Are You Selfish or Do You Just Have Healthy Self-Interest?

Don’t be held hostage by needless guilt and fear. Go ahead and say “no.”

Posted Nov 25, 2018

Doris believed that decent, kind and considerate people never put their own needs before those of others, especially when dealing with loved ones. She thought only selfish people who failed to care about the feeling and wishes of others would ever put their own desires first. Unsurprisingly, Doris often felt people took unfair advantage of her and did not reciprocate her selflessness.  In fact, most of her family and friends seemed to believe Doris was a bit of a martyr and derived satisfaction from her self-sacrificial M.O. In reality, however, she often felt resentful but because of guilt and fear could never bring herself to express her true feelings.

After a brief course of CBT, emphasizing rational reframing and assertiveness training, Doris reported feeling much better about herself and many of her relationships.  What I call the “O2 metaphor” (O2 as in oxygen) seemed to particularly resonate with Doris:

Imagine you’re flying a commercial jet seated between a very young child and a frail, very old adult.  All of a sudden the cabin loses pressure. The oxygen masks deploy and drop down in front of everybody. Now, who is the first person you put the oxygen mask on? The helpless child? The struggling senior? No, and no! As every flight attendant will announce during the safety briefing, we are instructed to put on our own mask first before attempting to help anyone else. Because if we don’t, we’ll pass out almost immediately. And then, not only will we have failed to help the child and/or the senior, but we now need help ourselves. Yet if we had first taken just a few seconds to secure our own air supply, we then would have been able to attend to the people around us who might need help. Also, by taking care of ourselves first, we can often avoid the predicament of needing assistance ourselves. Thus, often, only by helping ourselves first can we be a position to offer or provide help to others. This is the main difference between healthy self-interest and selfishness.

In essence, selfishness involves satisfying your own needs at the expense of others. Healthy self-interest is simply taking care of yourself but not at the expense of others. Related to this is the unfortunate notion that it is better to give than to receive. Why? This mistaken idea has led many people like Doris to be ungracious about accepting things from others. The irony is that it can be selfish to refuse to let someone do a kind deed for us because it deprives them of altruistic satisfaction. Hence, neither giving or receiving is “better.” It is best to give and to receive.

At the heart of Doris’s lack of assertiveness was an element of rejection and abandonment anxiety.  Indeed, many people believe that if they say “no,” or put themselves first, it will lead people to dislike them and might even rupture their relationships. But when we realize if someone reacts so dramatically to a simple act of healthy expression, the problem is with them and not with the assertive person.  In these cases, it’s often necessary to recalibrate the relationship and keep in mind that the other person has some significant personal and interpersonal challenges.

So, when you’re about to say “yes” when you’d really rather say “no,” think of the O2 metaphor. Also, try not to be held hostage by exaggerated fears of your relationships’ fragility.  Any healthy and truly meaningful intimacy ought to easily withstand an occasional “no” and balanced instances of enlightened self-interest.  Finally, allow yourself to receive gifts and accept kind acts from others so that they don’t feel rejected and fail to derive the pleasure of giving.

Remember:  Think well, Act Well, Feel well, Be well!

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Copyright 2018 by Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D. This post is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional assistance or personal mental health treatment by a qualified clinician.