The words ‘you are selfish’ can ring in our ears when said by a loved one, and often initiate a strong sense of guilt.  To be selfish in our society is viewed as almost wicked, and few want to be labelled as such.  The pressure to be selfless can be felt in many areas of society and the messages are clear.  We are deemed selfish if we are not prepared to put others before ourselves, and sacrificing our own needs is generally seen as a virtuous act. Taking care of ourselves, putting ourselves first and ensuring we meet our own needs meanwhile, appear to be viewed as immoral behaviours.  In Mandarin Chinese they have two words for selfish.  One means ‘doing that which is beneficial to you’ the other means ‘hoarding, greedy and cruel’.  As a society we seem to have forgotten this distinction, and by putting the two meanings together we are now living under the erroneous assumption that self-care and self-interested behaviour is in some way wrong.   So how have we got things so confused?

The definition of selfish involves having an excessive or exclusive concern with oneself, whilst lacking consideration for others rights and boundaries.  The problem with this definition is that the words are abstract, and so are in need of interpretation by the listener.  What is excessive concern?  What defines exclusive concern?  What rights and boundaries require our consideration?  Misconceptions regarding self-esteem, personal responsibility and self-sacrifice, and confusion over our human rights of authenticity, autonomy, individualism and independence, seem to have led us to make incorrect interpretations that are having devastating effects for our society and collective happiness.


We all have the right to self-actualize, to realize our full potential in life.  We also have the right to define ourselves, and develop independently our own considered values and beliefs.  Basically, we have the right to live in accordance with the needs of our inner being rather than the demands of society or our early conditioning.  We all have the right to be true to ourselves, to live with authenticity and autonomy and celebrate our individualism.  With the caveat that we act with responsible self-interest and respect others rights and boundaries in our actions, these rights are not only beneficial to all, but also essential for our mental health and emotional wellbeing.


We seem plagued by a need to appear good and perfect in our society, and unfortunately self-sacrifice can provide us with this ideal perception of ourselves.  If we are always giving and never ‘selfish’ we believe that we must be a good person on the right path towards perfection.   In a society where self-sacrifice is viewed as a virtue therefore, many feel they are giving and giving all the time.  People are exhausted from trying to adjust to a society that has things backwards, and so they are trying to recharge in the only way they know how, by expecting others to self-sacrifice for them in the same way they do for others.  Sadly, those who wish to take care of their own needs and follow their own path rather than self-sacrifice, are often viewed as selfish within our system.

A trend that has emerged for many families in our current society, causes more confusion and upset in this area.  Many are so preoccupied by what others think of them and their families that they try to mould those around them into people who others will approve of.  Unfortunately, approval is all too often about who can work the hardest, earn the most money, attain the best college results, buy the better car, or have the best behaved children or most attractive partner etc.  Rarely do people recognise the value of authentic living and the pursuit of happiness through less material means, or the importance of non-conformist thinking and action.  Parents today can frequently be found pushing their children to behave in certain ways that cause them unhappiness, or to take an educational or career path that they are not suited to.  Often we are so focussed on what others think, and our attempts to try and please them, we will sacrifice our own and our children’s happiness to gain the approval of strangers who mean very little to us, whilst harming the ones we love the most by trying to control what they do and say.  How often have you seen your loved ones treating strangers with more respect, care and kindness than they do you?  How often do you do the same thing to your loved ones?

When we are dealing with somebody who follows this superficial focus, who needs others to see them and their families as perfect and believes that self-sacrifice is healthy and correct, we find ourselves in danger of emotional blackmail and being defined as selfish.  When we expect others to behave in accordance with our expectations and make us happy, we often try to control others by making them feel guilty for not acting as we wish.  I recall seeing a teenager stand up for themselves assertively with an adult neighbour who was being rude to them, their mother having only caught the last part of the interaction turned to her child and said ‘you were so rude to our neighbour, how could you embarrass me so much, you are so selfish for making me feel this way’.  Another parent accused their son of being selfish because they believed he had shown them up by wearing clothes they disapproved of.  In my practice I see examples of this behaviour frequently, with clients suffering from guilt because they believe they are selfish for pursuing a lifestyle or career their parents disapproved of.

