Feeling Selfish?

Don’t give up on your own welfare

For the sake of others’ welfare, however great.

Clearly know your own welfare

And be intent on the highest good.

The Dhammapada


Our heads are filled with misguided notions about who we are and what we must do in this life. People who take advantage of others are labeled as selfish (and rightly so), while others, who just have a plain preference are also labeled as selfish (wrongly so). Many people grow up thinking we must exploit ourselves on the job, at home and in the community to be thought of well. In prevalently protestant cultures – like in the United States - time off, breaks, vacations, idling around, creative activities, along with playtime and intimacy are deemed unproductive, thus generating guilt in those who even ponder such things. We end up feeling exhausted, sick and tired, because we abuse and neglect our own Selves as a way of life, in order to avoid feeling – or being labeled as – “selfish”.


Self-centered is the only perspective we have in life. It is not a moral issue, it is just the way we are built. No one can see the world through someone else’s eyes, wishes, desires, or fears. We only have one perspective: our own. We live in separate bodies, and they are hard-wired for feeling, knowing what is healthy – for them. The way you feel is your truth, dictated by Nature, not your mind.

There is only my truth (feelings, needs, preferences), and your truth (feelings, needs, preferences); no other Truth is manifested anywhere in the universe. This is because our feelings carry the information about what we need to be well, and that is Nature’s intelligence built into us. Others’ preference is not truer than yours. At the point where two preferences collide there is communication: you can and must explain, and educate the other about your needs, and then negotiate plans of action that honor both parties’ preferences. The result is a caring resolution to the satisfaction of all parties involved. Whenever this process is stunted there is a risk of selfish behaviors.


If you feel like a bad person for wanting to be well, stop. It is your birthright, in fact, your main mandate. Selfish behavior is quite the opposite of self-care. Choosing your own convenience over someone else’s true needs is selfish. But do not confuse convenience with necessity. Choosing what is necessary for your wellbeing over someone else’s preferences is not only not selfish, it is self-care. That self-care is a pre-requisite for generosity is a truth that only seems paradoxical on the surface.


The main reason for a pattern of selfish behavior is stunted growth: in lack of adequate nutrients any living organism would be desperately reaching for more, driven and absorbed by the hungry Self. In a human being when some fundamental needs are not met during the early years maturation is stunted, and the person is “stuck”. Only when you get what you need can you fully mature, and then be altruistic, by giving from the overflow. Hence, it is normal for children and adolescents to behave in a selfish way. They are still in the process of growing in self-awareness: knowing how they feel and what they need to feel better. Moreover, they do not yet have the skills and tools to meet their needs. A larger awareness follows from self-awareness, just like altruism springs forth from self-care.


Examples for selfish behaviors would include blaming or criticizing others for asking for what they need (abuse), or ignoring others’ needs, and choosing one’s own over them (neglect). Deep down the culprit is lack of adequate attention, or compassion to one’s own feelings and needs.

It stands to reason that the only stance that is decent and fair to your Self, as well as to others is to care.

Compassionate toward yourself

You reconcile all beings in the world.

Lao Tzu


When you don’t get what you need there will be an imbalance, a dis-ease, and you will burden others, having to rely on them to do your job, and compensate for what you lack in. If it is necessary, sure, do rely, we all need help when we are sick or down. Is it necessary though for you to be weakened or down if you could help it by simply paying attention to your needs and meeting them? By loving yourself? How can others love you more than you do yourself – and why should they do what only you can? It is actually selfish to not put yourself first, don’t you agree?  


You cannot overdo fulfilling a need, simply because once it is met it will cease to be. Therefore, you cannot be selfish by reaching for all that you need. But if you don’t, you will end up hungry, which is a setup for reaching for a substitute, something you don’t really need, or not as much of it: a temporary fix, a substitute like money, drugs, alcohol, position, power. Not that there is anything wrong with money, or a drink, or power, or position: it is only when people reach for these things as substitutes that they become selfish, hurtful to others. This is a direct outcome of self-neglect, or ignoring one’s needs.


You can only be good to the extent you are well. Health is positive energy. When you are sick, or tired, you are deficient in positive energy. No one can give from an empty satchel. The more you give yourself the things you really need, like love, acceptance, attention, soothing, communication, and the such, the better you feel, and the more of it you can give to others. Relating positively to others happens simply by extension, by virtue of you practicing these qualities in your relationship to yourself.


Most people have a modicum of guilt or discomfort thinking of themselves first. We still do at times, but we try to hide it, or cover it up with a white lie as if there was something wrong with it. “Sorry, I can’t come to the party, I have work to do” (really?), or “Yes, I would be happy to do that” (not!). Saying “yes” to others is often a betrayal of one’s own truth; we betray ourselves by saying “come on, you can do it, don’t be selfish, you are not that tired, this is more important”, etc.


Do you realize what damage this causes inside of you? How much energy you “bleed” in the process? It causes serious internal conflict, and then perpetuates it, by extension, between you and others. This is when the enemy is within the doors: as we focus on external expectations rather than on internal whispers and urges we lose track of our own truth.


As a result, we lose faith in ourselves, in our ability to reach for what we need, and feel peaceful, well, lovable and important. Living in denial of how we truly feel causes an internal war that is exhausting, and depressing. It drains our sense of self-empowerment, simply because there is literally no one “home” you could trust. No one to bring your pain to, who would listen, accept and help. Truth is, you are the one who must and can be that person in the first place. When you do that, others follow suit. When you do not, others don’t either. Call it selfish, call it whatever you will, the fact remains, you are the one Nature put in charge of you.


It is time we afford the luxury of giving ourselves the compassion we deserve. Compassion is being positive, validating, loving, caring, and present. It is the way you want to be in this world. If this makes you feel selfish, then you can do this with good conscience for the sake of others! “What’s good for the goose is what’s good for the gander” – now saying was ever truer. When you are well, you are optimizing the potential for the welfare of others around you. Not only you don’t burden others, you also radiate well-being, love, and peace, and everyone will benefit. Fill your own container first, and then give to others from the overflow. Don’t buy into the destructive myth that this is selfish.

Our entire life… consists ultimately in accepting ourselves as we are.

Jean Anouilh


An important consideration: when you find yourself thinking of someone in your surroundings as selfish ask yourself before you get deeper into judgment, have I made it clear what I need from this person? Have I been assertive, that is positive and specific regarding my expectations, and did I really mean it?


I often find that people label each other when they are disappointed. If this is you, consider this your chance to take care of yourself by taking responsibility for getting your needs met. You are good enough just the way you are. If you notice you give too much, or too little to others it is because you are not getting what you need. When you make sure you do, your life will rebalance itself.