From an early age we are taught that selfishness is bad: As children we are rightly encouraged to share our toys with friends and siblings, not to be greedy and to be kind to those who are not as fortunate as ourselves. Parents, society and some religions condition us to see selfishness as a wholly negative quality.
However, the truth is that, in the right circumstances, being selfish is not only a perfectly normal and appropriate reaction but is also crucial to maintaining your own happiness and sense of self-worth. Sometimes selfishness is not only a ‘good’ thing – it can motivate you to take positive actions to remedy bad situations.
“Good” vs. “Bad” emotions.
Most people, if asked the question, “Is anger a positive or a negative emotion?” would label it as bad. Anger is seen as destructive, hurtful – even cruel. So does that make all anger bad? Not at all – in some instances, anger is a perfectly normal reaction which motivates us to take positive action. Imagine that your child was told at school that they had to sit apart from the other children because of the colour of their skin… You’d quite rightly be enraged. Anger would likely motivate you to protest about such a blatant example of injustice. In this example your anger isn’t bad at all – it’s a perfectly normal response which is appropriate to the situation.
In the same way as the example above selfishness isn’t always bad or negative – Being selfish sometimes is actually a completely healthy, positive choice.
As we’ve already established, selfishness – like so many emotions – has two sides: The good and the bad. Odds are that you’d find it easy to identify the negative traits associated with being selfish: greed, using others (physically or emotionally) without a thought for giving anything in return, being self-centered and interested only in your own well-being and happiness. To use a popular phrase “It’s all about me!”
Obviously, a person who displays this kind of thinking all of the time would be a pretty unpleasant character –and certainly not one we’d want as a friend or partner.
It’s precisely because we find this kind of selfishness so terrible that sometimes we can become trapped in a cycle of ‘bad’ selflessness – constantly putting the needs of others ahead of your own happiness. Often people adopt this stance when they have little or no sense of self-worth: believing that their opinions and needs don’t matter in comparison to those of family, friends or work colleagues.
There are many circumstances when prioritising your own needs, values – even happiness – is crucial to your health and well-being. Such healthy selfishness isn’t a bad thing but a vital virtue that permits you to be good to others because you’ve been good to yourself first.
As human beings we don’t possess unlimited energy – we must all occasionally take time to stop and refuel. Giving yourself permission to do something for yourself is no more an indulgence than filling your car up with fuel before a long journey is… Occasionally saying ‘No’ isn’t selfishness but a recognition that you deserve some downtime as much as anyone else.
In addition, healthy selfishness is essential in enabling us to recognise and escape situations where we are being treated unfairly, exploited or even abused. A prime example of this would be in the context of certain ‘toxic’ relationships where another’s demands are placed entirely above your own reasonable needs. In such cases acknowledging that a relationship or family dynamic is emotionally or even physically harmful and taking action to preserve your own happiness is a positive step.