Healthy Selfishness vs. Unhealthy Selfishness
"If you’re honest with yourself, would you say you’re a selfish person or a selfless person? What do you think of the assertion that everyone is in fact selfish, regardless of how well it is masked? Could you entertain the view that some of us are healthy in our selfish tendencies while most of us are quite unhealthy and destructive, which is what gives the topic of ‘selfishness’ a negative association and leads us to deny it as a fundamental attribute of human nature?
If you really analyze it, you will eventually see that we either take good care of ourselves – which enables us actually to have time and energy for others – or we neglect our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing, and therefore live in the world with stress, resentment and a lack of joy. Our metaphorical cup is either overflowing from constructive thoughts, emotions and healthy lifestyle habits, arising from selfishly attending to our deeper feelings and needs, or it is devoid of anything positive to offer because it has become full of toxicity after years of self-destructive compromise, emotional repression and fear-based living.
Nature was actually designed to thrive through a healthy and selfish form of self-preservation whereby an organism finds what it needs first to survive and eventually to thrive in balance with its environment. A wonderful example of this is an apple tree, which could not offer oxygen for us to breathe, apples for us to eat or shade for us to find shelter beneath if it did not selfishly absorb the water and nutrients from the earth or the light and energy from the sun that it needs to grow strong and healthy. Being an integral part of nature, we too were designed to function optimally through this same form of healthy self-interest. As a human being, not only does our body, heart and mind function best when we give ourselves what we need to be well, happy and strong, but the natural by-product of this dynamic is that we also have much more to give to others when we have truly attended to ourselves.
'Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others.'
When you read the phrase healthy selfishness you might think these two words contradict each other or you may recognize the limiting belief you inherited from your parents or from society that being selfish is negative, bad, wrong, unhealthy or sinful. Many people who read this may recognize they have created their entire life based on a fear of being judged as selfish. If you fall into this category where you have spent, or still spend, the majority of your life pleasing others and putting yourself either second or last when dealing with your family, friends, partner or spouse, the truth is you are still selfish in your ways. You have simply learned a very unhealthy and self-destructive form of selfishness, which is currently masked in your perception as selflessness or martyrdom, but which in reality is your completely selfish way of surviving and getting what you want and think you need.
Our fears often cause us to selfishly protect ourselves and remain comfortable rather than face the criticism of those closest to us. It’s common to keep denying what we really feel, want or need because we’re scared of the reactions and the responsibilities that will come with speaking or acting based on our inner truth. When we learn to be honest with ourselves and with others, the people who are used to us pleasing them will become faced instead with their own anger, hurt and insecurity, which our pleasing behaviours have temporarily masked. When we honour ourselves without always pacifying others, we also run the risk of being rejected by those we love and value most, because anyone who still compromises and betrays themselves regularly will find it hard to understand our growing sense of self-respect and self-worth. They may unintentionally judge us, but only because they are still judging themselves for not exercising the courage to value themselves.
The ultimate example I like to use to deconstruct the myth of selflessness, and one that proves that everyone is, in fact, selfish, is that of a parent. If we truly question every possible reason for a woman or man to bring a child into this world, we find strictly selfish motives. No woman or man says I want to have a child and give up the next twenty-plus years of my life to meet the needs of someone who will most likely take me for granted, and then blame me for all their problems. I frame it in this light a bit humorously to make a point, but, with the utmost respect, this is a very sensitive and confronting fact for some people.
Since anyone who reads this is obviously the child of their parents, please pause for a moment here and ask yourself why your parents conceived you and then birthed you into this world? Was this motivating factor selfish or selfless? If you yourself want to be a parent, are now a parent or have been for years, please also pause to ask yourself why you want children or had children in the first place? If you’re as honest with yourself as possible, have your motives been selfless or selfish?
Whether parenthood was a conscious choice or an accident, it is the best example of selfishness disguised as selfless sacrifice, because men and women always create children from their own desire to do so, even if parenting ends up being different to what they thought it would be. In other words, any person who has a child does so because it’s their dream to have a family, or it’s their intention to parent better than their parents did, or to give a child what they never received. Although rarely admitted, many times a child is an unwanted mistake, for one or both parents, who were simply wanting to have fun, or to enjoy the pleasures of sexual intimacy, or seeking the love, approval or acceptance of the opposite sex. In some cases, a woman or a man doesn’t know what else to do with their life and so having a child seems like a good option, because – why not – everyone else is doing it. Sometimes having a child is a compromise to keep a man, or not to lose a woman, or to become financially secure, or to escape one’s own parents, or to change one’s life, or in some sad cases, an opportunity for a larger benefit payment from the government. In other words, even the most loving, giving and apparently ‘self- sacrificing’ parent is selfish.
