We’ve all been there. It’s been a bad day already, you come home to a roommate, family member or friend, and as you’re attempting to take care of your own needs without slaughtering anyone, they fling the dreaded accusation toward you: “You’re so selfish.”
To be human, with a sense of self, is to be — by your very nature — “selfish.”
We all must take actions that preserve our existence, or at the very least stay our innate fear of deprivation and extinction. In circumstances where basic needs, such as food and shelter, are often unmet, this fear is reserved for such physical fundamentals. However, for many of us, the concerns have less to do with what we need and more to do with what we feel we need. And we deal in terms of exclusivity and inclusivity. We exclude or include various sources of stimuli according to our very distinct and individual moral and temperamental codes.
One area where this process of selection becomes evident is the psychological ranking of acquaintances, friends, close friends, family members, lovers and life partners.
Another area where our more self-oriented natures become evident is in our decisions regarding the amount of time, energy and financial resources we expend in an effort to reach our career goals, maintain our physical health, pursue relationships, etc. We are all selfish, but have different opinions of what constitutes a selfish human being, as we weigh life’s treasures at extremely varied values.
For instance, I value my free time and my alone time. Many of my friends, being more extroverted, value their social lives more. Case in point: When I went to see a friend for dinner a few weeks ago, she had unexpectedly invited her very low-maintenance, easy-going coworker to join us. After explaining that I was truly exhausted and had fully met my “people-pleasing quota” for the day, I stayed until the coworker got there, and then left. Having spent eight hours with people, I had only signed up to see another person under the condition that it was my friend (and her boyfriend). This friend’s coworker, though a lovely human being, simply wasn’t included in my agenda.
Now, in this case, my friend knows me and was fully understanding of my leaving, even offering to send me home with dinner. She also reassured me that canceling was always a totally acceptable option if I was too tired to meet, and we ended up mutually canceling our next arranged meeting, because we were both experiencing post-Daylight Savings trauma. However, not everyone would be so understanding.
Trying to explain to a social butterfly I hardly know that the party to which they’ve invited me conflicts with my own plans (alone, walking Alki Beach, slowly recharging from a day of nonstop human interaction) is nigh impossible. To them, I am a dud, a lifeless worm with no sense of fun who is intent on blowing them off. Here, I exaggerate a bit, but the gap in needs, desires and method of self-care exists in a very real way.
On that note, there is a fine line between being selfish and caring for yourself.
I regularly make harsh judgments regarding other people’s priorities, time management and social choices. I see people who buy organic dog food and think, “Wow, have you ever thought about donating that money to a literacy program or child welfare organization?” But the truth is … I don’t donate money to adoption agencies, children’s residential housing or foster families. I also don’t save all of my excess funds. I spend it on nights out with friends, movies, food, books, and weird pictures at Goodwill. In other words, I’m hardly in the position to be using the “S Word” [selfish] on anyone else’s behalf. I prioritize based on my analysis of a work-to-rewards ratio. Simply put, I analyze to find the least amount of effort I have to put forth to achieve results that culminate in the maximum level of happiness.
Perhaps the true crime in this case is having unclear and uncommunicated expectations. These are usually rooted in narcissistic, or self-absorbed, thinking. If you expect others to see the world as you do, thus valuing what you value, then yes — selfish might be an apt term. Otherwise, let’s try to cut down on our loose usage of the word. We are not in danger of over-using the word in our description of people, but of actions.
The people sharing your living or work space may very well be needy, controlling, contradictory, and emotionally unstable human beings, but here’s the kicker: So are you and I.
Rather than trying to avoid being selfish, it’s probably more worthwhile to figure out how to communicate what you need, what you want, and how you intend to meet those requirements.
Whether it’s canceling a friend date, being honest with your coworkers when you’re too tired to socialize after work, or letting a prospective romantic interest know that you’ve hit a deal-breaker (all of which I’ve experienced either as a giver or receiver this week), honesty is the best buffer for otherwise selfish behaviors.
In the words of Erich Fromm, famous philosopher and thinker, “Selfish persons are incapable of loving others, but they are not capable of loving themselves either.” If you cannot demonstrate a basic level of caring for yourself and be honest with others, you cannot care for them any better. And that is truly, truly selfish.