6 Ways to Deal with Selfish People During COVID-19

COVID fears can lead to selfish behaviors. What can you do about it?

Posted Apr 18, 2020

The son of one of my friends told me, “My girlfriend insisted that we adopt a puppy during the pandemic. She made it sound like such a kind and generous thing to do, because puppies are being abandoned, so I agreed, even though I don’t really like animals and I think I’m allergic. I’m definitely allergic to cats and think maybe to dogs. Anyway, of course I’ve ended up being the one doing the training, getting up in the middle of the night when the puppy is crying, and doing the shopping for puppy supplies. Sometimes when the puppy comes over to her, she simply ignores it!!! Why did she insist that we get it in the first place if she doesn’t even want to play with it?” 

An emergency room doctor said, “My upstairs neighbors are playing super loud music and sometimes jumping up and down to it. I assume they’re dancing or exercising. But they know I’m an ER doctor and that I’m working super long hours and am totally exhausted. It would be nice if they’d just check in with me about when I’m going to be home – I’m not here a lot of the time, so they could make all the noise they want when I’m gone. It’s just so selfish of them.”

A young mother said, “My parents are being so selfish. They’re still going to the grocery store, even though I’ve offered to shop for them. But not just that. They’re going to the Post Office and even seeing some of their friends in person. They say they’re keeping to the social distancing rules, but I don’t believe them. They think they’re invulnerable, even though they’re in their late sixties, and they both have health issues, so of course they’re very vulnerable. But they don’t care that it upsets me. They tell me that they have to live their lives, and I have to stop worrying. How can I stop worrying? I love them and don’t want them to get sick!”

And a man with a long-standing anxiety disorder said, “My wife won’t turn off the news, even though I keep asking her to. And as if that’s not bad enough, even though she knows it makes me anxious, she keeps telling me the latest statistics about COVID – how many people have gotten sick, how many are dead. I know it’s how she’s dealing with her anxiety, so I try to listen sometimes; but then I think what about me? Why can’t she make an effort to help me feel less anxious by keeping some of these things to herself, or talking to her friends about them instead of to me?”

I have also heard and read some wonderful stories of incredible acts of generosity and kindness. Kira Newman writes in the magazine Greater Good “countless acts of goodness, kindness, and heroism are taking place all over as the world battles COVID-19” and shares eight examples of this kind of caring behavior. 

But in light of these acts of goodness, it becomes even harder to understand and manage the acts of selfishness and entitlement that are also all around us.  Except that when we are afraid, tense, and worried, we naturally become more self-centered. In fact, in a recent post my PT colleague Christopher Dwyer wrote that selfishness and self-preservation are often very closely linked. By definition, self-preservation is selfish, he reminds us.  

The truth is that we are all selfish, and, in many ways, that selfishness can be healthy and important. However, there are degrees of self-care, and the truly obnoxious self-centered often take it to an extreme—and that’s what we’re talking about here. The truth is that some kinds of selfish acts can be seriously problematic, generally when they involve the following two factors: 

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

Tensions are increasing and will continue to increase not only as we continue to shelter at home to protect ourselves and our loved ones – and the rest of the community, as well – but also as some people begin to feel more trapped, frightened, and worried about economic and personal survival. In fact, we’re beginning to see signs of this as some Americans ignore the physical safety of others (and themselves) by thronging in the streets to protest the ongoing shutdown. 

The following suggestions for dealing with selfish people can also help with some of these tensions. I’ve offered some other ideas on earlier posts about coping with selfish and self-centered people. In this post I’m offering COVID-19 specific suggestions to deal with selfish behavior as we live through the lockdown, deal with our own and others’ anxiety about the illness and the social, political, and economic fallout, and coping with people who don’t share our thoughts or approach to the issues involved.