It is only by recognising each others’ rights, and learning to take responsibility for ourselves and our own happiness, whilst focussing on what makes us and our loved ones happy, rather than what society tells us we ‘should’ be happy with, that we begin to let go of our need to emotionally manipulate others with the incorrectly applied words ‘you are selfish’.  Taking responsibility for ourselves, letting go of the need to emotionally manipulate and being able to recognise the toxic guilt that we inflict and carry around requires a great deal of strength, and a very strong sense of personal identity, the path that leads us here requires self-esteem.


Due to our confusion over the virtues of self-sacrifice, self-care and self-interest are often confused with spurious notions of ‘selfishness’ in its most negative interpretation, and we easily dismiss any activity concerned with personal development as narcissistic.  When I ask clients if they would like to improve their self-esteem most say yes, but add that they are afraid of becoming ‘selfish’ if they focus on themselves.  The terms self-esteem, self-actualization, self-realization or even a basic quest for autonomy have become morally suspect, as we confuse their realization with a narcissistic ‘me’ generation where each person is out for themselves and prepared to disregard others rights and boundaries with ease.

The pursuit of self-esteem though actually leads to a quite different mentality and experience to that of the narcissist.  Those with high self-esteem are interested in human well-being both individually and socially, and they highly value relationships, co-operation and benevolence as well as individualism.  Self-care is a priority for sure, but selfishness in a negative form is viewed as abhorrent to those who know, care for and respect themselves and others.   With high self-esteem others are viewed as equals, authenticity, autonomy and rights and boundaries are highly valued and respected for all, and benefits include a strong sense of personal identity and responsibility.



Taking care of and valuing ourselves gives us energy that is sorely missing from the lives of those who frequently self-sacrifice.  When we have energy we are actually more able to freely give to others, without expecting to be ‘paid’ back.  By taking care of our own needs first and foremost we become energised, and because we are happy to ask for help and clearly communicate what we want, we do not need to emotionally manipulate others into taking care of us.


With high-self esteem we avoid the trap of making others responsible for us as we develop a strong sense of personal identity that allows us to take full responsibility for our own existence.  This strength of identity is built as we nurture our own autonomy and authenticity and come to know our own individually considered values, beliefs, rights and boundaries.  In this position we welcome the advice and different opinions of others for example, but we alone make our final decisions and accept any resultant consequences for those decisions.  Confusingly, we are often defined as selfish if we do not take and act on the advice of others.  It is in fact without this strong sense of identity that we are more likely to rely on the advice and opinions of others too readily, believing that if a decision is made based on the advice and opinions received, we are entitled to blame and hold the advisor responsible for any negative consequences that we may have to face.


With low self-esteem and a weak sense of personal identity we are constantly allowing others to determine our self-worth, and this prevents us seeing others as equals.   A sense of inadequacy prevails and so we view some people as superior to ourselves.  To combat this, we try to identify those who we can view as inferior to ourselves, so that we can feel ‘better’ and more worthy than those individuals.  Authority figures (our parents, teachers etc) are often viewed as superior to us, and so we believe we have to comply with the rules they set, and/or conform to their expectations of us.  When we are authority figures ourselves (e.g. parents) we can transfer those same beliefs and insist that our rules and expectations must be complied with.  If someone is non-compliant we can find ourselves believing we have the right to be angry with them, and to accuse them of being selfish for not acting as we would wish.  With high-self esteem and a strong personal identity however, we view people as equals and so we have no need to feel either inferior or superior.  We are also far more likely to stand up against views and rules that we do not agree with, whilst respecting each person’s right to exist with their own beliefs and opinions, even if they differ greatly from our own, providing those beliefs and opinions do not result in the oppression of others.   When we are in an authority figure role we therefore expect others to challenge us, and to determine and follow their own path, as we determine and follow our own path in life.



