all this time being home and mostly secluded with a challenged teen. As a psych/hospice nurse, I’ve always cared for others before myself, at work and home. My children had hard lives with me as a single mom, working constantly and finishing college. My mom was the caregiver for 2 of my 5 total. With much therapy recently, I’ve realized how selfish my mom was, always doing just enough for me, but making sure she comes first with everything. A shocker as I was raised by my grandmother+grandfather, from birth,because she n my bio dad divorced before I was born. At 11 she remarried and I lived with them. Maybe she had no clue, but it was all about her n stepdad. My oldest was with her mostly as I trained n worked as a nurse. She was cared for spoiled by 3 grandmother’s. Just a few yrs ago, this child at 40, stole mom’s house for herself n her grown kids, even tho her n her spouse have great salaries. It took from her siblings n me, as we all are in a bad way; her one sis badly disabled, one deaf( whom shes been jealous of forever, 2 others and me, mom, who leg amputation destroyed my lifelong career)
Was she spoiled therefore felt it owed to her, did she not care how we all had a right to a million dollar home? Was she picking up on her grandmom selfishness her whole life? I’m broken over this and because I tried to fight it but mom gave up, she broke all ties and so did my grown grandchildren( I helped raise when she was 15 n preg) plus my 2 minor grandchildren have no communication with me. I brought all 5 up with compassion, helping others and being generous. One son gets used for giving too much, one son is responsible, kind and caring but does it all himself, ( pays for everything plus has student loans) and is clearly overwhelmed. My middle daughter has always been self sufficient and caring, also a nurse. They are all SO dif yet raised by me, had a selfish dad and a selfish nana( but she did supply for them)
Since I had to do it all myself, even as an only child, I never became selfish, still giving anyway I can. When working I gave money to whomever needed it. Why are some replicating the selfish ones and some like me? The gene factor seems very plausible. Nature/ Nurture??
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