Selfishness- A Dialectic

I often, if not constantly, get hooked up or preoccupied by this idea of being ‘selfish’ and that being ‘wrong’- making me fundamentally ‘bad.’ (I put these words in apostrophes as in DBT they would be called judgement words and are discouraged.) However, my therapist talked me through it last Thursday with this diagram of a dialectic.

SELFISH                                       Healthy Movement in                               SELFLESS

                                   —————Middle Section—————

⇑                               ↓                                  ↔                             ↓                                ⇑

He asked me where on the above line or spectrum I would place myself, firstly making the point that it is just that a spectrum rather that two opposite, black and white poles.I put my end on the quarter closest to the selfish side and he then went on to say from his observations he would put me around the downwards arrow on the selfless side. ( Feel free to marvel at the diagram there which took me longer to make than it did to write this whole blog.) He explained that we all have sort of base points somewhere along the spectrum and which side that’s on is not really what is important . The crucially healthy way of being is that of moving around the middle section depending on the situation. Most would agree to be wholly and entirely selfless isn’t manageable in order to maintain a healthy and happy lifestyle and to be wholly selfish is not a moral way to live and probably wouldn’t lead to being very happy either. However, sometimes the time is right to put yourself more towards the selfish end, for example, when your ill to enable you to get better or if you’re in danger and need to protect yourself. In the same way this is the case for the selfless end and he gave the example of him at my appointments. It wouldn’t e appropriate for him to walk into our appointments and throw himself down on the chair exclaiming ‘you wouldn’t believe the week I’ve had!’ and go on to talk about all his problems- that’s not what the NHS is paying him for! As with everything, it’s a balance, and this way of viewing it always helps me see a situation calmly and but also in a way I don’t feel I’m being forced into this scary idea of ‘self-love’ where I’m scared all my morals and values will go down the drain as I shout from the roofs my new found love for myself. I can’t really see how anyone could argue that this isn’t the healthy and responsible way to live.

With this in mind the words selfish and selfless sort of become redundant, as one cannot use them without connotations of ‘goodness’ and morality and ‘badness.’ I think its safe to say there are two kinds of people; those who’s goals and motivations are self-orientated and those who are self-orientated and neither are wrong- just different personality traits, motivations. Both people still have the capability to do as much good in the world. However when I think of someone who is selfish I think of them as self-obsessed and immoral and remember being called that in a nasty tone by my Dad when younger ‘Your such a selfish girl!’ It really haunts me. I hear it all the time even though he was only talking about me not wanting to share an ice cream. But if you use the example of Edison who if I remember correctly invented the lightbulb (I hope that’s right!!) The lightbulb has transformed our lives. It allows us to work, sleep, eat, do anything when we want because we have a strong light source. People aren’t endangered by fire or smoke fumes. I cannot imagine my quality of life without a lightbulb- I’ve just looked around in fact and I have 7 n my bedroom alone. It was a gift to humanity to put it lightly (yes there are always negatives to anything but in the whole a gift) he may have been motivated by his own goal to create a light source or he may have been motivated by the image in his head of those people it would help. Frankly who cares? A person wanting to do it to achieve something themselves may get distracted and move on to another claim to greatness, another invention. A person others-orientated may become delayed or put off by the fact that whilst taking years to create the thing they are not actively contributing in one. What I’m trying to say it’s my view of selfishness whether as a personality trait, a base-point or a way one behaves is a myth in the lives of most people. It’s not the way I am or the way I should view others or myself. We live with balance if we live healthily.


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