By Margaret Paul, Ph.D.
One of the last things any of us want to be called is “selfish.” We often end up doing things we don’t want to do to avoid being seen as selfish. In my counseling work with people, I often hear the questions, “Aren’t I being selfish if I take care of myself instead of take care of everyone else? Am I being selfish if I do what I want instead of what someone else wants me to do?”
The problem occurs because of an inaccurate definition of “selfish.”
We are being selfish when:
We expect others to give themselves up for us.
We make others responsible for our feelings of pain and joy.
We get angry at others for doing what they want to do rather than doing what we want them to do.
We consistently make our own feelings, wants, needs and desires important without also considering others feelings, wants, needs and desires.
We believe we are entitled to special treatment, such as not having to wait in line.
We are being self-responsible when:
We take care of our own feeling, wants, desires and needs rather than expecting others to take care of us.
We support others in doing what brings them joy, even when they are not doing what we want them to do.
We show caring toward others for the joy it give us rather than out of fear, obligation, or guilt.
We have the courage to take loving action in our own behalf, even if someone gets angry with us. For example, we go to bed early because we are tired, even if our partner gets angry at us for not watching a movie with him or her.
We have the courage to speak our truth about what we will or will not do, and what we do or do not feel, rather than give ourselves up to avoid criticism, anger or rejection.
Giving ourselves up to avoid being called selfish is not self-responsible – it is manipulative and dishonest. When we give ourselves up to avoid criticism, we are trying to control how another feels about us.
Taking loving care of ourselves, with no intent to harm another is self-responsible. Yet we are often called “selfish” when we take care of ourselves. For example, Tammy had signed up to take one of my weekend workshops and was really looking forward to it. She let her husband, Frank, and two children know weeks before the workshop that she was going, and that it was important to her. The day before the workshop Frank was given four great tickets to a basketball game. He wanted Tammy to go with him the next day, which was the first day of the workshop. When she said no, he got angry at her and told her she was selfish for doing what she wanted to do rather than spending the time with the family. Tammy came to the workshop with much to work on!
In reality, it was Frank who was being selfish in expecting Tammy to give herself up and do what he wanted her to do rather than what was really important to her. He was not caring at all about Tammy – he just wanted what he wanted. He felt entitled to be angry at her when she didn’t give in to his demands.
For Tammy, this was a crazy-making situation. Being labeled as selfish when it is really Frank who was being selfish is crazy-making. Many of us grew up with parents who crazy-made us in this way – demanding that we give ourselves up for them and telling us we were selfish when we were actually taking responsibility for our own happiness and well being.
It is important for each of us to define selfishness and self-responsibility for ourselves so that we are not dependent upon others’ definition of us. When you become secure in knowing that you not only have the right, but the responsibility, to support your own joy and highest good – with no intent to harm another – then you will not be tempted to give yourself up when someone tells you that you are selfish for not doing what he or she wants you to do. When we are secure in knowing that our own intent is a loving one, we do not have to manipulate others into defining us as caring by giving ourselves up.