Regardless of what you may feel is true about yourself (your level of selfishness) every human is inescapably self-interested and self-absorbed. The very design of our existence is all about this self-interested self-expression and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Essentially we all make the following self-interested declaration:
“I exist, I am unique, I matter, and I make a difference.”
This self-interest is essential for our survival as an individual. Each of us have our own unique twist or style to this vital self-expression which is the basis for judging everything as “Right and Wrong” and “Good and Bad” as well as what we consider to be and not be “selfish”.
Kinds of Self-Interest
There are three kinds of self-interest that humans exhibit:
Despite the way they sound, both Natural and Rational Self-Interest are not solely focused on oneself. Together these two naturally take into account the interests of others in order for the one expressing the self-interest to have full sense of completion with regard to their own state “of being”. In other words, we require other people in order to complete our own self-interest.
To clarify, let’s use the example of a nurse. Nobody would ever suggest that being a nurse is a selfish occupation. However, without the sick, injured and ailing the nurse has no purpose. Without others who are in need, a nurse can not fulfill their own self-interested need to heal and nurture others.
When Natural Self-Interest Goes Wrong
So what is it that can misfire within an individual and cause them to act excessively self-interested and thus what we consider to be selfish?
What we commonly refer to as “selfishness” can be classified as “Irrational Self-Interest”. It’s a quick and dirty self-expressive shortcut that finds immediate, albeit artificial validation by directly taking an action at the expense of another individual. It bypasses entirely the natural channel of expression that both Natural and Rational Self-Interest take.
Objectively, we can agree that there are certain irrationally self-interested acts such as robbing a convenience store or pushing people down to get on a cramped subway. These are very obvious selfish acts. What is more difficult however is to accurately judge the behaviors of someone with whom we are in a relationship with as selfish.
Perception, Interpretation and Judgment of What is Selfish
Determining what is “selfish” is a highly individualized, subjective process. It involves:
- Your perception of some action or behavior
- Your interpretation of that action or behavior
- Your judgment of that action or behavior
As you can see, every step of this process is unavoidably biased.
As the judge, you interpret certain behaviors as “selfish” when you feel (based on your own personal criteria) that another individual’s need for time, money, food, pleasure or other scarce resources appears to be unreasonable or otherwise excessive and where someone else is victimized and denied a share of that same resource. Again, the very criteria for making this judgment is skewed by your own particular type and style of self-expression.
For example, people whose style of self-expression is “Love” (Based on the Life Theme Archetypes of: Love, Justice, Wisdom and Power) are often perceived and judged by others as the least selfish and the most generous, since their very core motivation and personal fulfillment is derived from acts of assisting and supporting others. Whereas, people whose style of self-expression is “Power” are often misjudged by others as selfish and the least generous. The truth of the matter is neither of these two Archetypes of self-expression (Love and Power) are immune to committing acts of selfishness.
Selfishness and Extroversion Vs. Introversion
Another thing to consider is Extroversion vs. Introversion (as defined by Carl Jung and not by what is commonly believed due to the teachings of pop-psychology). True extroverts who lack an introspective gauge and depend on external factors such as social rules of conduct are often perceived and misjudged by others as selfish. (for accurate information on extroversion and introversion see the article: Is He a Sociopath or Simply an Extrovert )
One must also consider how their own society, culture, sub-culture, religion or other belief system influences them as to what constitutes a selfish vs. a generous act.
For example: In some Middle Eastern cultures it is quite normal and not at all selfish for the firstborn son to be served first and receive a much larger portion at meal times then the rest of the family. However, western society/culture judges this as “selfish”.
Resolution to Selfishness
Often, accusations of selfishness and the misunderstandings that arise among healthy, rational people can be remedied by simply understanding another person’s unique form of self-expression and the worldviews that it generates.
No one has a monopoly on either selfishness or generosity. In the end, we are all being selfishly unselfish.