Is it “selfish” to want a true friendship?

A visitor to my website writes that her ‘friend’ only calls her when he wants something, like free tax advice (she’s a CPA) or whatever. He rarely asks how she’s doing. She sees his behavior as selfish and morally bad. Making reference to one of my books where I write about the ‘good side’ of selfishness, she wonders if her ‘friend’ is really her friend, or just using her.

The problem is not that he wants something—it’s about WHAT he wants. Friends value each other primarily as people. If you’re my friend, you ‘pay’ me by possessing the virtues and traits that make you who you are. It’s selfish (the good kind) for me to derive pleasure from these qualities about you, and I expect that I’m ‘paying you back’ in the same way.

If, in fact, your ‘friend’ doesn’t value you as a person, then he’s guilty of phony behavior—pretending to be your friend so he can get free tax advice. But don’t blame his behavior on his having a self. If he had pride and self-respect, he’d call you for a paying appointment like anyone else.

Calling inconsiderate behavior ‘selfish’ is like blaming a house fire on the fact that people build houses. ‘If only people didn’t live in houses, nobody would ever die in fires.’ Or, in this case, ‘If only people didn’t care about themselves, they would never hurt others.’ Ridiculous! Being concerned about yourself is the very nature of life. True friends value you for how you make them feel, and vice-versa.

People treat others poorly for all kinds of reasons, but ‘having a self’ isn’t one of them. Disregarding the feelings or needs of others is not in your self-interest. It’s healthy to care about yourself in a rational, responsible way—and that includes nurturing your friendships because they fulfill you in some positive manner.

The issue sometimes starts in childhood. Parents might let their child walk all over them, failing to hold the child responsible for his or her actions. By ‘responsible’ I don’t just mean reward and punishment. I mean communicating your thoughts, such as, ‘That really hurt my feelings. Please don’t speak to me like that.’ Some well-meaning, but misguided parents feel that they must sacrifice for their children every chance they get. Is this any way to prepare kids for the real world; expecting people to sacrifice for them? What kind of favor have you done by sending them out into society expecting unrealistic things from friends and family?

Another reason people treat others poorly is resentment. They’ve been told to disregard their own feelings for so long that they reach a point of rebellion. The self-sacrificing martyr becomes bitter; running roughshod over others. Your ‘friend’ might feel he’s been treated that way himself, and now it’s ‘his turn.’ The contradiction is obvious: He’s counting on YOU to be the martyr that he no longer wants to be.

It’s up to you to make it a two-way street. You ARE allowed to think of yourself. And your friend is equally allowed to think of himself. In the spirit of ‘good’ selfishness, you gain personal enjoyment from your friendship, so you want to treat your friend well. And you should expect the same treatment in return. It’s really no different with anything that’s important to you. You protect and maintain your house and your car because you value them. Of course, friendships involve people and not objects, but that’s precisely the point. If you “value” your friend because of who he or she is, then you honor your feeling by treating the friend with respect. It’s not a selfless act—it’s quite the opposite, because you’re honoring and respecting what’s important to YOU.

I would never demand that someone not be selfish. Instead, I’d call them on their contradiction. If you’re going to confront this at all, say something like, ‘If I’m important to you, then why do you never ask how I’m doing?’

A contributor to writes under the subject, ‘How to Get Rid of Friends:’ ‘Chances are, if your friends are not treating you right, you are probably doing something to encourage and reward that treatment. Identify your enabling behavior and stop it.’ Amen! Before ditching a friend, consider what YOU may be doing to encourage the behavior you don’t like. For example, are you allowing people to hold you too long on the phone? Or agreeing to do favors for them that you don’t have time to do? You always have the option to say, ‘Well, it’s been great chatting, but I need to go now,’ or, ‘Sorry, but I’m just too swamped to take you to the airport.’ In a misguided attempt to ‘not be selfish,’ you might be subconsciously reinforcing the very kind of dynamic that you don’t want. Friends who disappoint you may not be as committed to the one-way street as you think they are.

Maybe you need to get rid of your one-way relationship, or maybe you just need to change the behavioral patterns you may have helped to encourage. If you’re not ready to say good-bye to your friend, try retraining him first!