  1. Not all selfish behavior is intentionally self-serving or rude. It’s not always easy to tell, but sometimes behavior that feels intrusive and insensitive can come from an individual’s internal anxiety and discomfort. Once you have a hypothesis about where the behavior is coming from, you can determine a plan of action. The emergency room doctor, for example, realized that her upstairs neighbors weren’t intentionally trying to bother her. “They’re used to me working long hours and not being around,” she said. “And I’m not around as much as other neighbors, because I’m still going to the hospital. But when I realized that they are playing loud music and dancing to get some safe exercise and to burn up some of their excess energy, I felt a lot less angry. In fact, I went upstairs to talk them and I guess I was pretty nice about it – because they asked me if I’d mind giving them my schedule so that they could be quiet while I’m home!”
  2. People sometimes act selfishly but think they’re being caring. For this reason, it’s always useful to try to engage in some sort of conversation about the behavior. What’s important is that you not address it in a critical or hostile manner. These discussions work much better when you frame them in positive language. For example, the young man whose girlfriend wanted a puppy but then shunted all of the puppy-care onto him told his girlfriend that he wanted her to be more of a partner in the work. “She was totally surprised,” he said. “She told me that she thought it would help me bond with the puppy if she left the two of us alone!” He told her that in fact it was having the opposite effect – that he felt abandoned and angry about being burdened with this task. “Oh, thank goodness,” she said. “You can’t imagine how hard it was for me to hold back when he came over to me!! He’s so sweet and cute, I want to cuddle and play with him!!”
  3. Sometimes a person has no idea that the behavior seems – or is – selfish.  Again, one of the best approaches is to try to talk with a person. And again, it is best to start from a neutral position, not from an assumption that the other person knows that they’re upsetting you and continues to do it intentionally. The man whose wife refused to turn off the news was surprised by her response when he said, “I know you don’t realize this, but when you keep forcing the news on me, it just makes me more and more anxious, and I really don’t know how to deal with that.” She replied, “Oh wow! Knowing what’s happening makes me feel better, and I thought it would do the same thing for you.” Like many people, she simply assumed that her husband needed the same thing that she did – despite the fact that they had been married for several years and she knew – or so he thought – that the opposite was true. Once he had clarified with her that his own needs were quite different, she made a genuine effort to respond to them. She waited until he was in his room with the door closed to watch the news, and she stopped trying to share updates with him. As a result, she also realized that she had been sharing what she learned with him in order to calm herself down after hearing upsetting news. “Maybe I’ll borrow a little bit of your technique,” she said. “Maybe I won’t watch so much news for a while.”
  4. At times, selfish behavior can be intentionally provocative. When you suspect this to be the case, the best response you can offer is not to allow yourself to be provoked. However, not reacting to provocative behavior can sometimes lead to escalation of the behavior rather than ending it. In order to avoid that response, it’s helpful to spell out to the other person why you’re not going to engage further in the upsetting discussion. For example, the woman whose parents kept interacting with others despite COVID-19 restrictions finally told her parents, “You know, I see that I’m not having any impact on you. You’re going to do what you want to do, even though you know it upsets me. So please know that I'm aware that you’re doing it, and I realize it might even give you some pleasure that I get upset – so, you can enjoy the knowledge that I’m going to continue to be bothered by it, but I’m not going to discuss it with you any further.” Her parents protested that they were not trying to upset her, that they were just doing what they needed to do. “That’s fine,” she said. “I’m just not willing to discuss it with you anymore.”
  5. Some selfish behavior is simply the result of selfishness. Unfortunately, as my PT colleague Ramani Durvasula writes, “Sadly, we are living in an era of entitlement, of selfishness, of egotism, of limited empathy.”  Sometimes, as the old saying goes, “a cigar is just a cigar” – and selfishness is just an act of putting one’s needs before the needs of anyone else. Durvasula goes on to say, “We, as a society, have been hurtling toward a pathological level of selfishness that has already been taking a toll on the mental health of many. We are now seeing, in a very acute way, the toll it may take on the health of the world as well.” Accepting that others are going to act selfishly at times makes it possible to know when you can do something about the behavior, and when you must simply do your best to reduce the annoyance or protect yourself and your loved ones from it. 
  6. Recognize your own selfish behaviors. Many of us are conflicted about our sense of what is selfishness and what is self-protection. As the President of the United States alternates between telling people to protect themselves and telling them to go out in the streets and back to work, some Americans worry about which is more selfish -- to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and other people from the physical danger of COVID, even though there’s a serious risk of economic loss as a result, or to put ourselves and others at risk of catching COVID in order to keep the economy going? These are difficult questions to answer. But this isn’t the first time they’ve come up, nor is it the last – not specifically about COVID, but about medical issues e.g. whether or not to vaccinate your children, in order to protect them and others from deadly childhood illnesses, or to not vaccinate them because you believe the vaccinations themselves are somehow dangerous. 

The important take away here is that we are all selfish in some way or another. And, selfishness in the service of self-preservation can be healthy and meaningful. But as Christopher Dwyer puts it in his PT blog, “By all means, self-preserve. But, just as you should avoid spreading COVID-19, please stop the spread of fear, irrationality, and selfishness.” 

Maybe, if we all look a little bit at our own selfishness, and as we begin to understand some of the unintentional reasons for selfish behavior in others, we’ll also begin to reach the goal described by Ramani Durvasula -- perhaps “we, as a world, may actually emerge from this a little less selfish, less entitled, and a little more willing to keep an eye out for each other.”

copyright @fdbarth 2020

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