What I am about to post may seem contrary to our contemporary narrative. However, it is not. What I am going to write about today is the trait of selfishness.
The term selfishness evokes negative emotions and can be easily weaponized. “You are so selfish!” That phrase is almost guaranteed to cause the recipient a defensive retort or a sense of shame. In many cases, selfishness refers to a behavior where the selfish person’s actions are deliberate in intent. This is not what I will be writing about today. Instead, I will be exploring the personality trait of selfishness, and how like many rigid traits, it has direct and indirect harmful effects on both the selfish person and those around them. In addition, many individuals who express this trait would be shocked if it was identified in them, as they may think of themselves as not being selfish at all due to lack of awareness.
It is easiest to understand selfishness by first understanding its counter characteristic. One may think that this is selflessness, but that is not the case. The counter characteristic of selfishness is codependency. The term codependency has been the darling of popular psychology gurus for decades. It is bantered around as a psychiatric diagnosis, but it is not one. Because of this, there are many definitions of this term. For today’s post, I’ll define codependency as the characteristic of often putting the needs of others before yours in a maladaptive way. The long-term effect of this is to lose your own identity. In addition, the codependent’s sense of wellbeing is determined by the mood and wellbeing of those they are dependent on. If they are happy, the codependent is happy. If they are stressed, the codependent is stressed. These connections go well beyond normal empathy and are destructive for the codependent, the individual who they are dependent on, and the relationship that they share with that individual.
Very similar dynamics happen with selfishness, even though this trait is the opposite of codependency. Why is that the case? One reason may be due to the destruction of a healthy connection with others. Studies have shown that a healthy relationship with others leads to good mental health and better physical health. Therefore, anything that denies an individual the ability to form healthy connections with others can be potentially detrimental to them.
The trait of selfishness dictates that the person places their needs above others in a consistent way that (in the long run) negatively impacts the individual, those around them, and the connection that they share. I am not referring to known significant pathological disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Antisocial Personality Disorder. In the former, others are viewed as objects whose sole purpose is to meet the needs of the Narcissist. In the latter, there is a lack of empathy, resulting in the absence of a moral center. In contrast, the selfish person can relate to others and possess empathy, but they can modify or switch off these characteristics when it serves their needs.
A selfish person often looks good on paper. However, their acts benefit them as much or often more than the recipient. There is a reason why they are doing what they do.
Selfish people come in a variety of “flavors” or categories. Many selfish individuals can exhibit characteristics from multiple categories, so these types are listed chiefly for convenience.
Types of selfish people.
The Stingy type
There are many ways that stinginess can be expressed. It is a consistent pattern of withholding when giving would have little negative impact on the stingy individual. Yes, being excessively cheap would qualify, but so would being emotionally stingy or stingy with one’s time or effort. For instance, a person has an emotional crisis and seeks comfort from a stingy friend. The stingy person listens impatiently and offers a suggestion or two to the sufferer with the hopes of moving on. Their efforts are superficial; designed to shut up the sufferer and they don’t involve a genuine willingness to be comforting or helpful.
The Look At Me type
These individuals can always redirect others to topics that focus on them. They need to be the center of attention. You tell them about something in your life, and they immediately one-up you. Their experiences are grander, their kids are better, and their traumas are more terrible. The other individual feels shortchanged, unimportant, exhausted, or inadequate.
The Woe Is Me type
These folks are chronically dissatisfied with their lives, no matter what they are doing. They feel that the grass is greener elsewhere, and somehow they have been shortchanged. This allows them to shortchange others, or to justify bad behaviors. This can especially be a problem for their parents, partner, or children, as these individuals are frequently indirectly or directly blamed for the selfish person’s unhappiness.
A stay-at-home parent may complain that they sacrificed their career to care for their children, but when they return to work they now complain that they don’t have time for themself. No matter what that they are doing, they are not happy. Their unhappiness is incorrectly blamed on external things instead of looking inward for a solution. This erroneous blame can result in maladaptive behaviors such as reckless spending, addictions, and extramarital affairs.
A selfish friend may believe that they are constantly doing all of the work in a relationship when this is clearly not the case. Resentments build and the friendship deteriorates. Since the problem is internal to the selfish person the cycle repeats. These folks are constantly finding new “best friends” only to have the connections quickly and destructively fall apart.
A child (or adult child) may complain that their siblings are always getting more (money, time, etc.) from their parents by cherry-picking examples when there are no larger indications of this. Their interactions with others center on mental checklists of the “What have you done for me lately?” variety. Their personal connections with others become transactional rather than intimate-and therefore wholly unsatisfying.
The woe is me type constantly complains that they are working harder, suffering more, and being cheated out of more. They elevate and amplify what they are doing while forgetting, negating, and minimizing what the other person is doing. They will often project their own selfish thinking on others. “Yes, you did this but you only did it to…” They use these misinterpretations to justify withholding, being angry, and acting out.
