Selfishness and Selflessness (and Everywhere In Between)

Where does one draw the line between selfishness and selflessness? Between taking care of oneself and tending to others?

It’s a thin line between pleasing yourself/And pleasing somebody else. Indigo Girls, “Thin Line”

Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself. Michel de Montaigne

Is selfishness bad and selflessness good? That’s what many believe. What I think, though, is that both of these traits are like any other—they exist on a continuum, the “bad” and the “good” and anywhere in between. Following are various interpretations regarding the range of possibilities.

Daniel Goleman, author of Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, writes, for example, about the difference between too much focus on the self and its counterpart: “Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.”

What about the relationship between happiness and selfishness/selflessness? Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun:

The belief that unhappiness is selfless and happiness is selfish is misguided. It’s more selfless to act happy. It takes energy, generosity, and discipline to be unfailingly lighthearted, yet everyone takes the happy person for granted. No one is careful of his feelings or tries to keep his spirits high. He seems self-sufficient; he becomes a cushion for others. And because happiness seems unforced, that person usually gets no credit.

On a different aspect of happiness and selfishness, Erin Falconer, Pick the Brain: “Your happiness needs to be important to you. But perhaps the greatest reason to be a little selfish is because it makes you a better person for others as well.” Examples given to describe what many of us call being “self-ish” versus selfish:

  • Caregiving – It’s hard to be a good caregiver when you’re unhappy. The anxiety and stress can be draining and distracting, causing you to make more mistakes than if you were a little selfish and focused on your needs.
  • Parenting – Great parenting is not just about attending to all of your children’s needs. Great parenting is also about setting an example of how to be an emotionally happy and healthy person, and not be someone riddled with anxiety symptoms.
  • Relationships – You may love your partner to the point of wanting to care for their every whim, and your partner may accept this love with open arms. But they want you to be happy, even if that means not attending their every need.

What about giving without regard to one’s own needs? Is real selflessness or altruism possible? Psychologist Craig D. Marker, Ph.D, Psychology Today: “Most definitions of altruism discuss the idea that the altruistic act is unselfish and that it provides no benefit to the person performing that act. That is a tough definition to live up to and many others have discussed whether a pure altruistic act is even possible…”

Approaching this issue philosophically and from different angles psychiatrist Neel Burton (author of Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception), draws the following conclusion (Psychology Today):

There can be no such thing as an ‘altruistic’ act that does not involve some element of self-interest, no such thing, for example, as an altruistic act that does not lead to some degree, no matter how small, of pride or satisfaction. Therefore, an act should not be written off as selfish or self-motivated simply because it includes some inevitable element of self-interest. The act can still be counted as altruistic if the ‘selfish’ element is accidental; or, if not accidental, then secondary; or, if neither accidental nor secondary, then undetermining.   

In other words, if there is no expectation of self-interest, altruism is feasible. Donna Lynn Hope: “If you want to call attention to your good deed then it isn’t a good deed, it’s a self-serving one. Why? Not only have you patted yourself on the back but you’re fishing for others to do the same.”

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One thought on “Selfishness and Selflessness (and Everywhere In Between)

  1. You know what they say on an airplane if there is an emergency you should always put your own oxygen mask on first before trying to help others….just sayin.

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