 With high self-esteem we also believe in ourselves enough to enjoy the success and happiness of others, as we see those others as welcoming and friendly supportive allies.  We avoid pettiness, are competitive with a sense of fairness, and rarely take offense unless we are abused in some way.  The deep insecurities and self-doubts we experience with low self-esteem and weak identities however, often mean that we experience others as frightening, opposed, unfriendly and hostile.  With this view, vices such as pettiness, belligerent competitiveness, over-readiness to take offense and a desire for conflict and superiority are frequently expressed; the very afflictions that can often be found in truly selfish narcissists.



 As independent adults we are fully responsible for ourselves, especially for how we act and react.  Importantly, we are all responsible for our own mental health and emotional wellbeing.  With high self-esteem and a strong sense of personal identity we feel capable and competent of change, and so are safe to recognise our responsibilities.  If we get upset or annoyed or feel depressed we take responsibility for our own feelings and take steps to change a situation or improve our mood, rather than expecting others to keep us stable or make us happy.

In relationships these boundaries of independence are sometimes difficult to navigate and cause confusion.  I recall a situation where a clients husband was bullying her but when she complained that his behaviour upset her, he responded that she was too sensitive, needed to take responsibility for how she felt and should change her reaction!  In this situation abuse can persist as we begin to believe that our actual feelings are wrong or should be changed in some way, when they are perfectly reasonable and healthy.  Be aware that taking responsibility for how we feel does not mean that we ‘put up’ with poor behaviour from others, but instead that we set protective boundaries and are assertive in informing others how we feel and what we want, and that we ask for change clearly and directly, rather than relying on emotional manipulation.  If poor treatment persists despite our clear and consistent communication to request change, we take personal responsibility by looking for other solutions where necessary or removing ourselves from a situation.

 Low self-esteem and a lack of personal responsibility meanwhile can lead us to believe that others are responsible for us, and so have the power to ‘make’ us act, react and feel in certain ways.  As that responsibility extends to our mental health and emotional well-being, we blame others for causing our negative emotions, and expect them to take responsibility for our happiness by making us feel ‘better’.  Under this erroneous belief we can genuinely believe that others are selfish if they ‘make’ us feel one way or do not ‘make’ us feel another way.   All relationships require compromise and co-operation, but if we are unaware of everybody’s right to live authentically with autonomy and individuality, we might also believe others are selfish if they pursue their own wants and needs, when those wants and needs conflict with our own.  The following examples demonstrate this and other emotionally manipulative ways in which we define others as selfish:



David is hugely talented in and passionate about music, his dream is to attend university and learn to compose and play classical pieces.  David’s Father Jason has his own dream for David however.  He runs a family accounting business that has been handed down Father to Son over generations.  David’s parents argue frequently, lately they have blamed David for this, telling him he is being selfish towards them as he shows no appreciation for all his Father has done for him in securing him accountancy work.


Steve’s hard work over the last ten years has finally paid off with a promotion and significant raise.  He has bought himself a new car and larger home for him and his family.  Steve’s brother Tom has never had much interest in a career and often asks Steve to help him out financially.  Steve has offered Tom various jobs over the years but each one has been turned down.  On hearing about Steve’s new car, Tom calls and asks him for financial help.  Steve decides to say no this time.  His parents and brother cannot believe how selfish he is being.



Sally has three children and a demanding job.  At a young age she had to learn to take care of herself and be extremely independent as her Mother June found it hard to cope with bringing her up.  Now Sally is an adult, June leans on her a great deal.  Last year Sally was stressed and in the middle of securing an important deal, her Mother called to say she was again feeling depressed. Over the past twenty years Sally has tried to help June by offering advice and financial assistance as well as buying her self-help books and organising therapy.  June though rarely follows any of the advice she is given and does little to help herself.  When Sally said she did not have the time to talk to her for hours every evening, June could not believe how selfish her daughter was being.