The Karen type
First, let me say that I have some difficulty using this term as I have an absolutely lovely niece whose given name is Karen. However, the term is now instantly recognizable, and hence my use. These individuals are usually identified as being white, female, and privileged. Is there a male equivalent to a “Karen?” Of course (a Chad). Are there Asian, Black, or Hispanic variants? Naturally. These individuals have a false sense of importance which they bestow on people who they consider weaker or more inferior to themselves. We have all seen videos of “Karens” in action, and the target of their rage is often a service employee, such as a waitress or a customer service clerk. Their intentions seem more about demonstrating dominance and expressing rage as opposed to getting their problem solved. Some of their familiar catchphrases are, “I want to talk to your manager right now!” and “I’m going to have you fired!” They may act very differently towards those that they consider their peers, but their overall lack of humanity has a negative effect on all of their relationships.
The Club Member type
This is a disturbing and growing category of selfishness that elevates the selfish person and their ideas while at the same time demonizing the individual or group that they consider in opposition. The club member adopts a “What team are you on?” mentality. Black lives or blue lives? Democrat or Republican? Etc. The other group is dehumanized, and this justifies selfish or even criminal behavior.
Some examples of this type can be found in recent Black Lives Matter protests. On one side, protestors justified looting stores using rationales that held little true merit. On the other side, police officers justified using unnecessary physical force (beatings, tear gas, etc.) to control groups of peaceful protestors. In both examples, the targets of the groups were dehumanized enough to justify criminal behavior (looting and destroying stores, and physically hurting peaceful protestors). With minimal examination, both actions were not only unlawful, but their justifications were ridiculous.
Club members can be incredibly destructive. A group can use its status to persecute another group. There are (unfortunately) too many examples of this that range from the Holocaust, to the persecution of the Uyghurs, to the enslavement of blacks as happened in the United States.
The Caste Member type
There are societies in the world that follow a strict caste system. Those on the bottom are treated very differently from those on the top. The United States appeared to be on target to have an equal society post World War II. Efforts such as the GI bill allowed individuals to transcend their born life station. For instance, working-class GIs had the opportunity to attend university and go from being preordained workers to influential leaders. After WWII, a large middle class was established, which served both as a unifier between classes and a path between social strata.
However, over the last few decades, the middle class has been declining with a resulting chasm between the haves and have nots. This is illustrated by the CEO gap. The average CEO makes over 970% of what they made in 1978, while the typical worker’s compensation has only risen 12%. As a result, we are becoming a country of rich and poor with two different sets of rules. An example is the US legal system. “Equal justice for all” is a great catchphrase, but a person who can afford a high-priced legal dream team will usually obtain a better outcome than a person who is reliant on an overworked public defender.
I remember reading an autobiographical book of a woman who was hired as a nanny for a powerful and very rich family in the movie industry. On the surface, it looked like a dream job, but it actually amounted to a twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week low-paying position that bordered on slavery. When the poor nanny decided to extricate herself from said position her boss (the husband) threatened to destroy her reputation to make sure that she would never be hired for another nanny job. Yes, probably a blessing in disguise, but that is not my point. I’m assuming that he would have never acted in such a selfish way if she was of equal or greater status to his.
The Justifier type
This indeed is a tricky category. It is the category that justifies selfish behavior based on a higher reason or cause. “I had to work to get health insurance; why should XXX get it for free!” “If we raise the minimum wage restaurant prices will go up, and some restaurants will close, causing people to lose their jobs!”
Depersonalizing entire groups or (worse) rebranding an oppressive action as a benevolent act allows individuals to feel justified in their selfish actions. Should someone really be grateful for the opportunity to work 40 hours a week without health insurance benefits, while making so little that they have to live in a tent? -Yes, that is really happening in 2021.
Causes of the selfish trait
The following is based on my thoughts and has not been established by rigorous scientific methods. Use these ideas as a springboard for your own theories.
There are no papers that I am aware of that explore the genetic contribution to the trait of selfishness. However, it would not be unreasonable to assume that genes play some part in the evolution of this trait. Selfishness would offer some survival advantages to early humans. In addition, it is clearly understood that contrasting personality characteristics like empathy do have a genetic component. Is there a gene for selfishness or is it determined by a modification of opposing traits such as empathy? That is to be determined.
Most personality traits have environmental elements that promote the trait, so it is likely the same with the attribute of selfishness. But, what are some factors that could contribute to this trait?
You can be deprived of many things that range from money, food, emotional support, physical security, and love. People raised in such systems can react to their trauma in a variety of ways. One way would be to adopt similar behaviors while feeling a need to ensure their own security. As a result, it becomes the norm to withhold and not give.
Individuals in this category may not even realize that they are being selfish as they have never learned how to act in a different manner.
Excess (Prince/Princess) model
This is the opposite of the deprivation model. A person is given so much that they never experience want, and thereby they don’t develop a true sense of connection with others. All of their needs are anticipated and attended to, which unrealistically elevates their ego.
