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Selfish vs. Self-ish: What's the Really BIG Difference?

Is there anything wrong with being the center of your universe?

No question but that the whole notion of selfishness is devoid of positive connotation. Arguing that it warrants being viewed as virtuous (as does Ayn Rand) is, finally, about as convincing as Gordon Gekko's egomaniacal affirmation that "greed is good."

Essentially, selfishness goes against our universal ethical grain. There's just nothing pro-social, or laudatory, about it--no recognizably redeeming characteristics. Just consider the various synonyms dictionaries provide for the term (i.e., no matter which particular meaning you ascribe to it, such behavior is inundated with negatives):

Defined principally as "thinking only of oneself" (definitely the most common usage for selfish), you get--among other unfavorable possibilities--egocentric, egoistic, egotistical, mean, self-centered, self-indulgent, self-seeking, and ungenerous. Perceived more along the lines of "covetousness" or "greediness" nets you (ah! the repulsive Gordon Gekko strikes again!) acquisitive, avaricious, grasping, mercenary, miserly, money-grubbing, piggish, predatory, rapacious, tightfisted, and voracious. Looked at mainly as "thinking very [extravagantly?] highly of oneself," its uncomplimentary synonyms include conceited, megalomaniacal, narcissistic, self-absorbed, self-serving, and vainglorious. And lastly, seen in terms of insensitivity toward others--or general inconsiderateness--we have such unflattering descriptors as boorish, brash, discourteous, impolite, rude, thoughtless, uncharitable, and unkind.

Okay, I rest my case. No positives at all here (unless, that is, you happen to be one of the Koch brothers!).

But what happens if you hyphenate the word selfish?--which, I must confess, no one appears to have done before me. How might placing the "-ish" suffix after the root "self" change the whole tenor of the word's meaning? in effect, transform it semantically? . . . and into something positive--in fact, actually desirable.

Let's take a look. Among the meanings of "-ish" are: "having the characteristics of," "belonging to," or [my favorite] "concerned with." If you're the center of your universe (after all, who else could possibly be a better candidate for the job?), is it not fitting that your very orientation toward life ought to have a certain self-interested focus? that your primary "concern" should be, well, you?

None of this, to me, implies selfishness as such. It's just that if you're going to (1) take complete responsibility for your thoughts and feelings, wants and needs, and (2) strive to reach your full potential, it makes perfect sense to make yourself your highest priority--to focus your time and energy on advancing your own welfare. That is, to be self-ish. And there's absolutely no reason that you can't at the same time be concerned about, loving and nurturing, toward others. However ironic it might at first seem, much research has shown that giving to others may ultimately be one of the most effective ways to nurture yourself.

Still, you don't want to give yourself away either. Being caring toward others is hardly the same as sacrificing yourself for them (as in co-dependency). For, strictly defined, such "self-forfeiture" would entail subjugating or suppressing your wants and needs for theirs. It would also hinder your chances of self-realization and fulfillment. And I deeply believe that the "pursuit of happiness" in our much hallowed Declaration of Independence is truly everyone's "unalienable" right. As individuals, maybe it's even our responsibility--or duty--as well.

What makes an act selfish (vs. self-ish) is its being disregardful, or at the expense, of others' welfare. It involves a "concern for" self that's clearly excessive, or exclusive. Here is where I'd compare its alternative, self-ish behavior, with basic assertiveness. For both concepts can be understood as promoting one's desires while respectfully taking into account the preferences of others. And just as assertive behaviors are almost never confused with selfish ones, I think self-ish actions similarly ought to be clearly distinguished from acts that are purely self-serving.

Up to this point, it might seem that some of the distinctions I'm making are a bit pedantic. But I started thinking about this topic many years ago when several therapy clients I was working with shared that, from deep within, they sincerely felt that acting in their own best interests was selfish (and so had to be avoided). In exploring where such a self-defeating program might have originated, I was regularly apprised that in their family-of-origin whenever they stated a preference or asked for something (whether it was a trinket, a favorite dessert, or a bicycle) they were pronounced "selfish"--as, contemptibly, thinking only of themselves. Coming from such a background, in which they were approved of, accepted, or valued only when they renounced their wants and needs and subordinated them to others', they inevitably learned to relate self-nurturing, or assertive, behavior to being greedy and selfish.

And that's when--directly in front of these self-denying clients--I started the practice of filling up an entire sheet of paper with those two words: "selfish" and "self-ish," asking them whether they could distinguish between these seemingly almost identical terms. Not surprisingly, all of them found doing so difficult, or frankly impossible. Which, of course, let me know exactly what needed to be accomplished to move their therapy forward.

Because I think the ability to confidently make the distinction between these two words is critical, I decided to write this post. So the next time you're considering whether a behavior of yours--or someone else's, for that matter--is justified, you might simply ask yourself: "Is it selfish . . . or self-ish?"

© 2011 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

---Follow my psychological meanderings on Twitter.

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