The Line Between Self-Interest and Selfishness

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An examination of the line between self-interest and selfishness – it’s an important distinction to get you mind around. But the right mindset here is all important.

The Line Between Self-Interest and Selfishness - a drawing of a brain with words on it.

This above all: to thine own self be true And it must follow, as the night the day Thou canst not then be false to any man/Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!”  Advice from Polonius to his son in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, Act 1 – scene III

William Shakespeare

‘To thine own self be true’: a proverb/aphorism that has passed into common parlance.

There are a number of interpretations of this particular sentiment. But, to cut a long and scholarly story short, one of them suggests that, when telling his son to be ‘True’ to himself, Polonius meant beneficial. Put another way: Polonius believed that a person is best placed to take care of others only when they’ve first taken care of themselves.

And that, if we think about it, is jolly sound advice!

Time and again I hear women express the guilt induced at the mere thought of doing something for themselves.

They’re often on the receiving end of put downs that tell them they’re being selfish for wanting to do something simply for themselves, something that has nothing to do with anyone but themselves.

But yet, having seen from Polonius the value of self-interest why do we struggle with it so much?

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Analyse this

Stop and consider it for a moment. You’ll soon see that, in actual fact, it’s the person offering the idea that we’re selfish that is, in truth, the selfish one.

Patricia Gozlan, in her 2016 article: The Thin Line between Self-Love and Selfishness examines the subject having come across it in her clients. As she points out: ‘The issue of self-love is often perceived as selfishness’.

But they’re not the same thing at all:

Selfishness is defined as: being excessively or exclusively concerned with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure or well-being with no regard for others.  Self-interest however is: essential for your happiness and well-being.

Having a healthy self-interest doesn’t stop us from also caring about others. Self-interest is vital for your economic survival. And anyway, if you’re not concerned about yourself who will be?!

The terms are wrongly used interchangeably with the upshot that many of us, and I venture to suggest it’s mostly women, are guilt stricken at the thought of acting in our own self-interest. The reasoning being that taking care of one’s own needs will have a negative effect on someone else.

The root of this confusion?

Partrica Gozlan suggests this reasoning lies in religious, family and social beliefs. And I’m inclined to agree.

Girls in particular are socialized from all quarters to be nurturers and to put others first. And to believe that, to be loved, seen and appreciated we must put others before ourselves.

Furthermore, as argued in this article from Psychology Today, there are no positive connotations to the whole idea of selfishness. Take a brief look at some of the synonyms for the term: egocentric, mean, self-centered, self-seeking, rapacious, ungenerous… the list goes on and on for longer than an Ariston appliance.

And we’re inculcated with all of that from our earliest days. So is there any wonder we struggle with self-interest?

Why should we feel guilty?

But, as Patricia Gozlan goes on to suggest, is looking after your physical and emotional welfare something you should feel guilty about? Is always putting someone else’s demands before your own the right way to Eden?

Turn the whole thing on its head and think of what will happen if you never do take care of yourself. Follow that thought through to its extreme: your death. If, through lack of care for your own health, you hasten your own death can that not be seen as a huge act of selfishness? The biggest even?

So what are we going to do about it? For starters, and back to Psychology Today, we’re going to hyphenate the word and transform its meaning into something positive and desirable: Self-ish.

One meaning of the suffix ‘ish’ is ‘having the characteristics of or being ‘concerned with’. Therefore: ‘if you’re the centre of your universe … is it not fitting that your orientation toward life ought to have a certain self-interested focus …?’

Far from being selfish, being ‘self-ish’ suggests that you’re going to:

  • Take total responsibility for your thoughts, feelings, wants and needs.
  • Strive to reach your full potential.

And what’s to feel guilty for there?

Guilt feelings are a negative force. They drag you down and eat away at you – which will stop you feeling beautiful on the inside. And that, as we surely all know, affects our external beauty.

I found this on social media and have claimed it for my motto – and you can do the same:

‘I was fabulous last year. I will be fabulous this year!’

Or – put another way: I was self-ish in last year and I’ll be self-ish this year.

Now – go on and be self-ish! I’m giving you permission!

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