An acquaintance recently told me that she wished her grown children recognized how hard she had worked for them. “They’re so selfish,” she said. “They’re greedy and self-centered.”

By contrast, she made it clear that she had been a selfless and generous mother. “Everything I did was for them,” she said. “And look at what I have to show for it.” She complained that her children had it all: “They’ve all moved away to far parts of the world, and never checked to see how I was doing. My generation was not like that. We stayed home and took care of our parents.”

I listened to her complaints with some surprise. It was true that one of her sons lived in China and a daughter had moved across the continent. But all of her children called and emailed her regularly, and the children and grandchildren who still lived nearby visited her often. I also knew that they were all involved in making sure that she was comfortable and well cared for now that she was getting older.

From my point of view, they were far from selfish.

I wondered if she was criticizing them to their faces. If so, I imagined that her angry accusations could be making them feel bad, and as a result might be having the opposite effect from the one she desired. Rather than making her children do what she wanted, maybe her criticisms were pushing them farther away. 

Who, I wondered, was really being selfish here? These grown children—or their mother?

Managing Selfishness

Selfishness is a big issue these days. Books have been written about narcissism, “Generation Me,” even "healthy" selfishness. But when someone you have to deal with regularly is consistently self-involved and self-centered, they can make your life miserable. And of course, there is always the other side of the coin–what do you do when you’re accused of being selfish, especially when you know that you’re guilty as charged?

First, let’s define the term: The two defining characteristics of selfishness are:

  1. Being concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself;
  2. Having no regard for the needs or feelings of others.

You can see the problem: If someone is both totally self-involved and uncaring about anyone else, they are not likely to be very responsive to you in any way other than evaluating how you meet their needs. I actually think this definition itself can help you deal with the selfish people in your life. Here are four tips:

1. Understand where they are coming from. Before you write this off, let me explain: Understanding doesn’t mean letting someone off the hook. But if you can get behind the behavior and discover what’s motivating it, you'll have a better chance of responding in a way that might make it less powerful. We often make assumptions about what motivates people, for better and for worse, but those assumptions are often totally off base. I once sympathized with a neighbor whose 100-year-old mother had become extremely aggressive and angry. “It must be hard seeing her deteriorate into someone you don’t know,” I said. But my neighbor replied that her mother had been this way her entire life–age and infirmity hadn’t made her any different.

Young children, of course, are supposed to be selfish (this is different from entitled). Part of the work of bringing up children to live in a social world is helping them begin to understand that other people have feelings and needs that need to be respected. But they are not born with this capacity, and it's not inappropriate for them to want their own needs to be met first and foremost. 

Ill and elderly and ill people also often seem "selfish" because they are, almost of necessity, focusing on only one thing–themselves. The woman I described at the beginning of this post had actually, according to all her children, been a loving and generous mother. She had always been a little anxious, but as she got older, her anxieties increased. Afraid of living on her own, but still too young to move into assisted care, she had become self-centered and demanding. The truth was, however, that she was also proud of her children and loved them deeply. She did not want them to move back home, nor did she want to disrupt any of their lives–or her own–by moving in with them.

So what was to be done?

By understanding what was motivating her irritability and selfishness – that is, her fears and anxieties about life on her own – her children were able to put into action the second important coping mechanism. . .

2. Don’t take it personally. I say this to clients probably far more often than any of them want to hear. But it’s a major tool for coping with many different behaviors coming from other people: Just because someone says you are being selfish, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing anything wrong. What it probably means is that they want you to be doing something else–which might be right for them, but not necessarily right for you.

My acquaintance’s children did a great job of not taking her accusations personally. As a result, they were able to help her make some important changes in her life. They shared their concerns with one another and then with her. They explored the option of having her move nearer to one of them, but all involved agreed that she would be even lonelier without her friends and familiar activities. So they worked out a plan that involved more clearcut, structured visits from each adult child. When she became lonely, she could look at her calendar and see that she had a visit planned in the near future. With that to look forward to, she not only became less critical of her children, she got more involved in her daily life.

3. Don’t assume. As I just said, we often make assumptions that are incorrect or misleading. One really useful way to deal with someone’s accusation that you’re being selfish is to ask them what they mean—in a quiet and thoughtful voice. Can they explain how you’re being selfish? What would they like you to do differently?

If you can’t do that—and there are plenty of good reasons you might not be able to—you can also try to ask yourself those questions. For example, there seems to be a common cultural consensus that having a child is a selfless activity, and that not having children is selfish. But is that really true? Almost everyone I know who has ever started a family—myself included!—has done it for selfish reasons. They want to be loved or to be loving (and, oh yes, that’s selfish, too); to please a parent or bond more closely with a partner or spouse; to be part of a family unit—the list goes on, but you get my drift. There’s nothing wrong with these selfish reasons. It’s just important not to assume that they’re really unselfish. In fact, if we could honestly accept that we have children for selfish reasons, a lot of parents might be less distressed when these needs aren’t met.

In a delightfully satirical post about selfishness my PT colleague Adam Grant points out that we are quick to complain about others’ lack of generosity, but far less able to recognize our own failures in this arena. He makes a good point, but there’s another side of this coin: The fear many of my clients share, the fear that we’re the selfish (or “bad”) person.

This leads to the final tip. . .

4. Remember that a certain amount of selfishness is healthy. Healthy selfishness not only reminds us to take care of ourselves; it makes it possible for us to take care of others. Even selfless caring and generosity is not really selfless. If it makes you feel good to do something for someone else, then it’s still somewhat selfish, isn’t it? But that doesn’t make it bad! (Another PT colleague, Leon Seltzer, has a great blog on the evolution of the self that addresses this very issue.)

These are just some suggestions, but I’d love to hear about ways you might have developed to deal with the selfish people in your life. Do you agree that children need to be selfish in some ways, but also need to learn to be aware of and responsive to other people’s needs? What do you do when you’re feeling that you’re being selfish yourself?

As always, I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

Teaser image source: Istock76243985

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