When Being Selfish Isn’t Always Bad

office holding up notepad

by Sarah Donnelly, Holistic Life and Wellness Coach

(of a person, action, or motive) lacking consideration for other people; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.

When people talk about the word ‘selfish’, they usually mean it in a negative way. Selfishness isn’t seen as a desirable trait, while people that put others needs before themselves, irrelevant if it has a negative impact on them, are seen in a positive light. This one-sided view on ‘selfishness’ doesn’t consider the importance of self-care. Cornell University outlines how we function at our best when our physical, mental, and emotional needs are being met. This basically is about prioritizing our needs to support optimum well-being. Note here that this is ‘needs’.

Below you can see the famous model of needs developed by American Psychologist Abraham Maslow.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Image result for Maslow’s Needs pyramid

As outlined in the illustration above, certain needs are more important than others to survive. However, as we make our way up the pyramid, the needs change and become more complex. Selfishness will be witnessed more at higher levels of the pyramid.

This is where two types of ‘selfishness’ come in: Positive and Negative.

Positive selfishness, or ‘self-care’, is accepting the importance that you must put yourself first! This type of selfishness focuses on our needs being met, ensuring that we are complete and fully resourced. By carrying out positive selfishness you are giving yourself the best chance at leading a balanced life and in turn, being more equipped to help others. If we don’t practice positive selfishness or ‘self-care’ we won’t have the resources to enable us to cope with situations leading us to feel unbalanced, out of sync and unable to help others. So, to help others, we must ensure that we are okay first!

An example of positive selfishness can be seen in the woman who needs to be at a work meeting. However, she hasn’t eaten lunch so she decides to sit down and eat a meal even though she will be late. People are very angry at her for being late but she knows that she needed to eat that meal or else she wouldn’t have had a very productive meeting.

Likewise, the man who has his friend’s party to attend at the weekend. He hasn’t seen his wife and children all week because he has been working hard to meet a deadline. If he goes to the party, he will be stressed because he will be missing time with his family. If he stays with his family, he will feel bad because he’s missing the event. He decides the best outcome for himself and his family is to stay at home. He phones his friend to apologize, even though his friend is disappointed, he understands. They then arrange to meet another night.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not telling you that it’s okay for you to be late for meetings or neglect friendships all the time. Realistically, we’d need to look at the reason you had neglected yourself by not eating and then adding the stress of being late for the meeting. This is not practicing self-care but the consequential behavior afterwards is. Same goes in the second scenario. How you manage your time is a mode of positive-selfishness. By putting things in place so that you are on top of work and can see your family during the week opens that space for attending your friend’s parties. The point is life throws curveballs at us sometimes and we do our best. Accept that we all make mistakes, we also learn from them and move forward so that we manage situations better in the future.

Negative selfishness differs from positive selfishness in that we take from others to their detriment and give nothing in return. Needless to say, this isn’t a great way of carrying on if you want to have many rewarding relationships in your life.
Negative selfishness can be seen in a friendship where one friend gets all the air-time while the second sits there and doesn’t get a word in. Friend one constantly talks about their problems, their relationships, their life, with no interest regarding the other friend’s life. As well as being self-absorbed, the first friend is taking time from the second friend without returning it. For relationships to function healthily, there needs to be equality and balance. Practising positive selfishness in a healthy relationship will receive support and understanding while practicing it in an unhealthy or one-sided relationship, will result in one party (usually the negatively selfish one) to feel disconcerted.

To change how we perceive the word ‘selfish’ begins by actively becoming more positively selfish. When we focus our attention on the areas of our lives which we need to prioritize, we ourselves become better at assessing and leaving behind the areas that don’t serve us. For some people, this will come a lot easier than others. If you believe ‘that’s just the way I am’, change will not happen. You must actively set out to make this change, incorporating and prioritizing positive selfishness (or self-care) in your every-day life. Some of you might say, ‘But my friends won’t understand that I’m taking care of myself and they’ll just be hurt’. Then ask yourself, are they practicing positive self-care? If they are. They’ll understand. And if not, if they want to be in your life, they’ll find a way of understanding. When you take ‘me’ time and put yourself first, you will have the best you to share with others.

About the author
Sarah works as a Holistic Life and Wellness Coach and Mindfulness Therapist both online and in Kildare. She is a co-founder of the wellness blog Mandala.ie and writes in the areas of life-coaching, well-ness, well-being, mindfulness and positive psychology. She is passionate about coaching, well-being and living a balanced, happy and positive life.