I often hear well-meaning people say, ‘I know what decision is best for me. But I can’t do what’s selfish, can I?’
For example, maybe you don’t want to end a relationship that’s no longer making you happy. Or maybe you don’t want to make a crucial career decision, one that suits you just fine and is worth the risk, but that you fear might offend or worry members of your family.
‘I don’t want to be selfish.’ I can’t tell you how many days of the week I hear this, over and over. If there’s anything that gets in the way of unhappy people, it’s this idea more than any other I know of.
The first thing I usually say in reply is, ‘Let’s break this down.’
The whole reason for giving up your own plans, dreams or hopes is for the sake of another person. You’re denying yourself happiness or pleasure because, you assume, selfishness is bad.
Yet you’re giving up this pleasure and happiness so that another (or others) will feel comfortable. You’re doing this for them. But wait a minute. You just said that selfishness and self-interest are bad. If these things are bad, then what happens to the moral status of the people you’re giving up your happiness for? You’re giving up something important to make the person happy. As a result of your sacrifice, someone else will be happy. But isn’t this selfish of the person, to be happy? If it’s wrong for you to please yourself, why is it right for this other person to be pleased by you? And once you make this person happy by making your sacrifice, shouldn’t that person turn around and make a sacrifice of his own?
How twisted! If this reasoning were followed consistently, the ‘ideal’ world would consist of a place where everyone is deliberately and constantly miserable. It’s insane, that this passes for morality. We call it an idealized heaven; in actuality, it’s hell. And it’s little wonder that mental discontent is rampant.
We should get a few things straight here. At least, if you’re willing to examine things from a rational and honest perspective.
The only obligation you have to other people is not to harm them. In other words, not to initiate force or fraud against them. This is all you owe to people not close to you, or important to you. If they’re people who are important to you, then you ought to keep your word and treat them with the same respect you desire for yourself. But if these are people you willingly have in your life, and wish to keep in your life, then treating them with respect is for your own well-being as much as their own. It makes logical sense you’d want to treat people you love well—at least, if you treat yourself well.
Interestingly, most people go through life either sacrificing for others or feeling somewhat guilty about the fact they refuse to do so. Is it any wonder that these guilt-ridden or miserably self-sacrificing people don’t treat others very well? Self-sacrifice is unnatural and self-defeating, by definition; it tends to put one in a bad mood!
It’s widely claimed that selfish people are “mean.” Being selfish does not rule out generosity or kindness. Why? Generosity and kindness are not necessarily acts of sacrifice. It’s perfectly fine and even easy to be kind to people you love, and sometimes strangers as well. But none of this suggests that self-preservation, self-fulfillment and putting one’s own needs first in life must be sacrificed, as well. In my own experience, the ones who are most generous and kind are those who treat themselves well and do what pleases them. This gives them a storehouse of energy and good will towards others, things you rarely encounter from a miserable, resentful, hostile and self-sacrificing person. Think about it.
Nobody has ever been able to explain to me why selfishness is bad, and self-sacrifice is good. Nobody has ever been able to reconcile, to my satisfaction, the contradiction of elevating self-sacrifice to a high principle for the sake of those who won’t have to follow that principle.
In the psychotherapy field, we talk about symptoms such as depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. These ‘symptoms’ have origins. The most common reason for these symptoms are moral or other similar dilemmas. That’s what I’ve learned as a therapist; most people are struggling with conflicts over what’s right, and whether they’re good people, or not. Too many people are racked with depression, unearned guilt and paralyzing anxiety because they feel unfit for living. One major reason they feel unfit for living is because they worry they’re selfish, and therefore bad. Or perhaps someone in their life has bullied or intimidated them into believing this, for their own ironically self-interested (thought not necessarily valid) reasons.
My point here? It’s not possible to confront mental and emotional conflict unless you get yourself clear on why it’s OK, and even necessary, to be self-interested. We live in a culture that champions ‘self-esteem’ yet chastises ‘selfishness’ and ‘self-interest’ at every turn. It makes no sense!
Being self-interested is as important and necessary as breathing. We don’t say it’s immoral or unhealthy to breathe. We don’t say, ‘How terrible of you to breathe! You’re taking air away from someone else.’
Yet we do that with proclamations of how it’s wrong to be selfish.
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