You’ve been slighted by someone you know. Maybe they cancelled on you last minute or showed up late one too many times, and wasted your time. Maybe they expected sympathy during one of their low points, but gave you none in return on your next bad day. Maybe they knew their behaviour was causing you stress, but they didn’t make any effort to modify it.
You might say to them, at the height of your frustration: I think you’re selfish. Or, I think you’re self-centred.
If you call someone selfish or self-centred, you probably don’t mean it as a compliment. These words are defined by the big book (The Oxford English Dictionary) to mean “lacking consideration for other people; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure” and “preoccupied with oneself and one’s affairs”, respectively. These definitions are pretty synonymous and align with colloquial understanding of these concepts- i.e. when most people say selfish, they tend to mean overly preoccupied with oneself. They mean too self-centred.
But ‘overly’ and ‘too’ imply that there is an acceptable level of selfishness and that there is an acceptable way to be self-centred. Perhaps there is a healthy selfishness to be had? Perhaps there is good-selfish and there is bad-selfish. To some of you, this isn’t a new idea. To others, it will sound all wrong- an absolute oxymoron- to consider selfishness a good thing- and you will need to wrestle with these words in your mind to make them fit together.
I believe I caused some mental word-wrestling recently by asking some friends what these words meant, and I got some very interesting and varied replies. I posed two questions successively:
What does the word ‘selfish’ mean?
What does the word ‘self-centred’ mean?
I tried to emphasize that I wanted their ideas about the words, how they would use them in everyday life. That I’d prefer they not think too long before giving me their initial answer.
The problem with working on a humanities PhD is that you spend days, weeks, years researching, reading and thinking about so-called commonplace topics. As you do so, you learn what fellow academics think about a concept, as well as institutions such as medicine and religion, as well as the psychological and philosophical thinkers’ musings. You get further and further away from the commonplace understanding of the concept to the point that you can hardly remember what a ‘simple’ word like selfish once meant to you.
I remember vaguely how I used to use the word (think the word- I have always struggled to confront others so boldly with their own behaviour). I remember I used to think certain people close to me to be bad-selfish, but even as a teenager I sensed that there must be a reason for their selfish behaviour. I remember very clearly that I used to fear myself bad-selfish for a dozen things I would no longer call bad-selfish, and I would punish myself for them. I also, in hindsight, can see that I was bad-selfish by not being good-selfish. (But more on that later.)
So yes, I got some very interesting responses to my questions. Those who have previously been selected as victim for my disconcertingly and misleadingly simple questions- usually sent through in the early hours of the morning when I do most of my thinking and writing- rolled with it. Others seemed a bit flummoxed, but happy to answer. Many refused to answer until they took time to think on it.
The tone of response overall confirmed to me my suspicion that the concept of selfishness is an emotive concept for most and a complicated word to many. Several people gave examples of selfishness- some general enough to be humanly universal, some specific enough to be very telling. I got some quite reactionary responses to my questions- everyone, it seems, has been slighted by a selfish person. I also got some defensive ones. The latter made me quite sad because they came from people who I wouldn’t call bad-selfish in the slightest, and it seems those who don’t need to worry always worry most, while those who could do with a dose of healthy self-doubt never seem to find it within themselves to look inward.
Everyone I asked could agree on one definition of ‘selfish’- the bad definition. In summary, taking action in self-interest at the expense of others.
No one could agree on whether this is done deliberately or not. Does a selfish person act, knowing their behaviour is going to negatively impact others? Does a selfish person know that they are selfish? Or is selfishness a bit like craziness, in that if you’re wondering if you’ve lost your mind… you probably haven’t. Ergo, selfish people do not know they are selfish? Perhaps (and it usually is) it can be both. A selfish person might know that they are about to act selfishly and do so anyway, or a selfish person may not have the self-awareness to know that they are behaving selfishly.
Several people implied that selfish behaviour is self-aware: “It’s putting yourself first whilst also simultaneously hurting/giving yourself an unfair advantage/causing damage to others with knowledge of doing so.” Others identified degrees of selfishness: “major and unnecessary disregard for ‘your people’ that leads to some kind of detrimental outcome. Behaviour that really there is very little in the way of mitigating circumstances for.” And, “if the intent is to have a deliberate [negative] effect on others then I think this is what we would call being truly selfish.”
