Said no to a friend, and now worry you are too selfish? Or has a partner of friend called you a selfish person?

What does being selfish look like, and when are you mistaking being selfish with relating issues?

The meaning of selfish

Being selfish refers to being overly concerned with ourselves, and doing things to give ourselves an advantage, regardless if it upset others. Either we don’t think about the effect of our actions on others, or we don’t care.

What being selfish isn’t

It’s easy to tell someone they are ‘being selfish’. Often it’s because we want our own way. We try to control the other person and make them do our bidding. “You are selfish because you didn’t agree to the movie I wanted to see’.

It’s also easy to feel you are being selfish when really it’s something else entirely.

Codependency means you are so obsessed with what others think of you, and gaining their approval, you tend to always say yes to what others want and ignore your own needs, all in the name of ‘not being selfish’.

But you are actually manipulating the other person into liking you. And you are sourcing your sense of self in an unhealthy way, from others instead of within.

Otherwise we can simply be a people pleaser. Perhaps as a child we weren’t allowed to have a choice, and we never developed the belief that our own needs matter.

Selfish vs codependent

So what is actually selfish ,and what is codependent? When we are codependent, we 'sacrifice' things because deep down we expect a return -- love, attention, approval.

A selfish act would be to not go see your friend win an award at a ceremony, even though she has no other support, simply because you don’t feel like it.

A codependent act would be to go to the ceremony even though you feel sick because you ‘can’t let her down’.

It would be selfish to eat all the leftovers as a midnight snack when you know full well your partner cooked extra to take it to work the next day.

It would be codependent if there really is nothing else to eat and you are starving as you missed dinner, but you decide not to eat the food and go hungry as ‘you don’t want to upset her’.

But shouldn’t we be selfless?

Isn’t selfless the opposite of selfish? Doesn’t a good person always put others first?

Unless you are working for a religious order and your vocation is to help others, it doesn’t make you a good person to suffer in order to put others first.

This is why researcher Adam Grant suggests in his book ‘Give and Take’ we instead see ‘otherishness’ as the opposite of selfishness. This means we take others into account with our decisions, not that we make ourselves a martyr.

How can you tell if someone is being selfish?

It pays to look at their intention.

  • Do they realise they are putting themselves first? Or do they just need some feedback?
  • Are they intending to hurt someone else or leave someone else to suffer? Or are they just being thoughtless?
  • Do they actually have a good reason for their choice? Have you asked what that reason is before calling them selfish?

Doesn't being selfish pay?

Again, don’t confuse having healthy boundaries and self care with being selfish.

As for consciously choosing to only think of yourself, it doesn't pay.

A study on the costs of selfishness and ‘otherishness’ found that while over giving can cost us too much in resources and energy, being selfish can cost us with isolation, loneliness, and poor physical health. The best bet is to find a healthy balance of giving and receiving in life.

Can't stop over giving?

Can't stop putting your own needs last, even if you are constantly exhausted and never achieve your goals? It's time to consider therapy. A therapist will help you learn what healthy boundaries are, and how to put them into action.

Ready to take better care of yourself? Use our easy booking tool now to book your first session and talk your way forward.

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