Is Selfishness Really That Bad?

Happy man on the beach with his arms raised above his head

Though we do not find too many studies on the phenomenon, it is not hard to find and ultimately believe that we, as a society, have become decidedly more selfish in recent decades. Buzz phrases like “you do you” have replaced the “for the greater good” concept in many parts of life. Social media has proliferated this sentiment, and it is no wonder that self-help has become the business juggernaut it is. At the same time, however, it is important to understand what is behind selfishness, if there are any benefits to being selfish, and whether you can be too selfish. These questions ultimately have no precise answer. In this article, we attempt to discuss them in a way that can guide you in your life and allow for all-important feelings of self-worth while also deriving satisfaction from your life and efforts.

What Selfishness Is Not

We do it all the time to our kids. One won’t share their toy with their friend or sibling and is made to feel as though this behavior is selfish. We are convinced from a young age that we must share everything to make others around us feel better and included, but this can create skewed reactions to conflict. The person who is ultimately forced to share may not fully understand why they are doing it, while the person with whom the object is shared may realize that the louder they shout, the more they will get. Ultimately, both sides do not develop appropriate responses to conflict that would otherwise give them the tools to succeed in their relationships in later life.

Healthy Selfishness

Attributed to Abraham Maslow, who was, in turn, inspired by Erich Fromm, there is such thing as healthy selfishness. We’ve made selfishness out to be a vice, but it is not a zero-sum game. Because ultimately, selfishness lands on a continuum, much like other human behaviors. Selfishness can be healthy; there is truth to the old saying “You must love yourself to love others.” Constant giving with no take is unsustainable. Proper self-care is incredibly important and should not be confused with the negative connotations of selfishness.

Pathological selfishness, defined as “a concern for one’s own welfare or advantage at the expense of or in disregard of others: excessive interest in oneself,” by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is a different story. But Erich Fromm argues that this kind of selfishness has nothing to do with love for oneself and may be the opposite.

Ultimately, the trick is understanding where healthy selfishness ends, and unhealthy selfishness begins. This is often determined by considering empathy. Understanding when your actions infringe on someone else’s enjoyment of life is a great barometer to look for. Often, a well-adjusted child will learn these boundaries early on in life, but even if they haven’t, we can certainly do so as adults. For some individuals, however, this requires some professional counseling.

Let’s Talk Compassion

Dr. Rick Seely, our Chief of Psychiatric Services defines compassion as being “At the heart of healing. Compassion is when we understand and feel what it’s like to be the person that’s going through a particular suffering, and because we can empathize so deeply, we feel their pain. And if we have any sense of compassion, which is inherent in a lot of people, learned in some people; both inherent and learned in others…if we have that sense of compassion, we have an urge within us to do whatever we can to help that individual.”

Our levels of selfishness, compassion, and empathy probably lie somewhere in the continuum of nature and nurture, and many of us can benefit from help to create balance. As with anything, there are extremes. A select few people are extremely altruistic, while others are the furthest from it. Most of the population falls into a spectrum between the two.

Healthy self-care and selfishness can also be seen through the lens of self-compassion. We may take on the suffering of others when they are in turmoil and call it compassion, but we often do not practice that for ourselves. Accepting our own feelings as valid or created by circumstances in our past can liberate us from the debilitating pain and allow us to accept and work with our feelings and those of the people and loved ones around us.

Dr. Seely continues, “So one of the ways that is manifested is through the family program. We’ll have a family group, family night, and a family suffering so much and has concluded that they must be the only ones in the universe having such difficulties with their loved ones. To sit and hearing and see that other families have very similar problems {we learn that} we are not all so different. In fact, we are much the same at our baseline as human beings.”

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

While selfishness comes on a spectrum that may or may not be healthy, true narcissism has no redeeming qualities. People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) may seem extremely selfish or make it clear that they feel superior, but they suffer from exceptionally low self-worth. Once again, we have what seems like a paradox. Someone who outwardly seems so self-absorbed yet inwardly has not given themselves the love that they need that comes from a healthy amount of selfishness.

NPD is not genetic, and people with NPD, commonly called narcissists, are no different from others. They are not bad people; they have just been in an environment where they are led to believe that they are better or should be treated better than others. NPD is a true mental health concern that requires professional counseling and care. Often, however, entering treatment requires a co-occurring mental health or addiction issue, as most people with NPD do not seek care independently for narcissism alone. As you can imagine, they simply do not see their narcissism as a problem. That said, narcissism often leads to anxiety, depression, and substance abuse as the feeling of superiority does not translate to a better quality of life.

Unhealthy Selflessness

We’ve all been told that giving is better than receiving, and this is often true…to a point. If there is the concept of healthy selfishness, then it stands to reason that the idea of unhealthy selflessness or altruism would also exist. For several reasons, altruism and a genuine desire to help others can turn into what can be considered a pathology. Pathological giving or pathological altruism is when what was once a very satisfying activity breeds resentment and anger toward oneself and even the person on the receiving end of the gesture.

There are a few ways that you can understand if your selflessness has crossed the line.

First, do your activities and actions, in the name of helping others, interfere with your basic human needs and relationships? In other words, are you ignoring your own needs and are your relationships suffering as a result? Much like an addiction, it is possible to take your altruism to a level where it becomes self-destructive.

Second, why are you doing it? While a passion for a cause is admirable, what are the true reasons behind your altruism? Are you doing it to impress someone, prove a point, or even stick it to parents, loved ones, or friends they feel have wronged them in the past? Our motivations can give us a very clear picture of whether altruism has gone too far.

Third, are others taking advantage of you? It can be hard to admit, but others, even the closest to you, may be taking advantage of your altruism. Whether it is emotional or financial, others may see you as an opportunity to advance their interest at your expense. These relationships are not only toxic, but they can also cause a great deal of harm.

Is your altruism hurting others? As with many things, too much of a good thing can be bad. There are times when pathological altruism has negative effects even on the recipients of selflessness. This is often seen in medical professionals who obsess over caring for their patients to the point where they may make mistakes due to tiredness and lack of self-care. This is also often observed in animal hoarders that believe they are doing a good thing, but the opposite is true.


Determining whether selfishness is a good or bad thing depends on a variety of factors, all of which interact with one another to create a positive or negative impact on the individual. The key, as with most things, is to have a balance. Self-care and healthy selfishness are necessary components of a functioning individual able to care for themselves and for others. Similarly, compassion and altruism are necessary components of individuals who value having a positive impact on their loved ones, communities, and others. It is necessary for individuals to develop insight into what they hold important, how they can balance selfishness and compassion for others, and ensure they are caring for themselves in a way that enables them to continue functioning and having a positive impact on others in their environment. Individuals struggling in these areas, or who feel they are suffering due to the imbalance of these factors in their behaviors and their lives, should consider reaching out for professional support.


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