In today’s post we focus on selfishness or self-centredness. We all have experienced people around us at work, at home, friends or family or our partners that are selfish. How do we go about understanding the roots of selfishness and how can we heal and protect ourselves from selfish people?
Let’s begin by understanding what makes a person selfish. Other synonyms that can be used are self-centred, self absorbed and borderline narcissistic. In general there are two symptoms of selfish people (F. Diane Barth L.C.S.W. Psychology Today. https://bit.ly/33lnbNN)
- Being concerned excessively or exclusively about oneself
- Having no regard for the needs or feelings of others
It’s completely normal when people have preferences that they want to fulfill sometimes. Examples include: “Hey lets do Chinese today. It’s been so long since we had Chinese food” or “Why don’t we meet these set of friends today”. However if the person in question wants to perpetually put their preferences and needs above yours then this is a red flag. Second: If they person consistently fails to enquire about you, your life and the things that matter to you – you want to be careful and reassess this relationship. Examples include when such people have made a commitment to you and forgotten about it. Such people often blame circumstances and their memory and do not take responsibility nor corrective actions to improve themselves.
But before you pull the plug, it is important to understand the other. Why is this person selfish? What are the roots of selfishness? All of us have selfish streaks in us. As children, we do not want to share our toys. We don’t want to share the bar of chocolate that is ours. In most cases, our parents teach us the value of sharing. When we get the assurance that we can still have the toy or the chocolate despite sharing it with others, we feel secure enough to share. Children that have not been assured that their needs will be met often cannot share. Children whose emotional and physical needs have not been met have a greater propensity towards selfishness. This is why parenting is a full-time job and so crucial to all of us and indeed to society. Those children who are shown that they needs for the toy or the chocolate are met can easily share. Once these children feel secure that their needs are met, you notice that they even actively go and share things with others. And when children share, they need to be gently praised. This builds in them the associations that sharing can actually make them feel good. This sets up the base for altruistic behavior – ” I derive great joy in seeing other people happy”. However, one must be careful, this doesn’t come at one’s own expense. Altruism should not come from seeking praise . Altruism comes from expressing one’s joy.
The roots of selfishness lie in insecurity
The roots of selfishness lie in insecurity. This makes people grab – power, status, wealth, experiences, sexual partners, awards, accolades and so on. Insecurity means a deep seated fear that “I will not get what I need and therefore I need to strive hard to gain and protect what I have”. Insecurity can never lead to peace. And therefore self-centred people can never be content in their lives.
Let us now switch gears and look at what impact these selfish people create on us. Do we feel used? undervalued? If so, what feelings are they creating is us. We can begin by noticing if their behaviors impact our state of mind and the sensations in the body (fear, hatred, irritability). If yes, we must use this opportunity to grow and overcome these strong emotions. We could sever all ties with this person and go on in life. But life is taskmaster – it will continue to give you such instances until you learn how to overcome them. Some of us have this experience of always getting partners of a similar distasteful nature or we end up getting bosses that are always narcissistic. Life wants us to learn.
We can start by sitting quietly and observing the thoughts and emotions that well up in our minds and body. Notice, observe but do not get drawn into the ceaseless story that the mind creates. The mind is cunning, it draws us away from ourselves and focuses on the other. Bring back the attention to your mind and your body. Slowly, through practice, a sense of distance begins to grow between ourselves and our thoughts and emotions. We begin to gain the ability to let go. We do not vanquish thoughts. We vanquish the pain these thoughts cause us.
What if we are selfish? How can we overcome our selfishness and truly begin to take care of the needs and feelings of others? Simple. Begin by recognizing our insecurities. What are we insecure about? That we don’t have enough money? That we aren’t loved enough? That we lose everything someday? That society ostracizes us? that we are not good enough? Sit quietly and imagine a situation where this fear comes true. And observe the emotions and sensations that start rising in the body and the mind. Be with them 100%. Do not judge. Do not label. They are there and we give them room to exist in us. Be a gracious host to these emotions as guests. By and by, we begin to see that we are not these fears. We are not these sensations. We are the much more powerful being that can sense them, that can watch them. This brings immense freedom to us and these fears loosen their grip on us.
Practice this technique of mindfulness for a few months and you start noticing a sea of change. Suddenly, we realize we don’t need to protect our opinions, identity and our possessions. We are complete without these. And as this insecurity dissolves, we begin to notice the feelings, moods and needs of the ourselves first and then the other. We mirror what we are. We slowly start becoming available to the other. We become useful to people and to society. Selfish people have never been useful to anybody. People who are comfortable with themselves become a support to people around them. They are happy to be themselves, happy to share and happy to grow.