Is putting ourselves first always selfish? And is being selfish really always a bad thing? We explain more about healthy selfishness and how it can help you

Being called selfish is an unpleasant blow. Socially speaking, the idea of being selfish is taboo: it’s something we should strive to avoid at all costs. To be called selfish means you are inconsiderate of other people, putting your own pleasure and gains ahead of others. Yet the term can often be used as a weapon against us, to manipulate us into doing things for others – even when it could be to our own detriment.

Can selfishness be good?

Selfishness isn’t always bad. According to experts, selfishness can be healthy, while altruism (the selfless concern for the wellbeing of others) can become extreme and unhealthy.

Scott Kaufman from the Department of Psychology at Columbia University, New York, and Emanuel Jauk from the Department of Psychology at the University of Graz, Austria and Clinical Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at Technische Universitat Dresden, Germany, recently published their research into healthy selfishness and pathological altruism.

“Selfishness is often regarded as an undesirable or even immoral characteristic. However, human history as well as the works of humanistic and psychodynamic psychologists point to a more complex picture: not all selfishness is necessarily bad, and not all altruism is necessarily good,” they explain.

According to their research, healthy selfishness can be related to higher levels of psychological wellbeing, developing skills necessary to deal with the demands placed on us by our environment in an effective way (adaptive functioning), as well as developing behaviour that genuinely is intended to help others (prosocial behaviour).

In contrast, those who practised pathological altruism (where we do things in an attempt to promote the welfare of others but cause harm that was reasonably foreseeable by others) were more likely to exhibit behaviours that stopped them from adapting to new or difficult circumstances (maladaptive psychological behaviours), vulnerable narcissism (a narcissist type that is highly self-conscious, insecure, and hypersensitive to rejection), and selfish motivations for helping others.

What is healthy selfishness?

Healthy selfishness refers to having a healthy respect for your own health, growth, joy, freedom, and happiness. It can mean using boundaries to help you define and refocus on your needs and those of others. By setting boundaries, we can not only allow our focus to return to our own needs, but we can create the emotional bandwidth to refocus on those that we love and care for.

For example, by saying no to attending a work social on a Friday night that you know is likely to make you feel exhausted, drained, and overwhelmed, you can instead reserve that energy for spending time with friends and family. This type of ‘healthy selfishness’ means that you are prioritising yourself and those closest to you, using your time and energy to do the things and support the ones you care for the most.

As Counselling Directory member and therapist Lauren Street, MBACP; MNCS Accred, explains, “You can introduce new boundaries to help protect your emotional health and wellbeing. Having healthy boundaries means you can open up to people and share your intimate or vulnerable thoughts, but it also means you’re able to say no sometimes. By having boundaries, you’re able to let other people know what is OK for you to tolerate and what isn’t.”

While healthy selfishness can have positives, it can also have negatives too. Kaufman’s healthy selfishness scale shows negative behaviours like vulnerable narcissism (e.g. hyper-sensitivity to rejection) and toxic altruism (e.g. helping others out of self-interest, rather than genuinely wanting to help) can also be related to selfishness.

What does healthy selfishness look like?

Healthy selfishness can be practised in a number of different ways. Some examples of healthy selfishness can include:

  • Setting healthy boundaries
  • Making self-care a priority (meditation, healthy eating, exercising)
  • Having self-respect and not allowing others to take advantage of you
  • Balancing your needs with the needs of others (rather than prioritising others over your own needs)
  • Knowing when to give your time/energy/attention to others, and when to step back and recharge
  • Giving yourself permission to enjoy things without having to actively be helping or doing things for others
  • Taking care of yourself
  • Prioritising your own projects, wants and desires over the demands and wants of others

You may already be practising healthy selfishness without even realising it. If you have a strong sense of self-worth, are proud of your accomplishments, feel competent, have a good overall sense of wellbeing, and feel satisfied with life, it can be a sign that you are prioritising your needs.

Redefining what it means to be selfish

We have so many negative connotations with the concept of being selfish, that it’s no wonder we hesitate to do things for ourselves that could be seen in a negative light. But sometimes, putting ourselves first is the best way to ensure we can give back to others.

Think about it. In an emergency situation, we’re advised to look after our own health and safety first. Adjust your own oxygen mask during a plane emergency. Make your way to the nearest exit in case of a fire. Ensure you can safely approach an accident before trying to help someone. We don’t consider these actions to be selfish, yet they’re a great example of how we sometimes need to look after ourselves first, in order to best be prepared and able to help others later.

It can be helpful to remind yourself that:

  • It’s OK to need alone time. Some people recharge around others. Some people recharge best by themselves. Acknowledging and meeting your own needs shouldn’t cause feelings of guilt or shame. It’s ok to step back, give yourself space, and recharge.
  • It’s ok to need help. Ask for help when you need it (whether that’s because you’re stressed due to work, feeling overwhelmed by housework, or need a helping hand to deal with a family member).
  • It’s ok to rest. We all need a break from time to time – physically, emotionally, or mentally. That could mean you need to set a firmer bedtime for yourself, take naps, or just have a break from other people and their demands. Resting is key to keeping a positive work-life balance.
  • It’s ok to let go of relationships that no longer serve us. Sometimes, we drift apart from our romantic partners. Sometimes, our family relationships become toxic and draining. Sometimes, friendships take far more than they give. Setting boundaries with people who emotionally drain us or ending these relationships when they hold us back or do more harm than good can be a form of self-care and self-love.

When is it ok to be selfish?

Being selfish from time to time should be more acceptable and something we work towards normalising. If you struggle to recognise when practising healthy selfishness is right for you, it can be helpful to keep in mind moments where being a little bit selfish can give you a significant boost. For example:

  • If you feel like you haven’t had any time to yourself, making time to do the things you love can significantly support your overall sense of wellbeing and boost your energy levels.
  • If you’re feeling burnt out, prioritising relaxation instead of overtime, taking on more responsibilities, or even completing general household chores can help you to feel rested, rejuvenated, and more prepared to face future challenges.
  • If you have taken a sick day, ditching the sick day guilt and focusing on getting better, releasing stress and tension, and looking after yourself can help you to rest and recuperate that much faster.

As counselling Directory member and integrative counsellor Alexandra Kubit-Hope, MSc. MBACP (Accred) explains, “If we do not solve our own problems first, how can we attempt to help others? Many clients struggle with the idea that they are allowed to put their needs first, and many more find the idea quite alien, despite the fact that not doing so makes them unhappy. Counselling can help by not only enabling [you] to recognise and challenge certain behaviours but also by creating a therapeutic relationship where [your] needs are put first.”

To find out more about how therapy can help with setting healthy boundaries and learning how to put yourself first, visit Counselling Directory.