No one really discussed the possibility of a selfish person who doesn’t know they act selfishly.
Which is worse? To knowingly act selfishly- to know that your behaviour is not only self-serving but also injuring to others, and do it anyway? Or to live a life devoid of reflexive thought and self-awareness, so that you are frequently slighting and hurting those around you, forever haunted by the interpersonal struggles and lack of deep and meaningful connection with others that is bound to result, without understanding from whence this lack comes?
Or is it a far worse fate to be that other sort of person- the reflexive individual who tortures themselves with the thought that they are bad-selfish when in fact they are probably not even good-selfish.
I have been all three of these people at different stages in my life. I think you probably have been, too.
I believe everyone discussed the knowingly-selfish person but not the unknowingly-selfish person because the result- being the victim of selfish behaviour- feels the same for them at first instance. It is easier to demonize people who have slighted us and assume that they knew they were acting cruelly than to accept that their hurtful actions may not have been intentional. It is much more frustrating to consider that our getting hurt by another may in fact be the un-luck of circumstance.
As a rule, humans tend towards binaries of black and white. We see opposing states and symmetry of forces in the natural world around us and want human behaviour to be that ‘simple’. Our English language has been built upon this trend for simplistic compartmentalization. We are conditioned to assume motive. We are conditioned to think that other’s actions are intentional because we think from the effect- the impact on us- backwards to the cause. But is intent also nine tenths of the law? Can we blame someone for their hurtful behaviour if they don’t know they’re doing it, the same as we would if they did? Perhaps a lack of self-awareness is an explanation- but should it constitute an excuse?
Some of us get queasy in the grey-areas of life, while some of us revel in dualities and paradox.
Unsurprisingly, no one I asked could agree on the nuance of what constitutes selfish behaviour. As one person responded, “I guess one person’s selfish is another person’s perfectly reasonable approach to life.” To what degree does behaviour have to slight, inconvenience or hurt others to be considered selfish? And at what point does a person go from someone who did something a bit selfish, to a Selfish Person- how many times does someone have to act selfishly to get scorned, dismissed, fired, unfriended, unfollowed, ghosted, broken up with or blocked (online or IRL depending on your personal leanings)?
The answer is subjective and entirely up to you, of course.
How many excuses will you make on someone’s behalf?
Some people I asked my questions of clearly identified a bad-selfish vs. a good-selfish, while others less deliberately muddied their definition of bad-selfishness as they typed, making allowances as they wrestled with the word.
The psychiatrists will tell you that there is a good-selfishness, much like there is a healthy level of narcissism and self-doubt, which is intrinsic to our mental wellbeing. But because of the negative connotations of the word ‘selfish’, your therapist probably called it self-care or self-protection. Like narcissism, selfishness is a personality trait which constitutes a spectrum and has a healthy point of balance somewhere in the middle.
In the case of narcissism, this spectrum ranges from a total lack at one end, which features no self-sureness or confidence in your place in the world and no feeling that you can interact with or impact others in any way- you are meaningless, and probably having an existential crisis. At the other end is severe Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Subtype, which features a misplaced conviction that all others’ behaviour and thought relates to or is impacted by you, and not necessarily in a positive way. Somewhere in the middle is the healthy narcissist, who understands that they are one of many people in the world and equally significant and insignificant to others as a result.
In the case of selfishness, the spectrum ranges from a complete lack of a sense of self and of self-protective mechanisms, which some people believe is the cause of psychosis (and is one of the central ideas I’m putting forth in my doctoral thesis). At the other end of the spectrum is severe Personality Disorder, Anti-social Subtype, which people often misleadingly call sociopathy or psychopathy (depending on whether or not you believe the person so be capable of empathy or not, respectively), and which features a complete disregard for other’s welfare. Somewhere in the middle is the healthily selfish person who practices good self-care in the interest of self-protection and mental wellness.
