Since these are questions many of us grapple with, let’s take a look at the outlooks of these two seemingly opposing ways of being:
The Selfish perspective
This kind of person feels it’s best to look after themselves (and the family and friends that they see as an extension of themselves.) “Looking after number one” is their motto and often this kind of person really does know how to do that. Not being afraid to put themselves ‘out there’, they pursue what they want without worrying too much about the effects on others. They can be assertive, often with a materialistic outlook and driven to achieve. This attitude gives them a feeling of strength as well as power and money which they feel good about.
The Selfless perspective
This kind of person puts others first. They are usually monitoring situations to check whether others are comfortable and happy. Looking at the big picture is important for them and they are often drawn towards spiritual teachings or social activism. They often value community or helping society more than having wealth and power.
People who identify with putting themselves first, when looking at those in the selfless perspective might say something like this: ‘Hopeless hippy, dippy types that are always skint, look slovenly and always trying to make martyrs of themselves. They’ll never get anywhere!’
Conversely those who have more of a selfless identification see the more assertive, self-interested people as “Arrogant, cold blooded, mean and socially irresponsible.”
For real life examples just think back to the Occupy Wall Street protesters and the City traders and their reactions towards each other!
How should we behave? Selflessly nice? Or Self-serving?
In my experience the answer is a paradox: We should abandon the ‘shoulds’!
Both ways of being are important and necessary and we have to work on developing our selfless nature whilst remaining very true to who we are as individuals and what we really want and how we’re going to get that. The trouble is we tend to get stuck in default habits of being comfortable in one extreme and fearing to act from the other. Being stuck in an extreme identification will inevitably bring problems sooner or later. Or maybe we have something of both tendencies (most of us do) but we feel confused as to when each is appropriate.
The learning here is ‘trust yourself’! Self-awareness is all important. Experiment with situations and see what happens. Life always gives good feedback.
Also if you notice in yourself that you feel judgmental towards people fitting into either of these categories, then this is a sure sign that you have not embraced that quality in yourself and that you would benefit from doing so.
The truth is a selfless person who hasn’t developed any selfishness will lack boundaries, means, end up exhausted and find it impossible to accomplish even their beneficial goals for others. People in spiritual communities and activists often experience this. That’s when it’s time to get in touch with and develop one’s personal power.
Also sooner or later selfish people will run into all kinds of problems due to relational difficulties through ignoring the consequences of their actions. This is why even the business world which went through its Gordon Gecko ‘greed is good’ period in the 80s is now having to adjust to the necessity of developing soft skills, social responsibility and listening to clients and communities.
There are times when being selfish is a very wise response in cultivating your own wellbeing, success and passion and other times when you need to develop empathy and a bigger perspective. But at the end of the day only you can find the right response that fits the situation by becoming aware of yourself and examining the consequences of your actions.
So what do you think? What challenges are you faced with that could be due to lacking an integration of either of these polarities?
As a coach extensively trained in methods from both sides of self/selfless spectrum I can help you to reclaim whatever is missing so that you regain balance in your life. If this post calls you to explore and do some work on yourself (or yourselflessness!) then get in touch with me.