When I was working in an affluent suburb of Chicago, I would see parents who would try to give their children a perfect life. If the kid got a bad grade, they didn’t tell them to work harder; they complained to the teacher and wanted them to change the grade. If the kid got into trouble, they would get them the best legal counsel so that they would have the least possible consequence.
I recall a couple who were shocked when their son was arrested for driving over 100 MPH down a quiet residential street (where loads of kids played). This child had a long list of irresponsible behaviors, so why did the father buy him an expensive high-speed sports car for his 16th birthday? Shortly after the gift, he was arrested for this incident, and his parents hired the best legal team because they didn’t want the young man to have that blemish on his record. By the way, he was well on his way to screwing up his life due to the lack of consequences.
Adults who were raised in a deprivation model can sometimes parent their own children using an excess model.
A society can promote selfish behaviors. Terms such as systemic racism identify societal reasons for the selfish behaviors of one racial group (whites) against another (blacks). Volumes have been written on these topics with ramifications that range from the underfunding of HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) to fewer job offers in resume reviews of qualified individuals with names that sounded more African Americans.
In many societies, minority groups are treated as inferior to the majority group, and those in power generally establish rules and customs that justify this mistreatment.
We live in a time that emphasizes the individual above the group and this allows isolation from ideas contrary to the individuals. You can exclusively watch news channels that mirror your beliefs without regard to balance. You can physically and virtually limit your association to people who are unlike you (religion, race, economically, politically, etc.). As a result, ideas stagnate, prejudices amplify, and a general sense of entitlement can occur.
I treated a very religious man who felt that it was perfectly acceptable to cheat some of his business clients because he felt that they were non-believers.
The Celebrity Model
Many idolize celebrities and excuse their destructive behaviors while desiring to be like them. A star cheats on their spouse because they find someone who seems more exciting, and there seems to be little consequence for their actions…Why not me? A politician amasses money and power by destroying the lives of others…That is how successful people do it, right? A sports icon gets away with murder…What’s the big deal? We honor and emulate people in power and idealize their actions. What appears to be business as usual for those individuals can be normalized to the greater society.
Expressing personality traits
It may seem counterintuitive, but an individual can express opposing traits separately or at times simultaneously. In this case, I am specifically talking about the traits of selfishness and codependency. I understand that that may sound confusing, so here is an example. A person has an established selfish trait, demonstrated by a long history of selfish actions. Then, they marry an alcoholic, and they try to control the alcoholic’s drinking and then their overall behavior. Soon, this becomes the focus of their life, and they are in full codependency mode, still expressing selfish behaviors to that person and those around them.
It would be easy to read this post, take the ideas presented here to an extreme, and think it is always wrong to be selfish. However, there are absolutely times when an individual needs to think about their needs, and during those times, others may deem that behavior as selfish. Conversely, there are absolutely times when a person must put their demands aside and make someone else’s needs their priority.
Living a full and good life involves give and take and flexibility. If an individual is always only thinking about their needs, or if they are always subjugating their needs for the needs of others, they will have an unfulfilled and empty life. However, there is a big difference between always and sometimes. A successful life centers on balance, and that requires thoughtfulness and self-awareness.
It is easy to identify a selfish person by the way you feel after you interact with them. Some common feelings include feeling exhausted, used, guilty, shamed, empty, inadequate, or angry. However, it is much more challenging to determine if you yourself have a pattern of selfish behavior. A straightforward method to resolve this is to self-test your actions by daily focused journaling for a few weeks. The intention of your journaling is to explore one interpersonal interaction that occurred that day. That interaction could be with a spouse, relative, friend, or a third party (like a store clerk or someone driving on the same road). Write out the interaction, and then answer the following questions:
Why did you act the way you did?
If you would have acted differently, would that have had a different outcome?
Did you behave in an entitled way?
Did you think about the other person’s feelings or why they acted the way that they did?
Did your actions have a negative impact on someone else?
Did you feel that your behavior was justified because the other individual was different than you in some way? Inferior to you?
Would you have acted in the same way if the person was more similar to you? For instance, a member of your club, church, or social status?
Did you feel morally justified by your actions?
If you were having a conversation, how much time did you spend asking about the other individual?
How interested were you in their answers?
Did you do a kind or thoughtful act anonymously for someone today?
What have you done in the last 24 hours that made someone else’s life better, even if that was in a small way?
If you see a pattern of personal selfishness, it is possible to change it with deliberate effort and by using the same journaling process to monitor your progress. The goal isn’t to turn you into a selfless Mother Teresa. Instead, it is to change your behavior so that there is more balance, as I described above.
I have worked with thousands of patients in the over 30 years that I have practiced psychiatry. Selfish people and their counterparts (codependent people) are not happy people. Finding the middle ground results in improved self-esteem, better relationships, and overall greater happiness.