Both ends of the spectrum are bleak and scary places to be and should elicit the same compassion from others- but of course they don’t. It’s difficult to have sympathy for someone hurting you, no matter what motivates their behaviour. Most people will slide back and forth across the middle of the spectrum as they learn to live well, occasionally achieving a point of balance of healthy selfishness appropriate for their circumstances.
So what constitutes good-selfishness or healthy selfishness? Examples were frequently given by my responders to contrast bad- and good-selfishness. Examples of bad-selfishness often got quite specific and revealing: family troubles, wedding planning, climbing etiquette, dating experiences, poor communication. Examples of good selfishness were more diffuse, but mainly centred around one’s need to take care of themselves, especially at times of high stress or anxiety: “sometimes you do have to put yourself first and do what is right for yourself and your mental health which may come across as selfish even though you do care about others. I call it having a rest [laugh emoji] but people that know you, know you need it.”
Obviously, the friends I asked my questions of do not represent a ‘usual’ cross-section of humanity. I tried to choose people randomly- people of different ages, genders and occupations. But I also posed my questions to people I thought very likely to respond, and respond in a fairly short time frame. Also, I tend to attract a pretty weird crowd (no offense). I have a high percentage of people in my life who are neurodivergent, deep-thinkers, social activists, people working in the field of psychiatry and climbers. Some are all of the above, bless you. So I was not really surprised by how many people were quick to identify a good-selfishness, though some felt more inclined than others to defend it.
I would be interested to see what responses I would get if I were to randomly contact the people I have had in my life who I believe to be truly selfish, or have witnessed acting in a bad-selfish way to myself or others… But I don’t quite have the gall. Would they sense their culpability? Would they respond blithely, unaware? Would they, too, give examples, and perhaps in doing so recognize the mirror? Or would they get defensive? I suspect the latter.
On Being Self-centred
If I haven’t lost you already- here’s where I probably will.
Beware any word that begins with the prefix ‘self-‘. (I certainly wouldn’t advise basing the methodology of your PhD on any ‘self-‘ topic, at least…)
Words, like ‘selfish’, which begin with the self, necessitate an understanding of what the self is in order to properly understand them. What is the self? What do we mean when we say ‘I’ am/do/think/hate/love/want/exist? What makes ‘me’ apart from ‘them’? Do we only think in terms of ‘I’ and ‘you’ because our language necessitates it by being subject-object orientated? Do we only think of ourselves as individuals because we are bound physically by the limits of the skin and mentally by the limits of human consciousness? Are not all membranes permeable, even if it is in the small ways atoms slide past atoms, and thoughts sneak past the conscious mind? Do we only have a concept of the individual self because it was the simplest conclusion to draw about consciousness at the time humans were beginning to communicate verbally?
How do we ponder these things without having an existential crisis?
(Note: You don’t. Embrace it, run with it- you might like what you find in the tenth book you read/hundredth Youtube video you watch/thousandth conversation you have.)
The philosophers will tell you all manner of things about what the self is and what it means to be an individual person with autonomy (the ability to think and act independently of others).
(Please note the following descriptions are humorously brief summaries of just some of the schools of the most complex metaphysical thought throughout history. That’s all I can do for you. Don’t ask me for book recs- you’ll regret it five pages/hours in.)
Solipsism will tell you that yes, the individual self exists but that it is all that exists. You are conscious. You think, therefore you are. BUT you can only know for sure what you perceive, ergo you can only know for sure that you exist. Everything else out there (waves hand in a sweeping, dramatic gesture), including other conscious people, is conjecture and reality is an opinion.
Egocentric presentism will agree that the self exists, but that other people are also independently conscious- you will just never have access to that consciousness, nor evidence of this fact beyond your own perceptions. But, like, people probably exist…?
But what about an argument for the non-existence of the self? Well, there’s no neat ‘-ism’ for that one, but you can always count on the Scottish to come up with a counter-argument. Hume posited that there is no self at all, that the impression we get of a continuous self is demonstrably illusory because that sense of self changes over time. Rather, all we can be sure of is experience over time and that these experiences give us an impression of a thing being acted upon, and we fill in that gap between experiences with a sense of self because the unknown is scary and messy- and not many people really want to embrace the void.
