Is It Ever OK To Be “Selfish”?

Confusing Assertiveness with Selfish Behavior

by Susan Axtell, Psy.D.

Periodically in my practice I notice a theme common to several different cases at once. It seems that lately I find myself exploring with patients the difference between selfishness and self protectiveness, or asserting one’s needs in a relationship.

Many of us harbor a fear of being regarded as selfish. We all know someone who can be described this way and they are generally not that much fun to be around. There’s not a whole lot of reciprocity. At best, all your time spent with this person is focused on them—what they are thinking, what they are feeling, what drama they are in engaged in, what crush they are dizzy from—at worst, your own needs in the relationship with this person are ignored—your thoughts and cares of the moment are not addressed, your preferences get bulldozed, you don’t feel truly seen or heard.

No wonder most of us are concerned about being experienced this way! A fundamental human emotional need is to be liked and to connect with others, and we know we don’t much like or feel truly connected to those who are self-centered, so it makes sense that we would want to avoid this characteristic ourselves.

What’s interesting is how many of us confuse assertiveness or self-protective behavior with being selfish. I used to think that more women than men fall prey to this confusion. Women are socialized to be “nice” and to nurture others, and those who clearly reject this pigeonholing get labeled “hard,” “unfeminine,” and, you guessed it, “selfish.”

It’s becoming clearer to me, however, that many men also struggle with the challenge of appropriately looking out for themselves when necessary. Many men, like women, feel a prohibition against this type of behavior because it runs counter to the “people-pleasing” engrained in them.

Often appropriately assertive behavior is squelched in children because complicated subconscious dynamics cause the parent to experience such behavior as threatening—to the parent’s sense of control, to the sense of cohesion of the family as a unit—or the parent has his or her own confusion around selfishness and assertiveness. Whatever the reason, the message gets sent loudly and clearly (if not explicitly) to the child: “That is selfish, naughty, spoiled behavior and if you continue it you risk losing my love.” Well, this is a very frightening proposition and thus this proscription against assertiveness is powerfully entrenched.

It seems that often it is not until we are much older, and no longer as dependent on our parents emotionally, that we begin to unlearn this association between actually being selfish, and asking for what we need in a relationship. Until we have achieved this distinction in our minds and take the risk to care for ourselves in ways that may, at times, not make others in our lives happy, our people-pleasing will actually hurt us (we are left with unspoken wishes, unmet needs, and a lot of resentment) and our relationships (don’t you think that resentment is going to seep out sometime?). So perhaps a way to ease into breaking out of the people-pleaser role is to realize that you cannot truly please others until you please yourself.