Selfish vs. Selfless: Not What You Think

Have you ever heard any of these terms to describe the Millennial generation? “Entitled.” “Lazy.” “Impulsive.” “Irresponsible” “Selfish.” Not exactly terms of endearment! While these words are certainly not applicable to every person in an entire generation, I’d like to take a deeper look into the concept of the last term mentioned: what it means to be selfish, and not just if you are a Millennial.  

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What follows is more than a conversation for member of the Millennial cohort, because the concepts transcends generational boundaries. To be selfish, as well as the opposite of being selfless, is neither good nor bad in the grand scheme of things, if you apply each thoughtfully in your life. I firmly believe that there is a time for each of these concepts in our lives. They can deeply impact our reputation and relationships in addition to how we live the details of our lives.



What does it mean to be selfish? And what does it mean to be selfless?

Selfishness is a set of actions or state of mind where one discards any regard or consideration of other people. The focus is solely on the self and the benefits available, without thinking how others might feel or be impacted. Generally a term with negative connotations, selfishness feels pervasive in our culture. Etiquette seems to have gone by the wayside, whether on speakerphone in public, cutting off someone in traffic, or taking a moment to hold open a door for the person following behind.

On the other hand, selflessness is a direct corollary of selfishness, having essentially zero concern for your own preferences and desires because the preferences and desires of others matter more. Women, in particular, are both alternatingly celebrated or chided for selflessness to family, children, and the workplace. In my observation, mothers especially fall into having a high degree of selflessness. I’ve seen health advocates for others forgo their own healthcare and promoters of the elusive work-life balance be completely out of whack in their own priorities. Compared to selfishness, being selfless is considered to be highly admirable, with a positive twist in its perception. This may not always be the case.



So if selfishness is inherently unfavorable and selflessness is looked at more favorably, can we presume that they might actually be true in the reverse at the very same time? Let’s look through a different lens for a moment.

Consider that being selfish might be an acceptable attitude if you are someone who is generally considered selfless. You work long days at the office, never miss supporting a friend, make every school play, and always offer to help show up early and stay late – all for the benefit of the team or someone else that is not you. There are not enough hours in the day to also make sure you get exercise, and have adequate sleep, and even do something that YOU love, instead of what someone else might prefer. There is a reason when you fly on an airplane the flight team advises you to put on your oxygen max first in an emergency. If you don’t have the flowing oxygen, then you can’t help someone else put theirs on.

In this case, consider becoming selfish at important moments for you in your life. For me, I tend to keep Friday nights to be time at home to rest and recover and spend time relaxing with my husband. Depending on upcoming events, I might save a Friday night for a pedicure or haircut, something I tend to enjoy that doesn’t require a lot of effort or significant expense. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, I tend not to make plans for Friday. In past experiences, I was too exhausted to have fun and didn’t get a good night’s sleep. My new approach now allows me to enjoy the rest of the weekend without starting off MORE exhausted than when I finished work for the week.

“Selfish” self care also involves going to the doctor if needed, getting to bed at a reasonable hour, and fitting in physical activity (which benefits both body and mind), so this means taking time away from our goals, responsibilities, work, and families to be able to accomplish adding features of wellness to life. Here is what I would like to remind you: the work will ALWAYS be there. If you are looking to spend more time with people you love instead of working, think about ways that you can do more of wellness activities together. My husband and I have been searching for ideas of things we could do together that meets the goal of getting physical activity in. We’ve always been intrigued by the kayak rental in Kendall Square in Cambridge to go out kayaking in Boston’s Charles River. A recent experience for my husband kayaking with his husband is making sure this activity will become a part of our lives until it becomes too chilly to do with Fall on the way.

Selflessness in terms of self care is playing the martyr, and without the benefit of anything in return. The exception is that you end up feeling worse than when you started. I found that in the past when I sacrificed sleep and working out for the benefit of the company, staying up late and waking up early to do work, I didn’t see the benefits for me. It just became the expectation that I would be working at all hours and there was zero recognition or reward. All I had to show for it was weight gain, frustration, and unhappiness.



What should you consider in deciding whether something is selfish or selfless, either one in the most positive way possible? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. How am I feeling right now? If it is not my best, is there something I can do now to feel better?
  2. What benefit for myself and others will result from this choice? Or, what harm may come?
  3. Does it have to be ME who completes this task? Does it NEED to even be done at all? Can this task wait until another day?

These questions will help you discover your opportunities to create more positive selfish moments while eliminating the negative selfish activities as much as possible. If someone accuses you of being selfish when it comes to self care, take a moment to remind yourself that this is your journey, not theirs to judge (even if they do). As long as you continue to meet your major responsibilities, taking time for self care will help you to achieve greater happiness in life and career. Remember to consider what is beneficial to you first, and also to others secondarily, in the grander scheme when deciding to be selfish or selfless. If you don’t take care of yourself, who else will?

How did your perception of being selfish or selfless change? In what other concepts can you see flipping the narrative on the head to create a better life for you? What changes do you now anticipate making in your life?

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