Interestingly, those who do embrace the void tend to end up supporting a concept of omniscience- universal consciousness. Historically, Westerners aren’t great with this. They tend to get as far as nihilistic phenomenology and check out, opting instead to sit in cafes drinking opium-laced absinthe and dying early of STIs or failed livers. If we look further afield, however, there is much thought to be found in support of a welcome void of being and/or universal consciousness. The concept of Śūnyatā as it appears generally in Buddhism is the ‘voidness’ that constitutes ultimate reality. This void is not the negative of existence, however, but rather the undifferentiation between all things, dualities, thoughts. Where you want to go with this depends on you. For example, you might believe that all humans share a universal consciousness from which we have been temporarily split off from by our human life spans and bodies and cannot reconnect with, or can reconnect with momentarily in moments of cosmic consciousness, or can reconnect with permanently through enlightenment, or through death. Ergo, the individual self is a momentarily illusion and you are actually connected to all conscious things, or all living things, or all things in existence- again, depending on what strikes your fancy.
Anyway, the point of all this is that having a little think about what you even mean when you refer to your–self opens up a world of thought about what it means to act selfishly.
In acting selfishly, are you sometimes necessarily protecting an individual self, which very much exists, in a good-selfish way?
Or are you acting for self-profit at the expense of others in an unnecessarily bad-selfish way?
Or are you acting to protect an individual self which doesn’t even really exist?
Or are you acting to protect an illusory sense of individual self, which is really a small part of an inter-connected omniscient cosmos, by hurting other parts of said totality?
Or, in the meantime, while you work that one out for yourself- are you just a dick?
Do you care if you are?
I am selfish and that’s okay (sometimes).
When I was a young teenager, I was told that I was selfish (and bad in a variety of other ways) for having independent thought and acting autonomously. In retrospect, I can clearly see that I was being called bad-selfish for trying to be good-selfish. But at the time, I internalized the idea that I was fundamentally bad, selfish, nasty, not to be trusted, and so I began a campaign of self-punishment over nothing.
When I was in my late teens, I realised the above and got good and pissed. I did not take realization of false-accusation well and despaired. I gave up and revelled in self-destruction. I made self-destruction my form of self-care, because it was all I’d ever known. I idealized madness and fantasized about death. I was being very bad-selfish without realizing it.
When I was spilling into my early twenties, I tried my best to act selflessly at all times. I took care of others to distract myself from the fact that I was not taking care of myself. In this way, I tried desperately to be good. Funnily enough, it didn’t work, and I ended up hurting people more than helping them. I found out that neglecting self-care- however difficult it may be to care for oneself- is a form of being bad-selfish to others. The old adage is true- you can’t help others until you help yourself.
Put your own oxygen mask on first, girl.
Around 25 I finally got it. Being your own self is not inherently bad. Self-care is a human duty. It has taken many years and will take many more to fully learn to be good-selfish and not overly doubt myself. I still fuck up. Sometimes I still neglect myself at the expense of both myself and others. Sometimes I still fail to speak up, to maintain boundaries, to offer explanation, but only where it’s needed. But self-care feels a little bit less uncomfortable each year. And by becoming more in tune with myself in a positive way, by being reflexive with a view to self-growth, I have begun to be able to connect with and bring peace and/or joy to others more often.
Someone asked me if I wanted to come along for the ride.
I said- no thanks, I’ve got my own journey unfurling.
And I like to be in the driver’s seat.
You are selfish and it’s okay (sometimes).
What you make of all of this is up to you. Whether you decide to start prioritizing self-care more, continue to be a dick, start reading Alan Watts or head straight for the nearest off-license/liquor store, it’s entirely up to you.
All I can say for sure is that it feels good to take care of yourself and it also feels good to not unnecessarily hurt others, and it is very possible to do both. It also feels good to think reflexively, to revel in the grey areas of life, to reflect upon one’s own experiences, recognize patterns, and draw conclusions about how you want to live going forward.
And sometimes, occasionally, it also feels good to say- fuck it- and go climbing.