How to Be Selfish

by December 2017

“(O)ur own unresolved feelings may be the thing getting in the way of our understanding the other person…”

You may be looking at the title and think, ‘What is a post on selfishness doing in a wellness magazine?’ When one looks at the term “selfish” we usually ascribe a connotation of acting on one’s self-interests without regard for how another person feels. Hopefully you are now recoiling at the idea of that, as this is the cause of a lot of the world’s ills.

The unfortunate thing is that many people in their recoiling may go to the opposite extreme and not think about their own feelings at all regarding their dealings with others. This is known as codependency. Selfish people usually latch onto codependent people and –consciously or unconsciously– exploit them; so we can see that this isn’t a great solution either.

How about the “middle way?” It’s important to get our own needs met and also to meet the needs of others. This article aims to point out a way to achieve both of these goals. First, it is important to consider that a fundamental human need is to feel heard and understood, otherwise known as being validated. We all share this desire in our relationships. One of the main problems in disagreements is that when we feel invalidated by the other person, the last thing we feel like doing is validating them. So they feel invalidated and in turn don’t want to validate us, and so on, and so on…

Try to notice this the next time you are in an argument with your significant other, friend, or family member: As they are talking, notice your impatience for them to finish talking so that you can make the point you are wanting them to get. As long as both people primarily focus on their own sense of being validated, resolution will be a long way away.

A far better approach in conflict is to really try to get the other person’s perspective. In the bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, John Covey called this “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This is not synonymous with automatically agreeing with the person, however. In fact, you may think the person’s point of view is patently ludicrous. The point is that if the other person doesn’t feel validated, they will likely tune you out. You don’t have to agree with them to convey an understanding that this is how they feel about the situation.

Another way to think about this is that you want to understand a person’s motivation in any situation. This motivation may appear nefarious to you at first (e.g. “he’s just trying to dominate me” or “she’s just being lazy”) but when you strip away these layers of judgment and perceive the person from a compassionate place, you may find instead that he’s feeling very insecure and needs reassurance, or that she is feeling tired and overwhelmed in the moment. When we understand the other person’s motivation, we can more easily match it with our own motivations.

In order to be successful at this you have to start with a fundamental worldview that people aren’t just “jerks,” “idiots,” or (insert epithet here). Someone’s viewpoint may seem seriously wrong to you, but they came to their viewpoint from a life experience, over which they did not have total control. For example, they may have come to a selfish attitude due to having had some measure of emotional neglect in their life, leading to a sense that they can only rely on themselves in the world. A dominating bully has usually been dominated himself at some point. We all act out our unresolved feelings, in benign and not so benign ways. Ever given your partner the “silent treatment,” or not let someone in line in traffic because you were in a bad mood? These are more subtle examples of acting out our unconscious feelings.

Making an attempt to understand the feeling behind the statement of another person will give you a better sense of the underlying motivation of that person and help you to avoid getting negatively engaged by their “surface” words. This attempt will also help the other person to not feel judged by you; when we humans feel judged our natural tendency is to then close ourselves off to that person.

Of course our own unresolved feelings may be the thing getting in the way of our understanding the other person, so we should always be willing to check the moods we are bringing to the situation. That way we can decide if we are responding so emotionally to another person that we aren’t letting ourselves hear their reasoning.

So to recap, when we stop trying to exclusively focus on getting our own needs met in a situation and work to convey an understanding of the other person’s point of view, ironically this often frees up the other person to be more willing to listen to us. And maybe, just maybe, they will be more willing to meet our needs as well.

As the Dalai Lama has said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”