What we all need to acknowledge, besides our selfish nature, is that there is nothing wrong with this fact because it’s the way life is. The key point here is that it’s healthier to be honest about your own selfishness as well as that of others, so that you can make informed choices based on deep self-love and truth. It’s actually better for everyone that we stop making self-destructive decisions that are based on denial or the lies we tell ourselves. The more we understand and accept this, the clearer it becomes that when we do love ourselves in healthy ways we’re actually preparing ourselves to give consciously to other people, without there being manipulation, conditions or strings attached.
Giving time, energy or support to others, even to our own detriment, often feels so natural, because spiritually speaking, there is no true separation between anyone. So, when we love others we are also loving ourselves. However, on a practical level, most of us unintentionally focus on others as a means of distracting ourselves from our deeper feelings, needs and desires, because we’ve never learned how to simply be alone with our thoughts and emotions. We often try to make other people happy and we assert our motives are selfless, when in reality we don’t know how to say ‘no’ and we also expect others to please us in similar ways. When they do not, we feel hurt, resentful or used, because we were in fact ‘giving to get’ instead of giving from a pure, full and selfless place. Most forms of blame arise from this habit of relating that we think is morally ‘good’ or socially acceptable. Having learned the very common unhealthy form of selfishness, we unintentionally neglect ourselves, thinking this is both normal and healthy. But the truth is we don’t know any better, because most of us never learned how to meet our own needs or to ask for what we want. Instead, we hide our selfish tendencies and our giving to others unintentionally becomes manipulative.
Fear is the greatest obstacle to turning our unhealthy selfish tendencies into a form of healthy selfishness that first benefits us and then later benefits everyone we know and meet. Fear of hurting others, fear of owning the hurt we have caused, fear of being judged, fear of being rejected, fear of being vulnerable, fear of losing love, fear of losing support, fear of losing a partner, spouse or friend, and fear of being alone are some of the most common ways we justify our self-destructive tendencies. But, as a result, we end up relating to ourselves in harmful ways, which then become unhealthy and destructive for the people around us as well. From this objective perspective, which approach is optimal in your mind?
A simple example of this is a partner or parent who never acts for themselves directly, but rather pleases others all the time and puts themselves last or second. This typically results in resentment, frustration and dissatisfaction, and in my experience, eventually leads to depression, relationship problems and various forms of physical illness. Another common example of this is a person who is addicted to drugs or alcohol because they do not know how to address their deeper emotions, needs or desires. Their unhealthy selfish tendency of numbing themselves and avoiding their real wounds then becomes harmful to the people around them. Their toxic inner world overflows and becomes toxic for everyone involved. If, however, they could learn to love and value themselves enough to address their true feelings, they would then want to take better care of their body and their life overall. They would feel they matter and have worth.
There is a huge misunderstanding around the term selfish because we are so familiar with its unhealthy manifestation. Healthy selfishness does not mean we become cold, insensitive, rude or always alone. Being selfish in a healthy way does not mean we disregard other people’s feelings and needs. It simply means we do not harm ourselves to please others or to support others like so many of us do. It means we take care of our body and value our feelings, needs and dreams, which then renders us capable of respecting this healthy desire in other people.
Contrary to how most people think, as we learn to be selfish in healthy ways we actually become more compassionate and understanding, because rather than expecting others to meet our needs or please us all the time, we realize that other people have their own feelings, needs and desires that they must attend to each day for them to be healthy and happy as well. Although many of us were raised to believe otherwise, it is not wrong to desire health and happiness. It is not immoral to be the best person you can be. It is not sinful to live your life to the fullest. Rather it is healthy.
Not only is it okay to selfishly pursue activities, experiences, relationships and a career that bring you joy and make you feel well, it is also vital to finding inner peace and to make the world a more peaceful place. If we settle for less than we’re capable of, or for less good than we know is possible in life, we’ll just be resentful, sad and ill, which is not good for anyone. Believing you are selfless, or playing the role of a martyr, but ending up sick and miserable, in no way serves the world."
Blake Bauer will be hosting a workshop at the London Wellbeing Festival on 'Unconditional Self Love'
Discover a direct path to freedom from suffering. Discover why depression, addiction, physical illness, unfulfilling work and relationship problems are all caused by years of hiding your true emotions, denying your life purpose and living in fear. Learn how to create a healthy relationship with yourself that is based on deep self-respect, acceptance, loving kindness and self-worth.
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