Tracy had recently been feeling stressed and so decided to treat herself to an expensive spa weekend.  Her family appreciated how hard she had been working lately and encouraged her to do whatever she needed to get back on track.  Tracy cancelled all her arrangements over the next week, so that she could take care of herself and recharge.  Tracy’s friend Dina was upset with her for cancelling their night out.  Although Tracy had asked Dina to come with her for the spa weekend, she had refused as she did not think it was ‘right’ to spend that kind of money on herself when she had a family to look after.  Dina could not believe how selfish Tracy was being.



The accusations of selfishness depicted above are common but erroneous.  The situations described involve the accused simply fighting for their right to authenticity and individualism, or taking responsibility for themselves and expecting others (eventually) to do the same.  To make these claims of selfishness the accusers likely believe that others do or should think and act like them, rather than as independent people with their own authentic views, values, beliefs and opinions.  For example, where Jason believes his son David should want to be an accountant like him.  The accusers also seem to believe that the people they believe are selfish, are in some way responsible for their happiness and wellbeing, and should take care of them before taking care of themselves.  For example, Sally’s Mother June or Steve’s Brother Tom.  What is it that makes people believe that we should sacrifice our own actual and essential needs, dreams and wants for them, like in the examples above?  Is it not in fact selfish to ask others to ignore their own needs, or to take responsibility for us, when we are capable of taking responsibility for ourselves?


We live in a society where we are taught that obedience and self-sacrifice are virtues, and the most acceptable goals are social ones.  We repeatedly come up against this viewpoint in our families, schools, churches and government.  Under this authoritarian idea of ethics we have seen some of the greatest atrocities committed, as individuals submit themselves to authoritarian figures, committing crimes against their very nature because somebody ‘told them to do it’.  The dangers of conformity and blind obedience to authority have been highlighted by many Social Psychologists.  One of the most famous is Stanley Milgram.  His obedience to authority experiment, was designed to answer questions about how so many people, under orders, were convinced to commit acts that violated their deepest moral beliefs to create the horrors of the holocaust.

The willingness for so many to trust in and submit themselves to authority figures becomes more understandable, if we consider how we are taught to view the word good.  Our concept of good is placed outside of ourselves as we are told we are good children mainly when we behave and do what we are told, and when we please others by sacrificing our own needs to make them happy.  It is a rare family in which we are taught that virtue involves honouring the self, by reaching our full potentials based on our individual inner wants and needs.  Instead we are taught to satisfy the expectations of others or be defined as selfish.  Those others are unfortunately more interested in obedience than self-esteem.


It seems that if we disrespect others autonomy and authenticity and expect others to take responsibility for maintaining our mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, we will incorrectly view those who take care of their own needs and follow their own dreams as selfish.  The reality is that the more we take care of ourselves and pursue our positive potentials the higher our self-esteem will be.   Far from making us selfish, the higher our self-esteem, the more likely we are to treat others with respect, kindness and generosity.  As our personal insecurities reduce, we become safe to view others as equals, and it is after all in our self-interest to find and build relationships with people we can love, respect and admire.  The pursuit of self-esteem is the pursuit of mental and emotional health and wellbeing.  Until we learn the difference between being truly selfish and being healthily self-interested as a society, we will deny ourselves the peace of mind and happiness that we all seek.

Ask yourself, would you rather share a world with someone who takes responsibility for themselves, their own happiness and wellbeing and encourages you to take care of your own, or one in which you were treated as an object of sacrifice, expected to take responsibility for others and to neglect your own happiness and wellbeing?  Would you rather share a world with someone who wants you to fulfil your own potential in life, or someone who wants you to conform to their expectations of who you ‘should’ be?

All rights reserved - © SASHA PHILLIPS - 2012