What is Selfishness?

Last winter, I asked a friend of mine what the difference was, between loving yourself and being selfish.  To me, they appeared to be the same thing.

My friend replied that they weren’t going to answer the question, and said I was coming at it from the wrong direction.  I chose to let it be, and let life be my teacher.

And a teacher, it most certainly was.

I learned what selfishness was, when I caught myself acting selfishly.  The specifics are not important–what is important is that I caught myself, and learned the lesson that was being presented to me.   And now I’m going to pass that on to you.

First off, let’s talk about what selfishness is NOT.  It is not selfish to:

  • Think highly of yourself.  You actually are amazing, and capable of much more than you realize.  There is nothing wrong with being aware of this.  In fact, having this awareness allows us to accomplish even more amazing things.
  • Forgive yourself.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean that the action is all right.  It means that we let go of the anger and judgement.  Once you stop judging yourself, you can look at the fears and misunderstandings that led you to make the mistake in the first place.  If you can’t look at the reasons for your behavior, you will have a very hard time making any changes.
  • Be compassionate toward yourself.  When you are more in tune to your own needs, you have an easier time understanding others.  We interpret everything we see through our own experiences.  When we’ve been extrememely kind and understanding toward ourselves, we can’t help but treat others the same way.
  • Seek support when you need it.  We’re not meant to go it alone.  There is absolutely nothing wrong about reaching out to others, when you feel like life has thrown you more than you can handle. 
  • Spend time on yourself.  You are a part of humanity, and you deserve to be happy as much as anyone else.  When you enjoy life, and see how amazing it all is, you will naturally pass this on to others.

So what is selfishness?  Ironically, I found that I was acting very selfishly when I wasn’t doing all of those things.  When we don’t know ourselves well, we judge our actions, thinking they are a part of who we are.  This leads us to become afraid of ourselves, and of life in general.

We can do any number of things, when we’re experiencing this fear.  What did I do?

  • I sought out approval and validation, and continued seeking it out when my doubts inevitably crept back.
  • I became fearful of being alone, and of being abandoned by the people who had given me validation.
  • I became very needy and clingy, because I did not trust myself.
  • I could only see my story and my struggles, and I expected everyone to drop everything to constantly give me validation.
  • I overspent, overate, and engaged in other behaviors in order to find happiness and safety.

Selfishness is not caused by loving yourself too much.  It’s a manifestation of fear, and nothing more.  We all do it, from time to time.  The important thing is not to judge ourselves when we realize that we are in the pattern–judgement will only make the problem worse.  We need to look at the fears and misunderstandings compassionately and–surprisingly–give ourselves a lot more attention.  This may be counter intuitive; I know that I used to think the answer lie in forgetting myself and giving back to others.  However, ignoring the fear will not make it go away, and the selfish behaviors and tendencies will return.  

We need to attend to the fear first, and then giving back becomes much easier and fulfilling.

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14 thoughts on “What is Selfishness?

  1. Love this! I think when you think highly of yourself, you are actually able to be less selfish and give of yourself more, if that makes any sense. Kind of like the “you need to love yourself to love others”. I try to remember that with forgiveness- How can I forgive others if I can’t forgive myself?

  2. I agree– selfishness comes from the hurt/empty places inside us. The antidote to selfishness might be something like “self-fullness” since we have to have something of value inside in order to have something to offer others.

  3. It is amazing how many of our unproductive behaviours and traits are linked to fear. I sometimes wonder how I ever used to get out of the bed in the morning considering how much I allowed fear to rule my life.

    • Same here. I’m glad that I was able to confront so many of my fears, just as my world (as I knew it) completely crumbled. The outcome, last winter, could have been completely different. I’m glad to be here right now.

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