Nurture Your Own Sense of Self First

Before you donate your time (or money) to the various charities and causes here at the beach, it’s important to nurture your own sense of self. To help others, you must first feel good about you. 

Most of us are taught to not be ‘selfish.’ But there’s a difference between ‘bad’ selfishness and ‘good’ selfishness. ‘Good’ selfishness means acting in your own rational self-interest. This is a good thing, so beware of the knee-jerk reaction to the word! All healthy individuals are selfish. For example, choosing to pursue a career is selfish. Choosing to have or not to have children is selfish. Insisting on freedom and individual rights is selfish. Indeed, even ordinary behaviors such as breathing, eating and avoiding an oncoming car are selfish acts. Without this healthy self-interest, none of us would survive the day — much less a lifetime.

Good selfishness is not self-destructive. For example, it might seem that a car thief, for example, is selfish. But is he? He has to constantly run from the law and will never truly enjoy the car as an honest person would. How does he benefit from that? Similarly, lying to a loved one is not a self-interested act. The psychological stress of having to “live the lie” of an extramarital affair or any hurtful secret is enormous. A properly selfish person understands that honesty is the best — and least painful — policy.

‘Bad’ selfishness is characterized by self-sacrifice, i.e., giving up a greater value for a lesser value. Consider the example of a battered wife. She stays with her husband for reasons of “security” and “family stability.” Yet, in the process, she sacrifices her self-esteem and physical safety (greater values) to the irrational whims of her abusive husband (lesser values). Is her ‘selflessness’ a virtue? Of course not. Or consider the hard-working student who allows a friend to copy her answers on an examination. She sacrifices her integrity and her efforts (greater values) to the laziness and low self-esteem of her “friend” (lesser values). Is her ‘selfless’ behavior helping anybody?

Jealous individuals will try to make you feel guilty for your success. “You’re lucky to have done so well. Now you have a duty to share some of your success with ‘ me!” A rationally selfish person will enjoy sharing his success with those he cares about. As his family and friends (greater values) benefit, so does he. But why should he make sacrifices that envious strangers are all too happy to collect — perhaps even to the detriment of his loved ones?

Rationally selfish individuals give to charity when they choose to. Helping others who truly need it can be deeply pleasurable. A self-interested person is not “stingy.” She values her judgment to make decisions about how, and when, to spend her money.

Because the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ selfishness is often blurred, most of us assume that some selfishness is healthy, but that “too much” will lead to loneliness and despair. But the resentment that comes from self-sacrifice and ‘duty’ can’t compare to the satisfaction of contributing to causes that are important to you. Indeed, it makes you happy to do so.

An action is rational if, in both the short- and the long run, it serves your psychological health and well-being. For instance, a man might think that the fleeting, short-term pleasure of cheating on his wife is in his self-interest. But he loses either way! If he really loves her, he will feel terrible about lying. If he no longer loves her, he does himself (and her) a disservice by lying and skulking around behind her back. A rational individual knows that lies don’t bring long-term happiness.

Acting in your self-interest and being kind to others are one and the same. A mother loves her son, so it makes her happy to buy him special things. It’s not a sacrifice. It is, indeed, a supremely selfish act. And both mother and son are better for it. The owner of a popular restaurant is not submissively “serving the public.” He provides good food and a nice atmosphere so that he can make a profit and beat the competition. He and his customers benefit. A physician does not provide quality treatment for altruistic reasons. She provides it because she is emotionally and financially rewarded for being competent. Otherwise, she would quite appropriately lose her patients. Both parties benefit from this ‘good’ selfishness. I wouldn’t want to be operated on by a ‘selfless’ doctor!

Accepting responsibility for your long-term interest is a great alternative to cynicism. The childhood ‘rule’ that we must be either self-sacrificing or thoughtlessly “selfish” is a false alternative. Before you surrender to guilt, jealousy (and those waiting to collect your sacrifices), maximize the benefit to your loved ones and the causes you care about by living a self-interested and psychologically healthy life.