Is it ok to be selfish?

I was raised in rural Ireland, where I currently live. There is a prevailing culture here which values what others think of you above just about everything else. There seems to be a desperate need for approval amongst most people. As I have stressed many times, approval is like a disease that causes us to sacrifice ourselves to be liked/loved by others. Of course, the irony is that the person these people like/love (if they do) is not you but the person you are pretending to be. In my culture, one of the worst things you can be called is selfish but I am not so sure that being selfish is as bad as it is made out to be.

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The ‘Nice Guy’ problem

As a result of my upbringing, I have for most of my life struggled with what is known as ‘Nice Guy Syndrome. This is where you try to portray yourself as a nice person by putting the needs of others ahead of yourself. It is not motivated by niceness. It is an attempt to manipulate people into liking/loving you i.e. approval seeking. In doing so, you attempt to cover up your flaws and weaknesses, denying who you are and only presenting a manafactured image of yourself.

The problem arises when the recipient of your ‘niceness’ doesn’t behave as you want. You can then feel as though they betrayed you and start acting either aggressively or passive-aggressively towards them. The two most common scenarios where you are likely to notice ‘Nice Guy Syndrome’ are:

  • When someone consistently goes out of their way to be nice and helpful in the workplace
  • In intimate relationships where one partner allows the other to dictate everything or walk all over them

Once you’ve started a relationship (intimate, working, or otherwise) being ‘too nice’ it becomes very difficult to dial it back. In more than one job, I have started by being incredibly helpful. That then set the standard that my employer expected of me. When I realised that my extra efforts were not getting me what I wanted, I dialled them back but that irritated my employer who now perceived that I was not doing my job. I was doing the job I had been hired for but because I had always done more, they now expected more of me.  These relationships then become unsustainable, and I eventually moved on.

I have found the same for intimate relationships and friendships too.


The crux of the problem

The crux of the problem is that we do not want to be seen as selfish. We believe it to be a bad thing so, we go out of our way to behave selflessly. We value our own needs below the needs of others to the extent that we believe that putting others' needs first is the way to get ahead in life i.e. show them how nice we are and they will reciprocate. But that is not how life works. Nobody else is responsible for your happiness, only you. And you are not responsible for anyone else’s happiness either.

When you realise this, you being to realise that being selfish does not have to be such a bad thing. I would argue that a little selfishness allows us to be the best we can be, and when we are at our best, we are in a better position to help our loved ones and our communities.


We are all selfish

The truth of the matter is that everything you do is selfish. Drop the moral outrage and allow me to explain. As the late Anthony De Mello explained, everything we do is guided by at least one of the following motivations:

  • The desire to gain something for ourself
  • The desire to feel good about ourself, or
  • The desire to avoid feeling bad about ourself

No matter what we do in life, it is motivated by at least one of these desires. In the case of my ‘niceness’, I didn’t want to feel bad about myself by being selfish and I wanted to feel good about myself via the validation and approval of others.

So, if I am being selfish anyway, why not try to find the right way to be selfish.


Being selfless does more harm

There are of course times in life where selflessness is helpful but it shouldn’t be anybody’s default mode. When you are being consistently selfless, you are hiding your true self from the world, You are declaring that you are not worthy of having your needs met. In doing so, you are consistently attacking your esteem. It makes you miserable and you end up making others miserable too.


Be positively selfish

So what is the answer?

You are here to live your life to the best of your ability. That means you must put your own needs first. It doesn’t mean that you never help others; you just ensure that you are the priority in your life. There are two major benefits to this approach:

1

You are your best self

When you are your best self, you are happier and your self-esteem is higher. You become more of a joy to be around and you derive greater joy from life. As you are your best self, you are better equipped to help others when the need arises. With greater confidence and ability, you can better serve your loved ones and your community without the need for personal sacrifice.

2

You inspire others

When you focus on improving your life, some people will be envious and begrudging. There is nothing you can do for these people as they need to sort themselves out first. However, in improving your circumstances, you will find that you inspire some people to follow your example and seek to improve their own lives. They may even ask you for some advice or guidance.

As long as you act with good intentions, you will be able to prioritise your own needs without willfully harming others. Occasionally, some people will be upset but that is something for them to deal with, and learn from as part of their personal growth.

Unlock your self esteem

Develop unshakeable self-esteem that allows you to put your needs and goals first in your life.


'Unlock Your Self-Esteem' will teach you to do so.

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Conclusion

Too many of us engage in approval-seeking behaviour because we want to be seen as nice. Just as importantly, we don’t want to be seen as selfish. But everything we do is driven by some form of selfishness. When we accept this we realise that rather than deny our own needs, we can pursue them in a manner that does the least harm to others. As a consequence, we will be a better version of ourselves, allowing us to better serve the ones we love and our communities.