The word selfish has all kind of associations; however I’m sure one of the images that comes to mind for most of us is of the person who only thinks about themselves and is extremely self centred. This person only seems to think about what is in it for them and how it will benefit their own life.
On the other side we have the person who only thinks about others and is shown to be completely selfless. These kinds of people are typically lauded by our society for what they offer and for the many people they routinely help.
Above, I have mentioned the two extremes, one being selfish and the other being selfless. And I am sure that for many, the second option would be the most honourable out of the two.
The question that arises for me, is that, is it really this black and white? Is it really a case of one person only thinks about themselves and the other only thinks about others? I think there is a lot more going on here.
I believe that out of the two options, there are potentially two motivating factors going on within each of them. I will now explain what I mean by this.
As I mentioned above, there is the typical example of someone who is only out for themselves. However, there is also another side to being selfish and one that is far from self centred. This individual understands that in order to make a difference in the world and to be of service to others, they have to take care of their own needs first. This individual will often find time for others, but there main priority will be their own needs.
They are perceived as being the complete opposite of self centred, they would do anything for any one. I think that the other side or should I say the functional side to this, is of the individual, who has taken care of their needs enough to be able to assist others. By this, I mean, that they are not helping others out of the need for approval or acceptance, so that they end up compromising themselves. They are assisting others, as they have developed themselves to the point that helping others is really helping themselves.
Looking at this from a psychological perspective, it is clear to see that being self centred is a very basic stage in our evolution. An example that comes to mind is that of a child, who constantly wants attention from its mother. This is because as children we are naturally reliant on others and have no way of taking care of our own needs. So receiving the approval and attention from others is not only essential, it is a matter of survival.
As we begin to develop our own sense of empowerment and influence on the world, we will begin to see that we can take care of our own needs in a functional and empowered way. I believe that as we are able to do this, to have our own needs fulfilled, we will as a result of this be able to be of service to the world. This will be done from a place of integrity, as we will rarely be compromising ourselves to assist the society or world.
This is what would happen in an ideal world, however for many people this is far from reality.
Two Sides Of The Same Coin
Due to not getting these basic needs met, we can end up becoming either selfless or selfish. However, different situations in our life might change which side we embody.
Acting selfless can be perceived to be completely different to acting selfishly, and yet this person is not necessarily any more psychological adjusted that the selfish person. They have developed ways of getting their needs met indirectly by receiving the approval of others. The problem is that this approval is rarely internalized; meaning they are stuck in the trap of constantly needing to please others and all at the cost of truly pleasing themselves.
And although being selfish causes us to only think about ourselves, it can, as ironic as this sounds, also be the consequence of having trouble receiving.
I believe the above two examples happen as the result of experiencing rejection when it came to the fulfilment of our basic needs in our younger years. This creates an identity and level of deserving, which at a deeper level feels comfortable and safe for us. And if we continue to identify with our past; our need for approval will continue, stemming from the early association of acceptance and survival.
Taking Care Of Our Own Needs
My perspective is that until we can become aware of these needs again, we will continue to behave in a self centred manner. When I refer to the other side of self centeredness, I am talking about the individual that is becoming conscious and aware of what those needs are. This is someone who questions the very nature of them and if it is even possible for others to take care of them.
So if one has had a childhood where their needs were met in a functional way or whether it was through ones development in later life, I think it will only be as a result of this that it will be possible to really be of service to the world.
I think that although the approval from the people around us or even higher up in our society can be rewarding in the short term, in the long term it will only cause us frustration and emptiness.
What Really Matters?
However, finding out what truly matters to us can be extremely difficult. I believe this is partly the consequence of our childhood and partly the result of our education system. Both of these are about acquiring the rules, morals and perceptions of our caregivers and the ideas, opinions and knowledge of our teachers. When it comes to developing as a human being, I believe all of those elements are somewhat necessary. I think the problems arise when we don’t question these areas of our life. To decide for ourselves what is right and what is true in our own heart.
I believe that although others can offer us guidance and direction throughout our life, the only person who knows what will bring us true meaning and purpose is ourselves.
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Oliver J R Cooper
Oliver JR Cooper
Author, Transformational Writer, Teacher & Consultant.
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That which is contained within these articles is based on my own empirical understanding and is true for me at the time they were written. However, as I continue to grow, what I perceive as the truth will inevitably change and as a result of this - parts of these articles may not reflect my current outlook.