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Selfisness vs Selflessness

What Does it Mean to be Selfish?

Being selfish means being only concerned with one’s own pleasure or profit and having no consideration for others. 

Examples of selfishness include: 

  • Refusing to show empathy to others 
  • Manipulating others to benefit self 
  • Avoiding responsibility 
  • Assuming credit for someone else’s work or achievements 
  • Failing to take accountability for their actions 
  • Disrespecting boundaries 
  • Lying or fabricating the truth 
  • Stealing or plagiarizing 
  • Seeking attention from others.

How Does Being Selfish Affect Me?

When people exhibit selfishness or self behaviors, tend to experience very negative effects on their social and emotional wellbeing. Some of these effects include: 

  • Relationship problems (selfishness can cause harm to individuals we connect with) 
  • Isolation or loneliness due to failed friendships, partnerships, or other relationships 
  • Damaged reputation (people tend to not like to associate with others who are not considerate of their needs)

What Does it Mean to be Selfless?

Being self-less is thought to be the opposite of selfish or self-centered. This means having little concern for oneself and prioritizing the needs and benefits of others. Examples of selflessness include: 

  • Donating time, money, or resources 
  • Thinking of others constantly (and firstly) 
  • Deprioritizing personal needs (or thinking of self last) 
  • Maintaining pourous boundaries 
  • Giving credit to others for own achievements

How Does Being Selfless Affect Me?

When people exhibit selflessness or selfless behaviors, they tend also to experience negative effects on their wellbeing. Some of these effects include: 

  • Resentment of others (most likely due to their feelings not being taken into consideration) 
  • Excessive fatigue or burnout (from constantly giving) 
  • Depression, anxiety, and stress from neglecting their own needs 
  • Relationship problems (from lack of personal boundaries)

Selflessness vs Selfishness

There are many reasons why someone might be more selfless over selfish (or vice versa). Different life experiences impact the ways we see ourselves in relation to others. These are all things that can impact selfishness and selflessness: 

  • Culture 
  • Upbringing 
  • Religion 
  • Attachments 
  • Self-esteem 
  • Trauma

It can be confusing to understand which behaviors are “right” and which behaviors are “wrong.” This is because society has trained us to favor selflessness over selfishness. However, neither behaviors are all “good” or all “bad.” There are costs and benefits to both! 

Selflessness: The benefit of exhibiting these behaviors includes people thinking kindly of you. The cost includes burnout or boundaries that are not respected. 

Selfishness: The benefit of exhibiting these behaviors includes knowing your needs and prioritizing them. The cost includes potentially harming loved ones or being lonely.

Is it Selfless or Selfish?

It is difficult to label any behavior as being one thing over another, especially when the labels we place on behaviors are often rooted in morality, cultural norms, and personal values. So, it is important to understand your own boundaries, worldview, and nuances of each behavior. 

For example, practicing self care, prioritizing yourself, or setting boundaries are not selfish behaviors. However, if the ways in which you prioritize yourself are different than what you would want or expect from others, then that expectation may be considered selfish. Similarly, sharing with others is not inherently harmful selfless behavior, but giving more than you have may be harmful.

Navigating Selflessness and Selfishness

The first step in navigating selflessness and selfishness is to evaluate your behaviors. Just like everything else in life, the most important thing for us to consider is intentionality. This means it is okay to sometimes be selfish and sometimes be selfless. What’s important that we evaluate the impact of our behaviors and remain true to who we are (and who we want to be!). In other words, life cannot be all about giving or all about taking. We need to learn balance: 

  • What we are giving or taking? 
  • When we are giving or taking? 
  • Where (or in what situations) we are giving or taking? 
  • Whom we are giving to or taking from? 
  • How much we are giving or taking?

Self-Reflective Exercise

Evaluate the value judgment you (or society) may be applying to these behaviors. For each behavior, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • What do I need or want? 
  • What is informing this need or want? 
  • How will this behavior fulfill my need or want? 
  • How will this benefit the person I am hoping to be? 
  • Will my behavior cause harm to those around me?
    • IF YES:
      • What would I want them to do if the roles were reversed? 
      • Is there another way I can fulfill this need without harming others? 
      • How will this behavior impact my relationships? 
    • IF NO:
      • What is keeping me from fulfilling this need? 
      • Am I considering the needs of others too much? 
      • Am I actually considering my needs?

This page is also part of the Roamers Therapy Glossary; a collection of mental-health related definitions that are written by our therapists.

While our offices are currently located at the South Loop neighborhood of Downtown Chicago, Illinois, we also welcome and serve clients for online therapy from anywhere in Illinois and Washington, D.C. Clients from the Chicagoland area may choose in-office or online therapy and usually commute from surrounding areas such as River North, West Loop, Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lake View, Rogers Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, Bridgeport, Little Village, Bronzeville, South Shore, Hyde Park, Back of the Yards, Wicker Park, Bucktown and many more. You can visit our contact page to access detailed information on our office location.