When I was young, they told me that being selfish was bad. They said that I should think of others first. I didn’t understand. What did they mean and why did they say that? I felt the terrible burn of shame when they said I was being selfish and self-centered. I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong. I was only trying to tell them what I wanted, was trying to get what I wanted or get more of what I wanted. What was wrong with that?

Since that time, I have turned all of that around 180 degrees and I now recognize that selfishness and self-centeredness are virtues—that they are critically necessary to my personal health and wellbeing. They are also the greatest gifts that I give the people in my life that I love and care about.

The definition of the word selfish in the dictionary* (“…concerned excessively…with one’s self…without regard for others…”) is a shame based, morally pejorative definition that was used against me when I was an eager child who was naturally concerned about myself and interested in improving my lot.

More recently, I have found it useful to break the word selfish down into its two components self and –ish and look at the meaning of these two parts. Self refers to me, the person that I am. –ish is defined as “of, related to, or being”. Combining these, we can see that selfish is “of, related to, or being the entire person of an individual”. That is, pertaining to, or focused on, ones entire being. Thus, to be selfish is to be conscious of one’s self, one’s whole self, one’s being.

Is that so bad?

Looking at these definitions makes clear that the true meaning of the components of the word selfish when they are combined has become lost to a shaming version when defined as a single word. A version, I believe, designed to control children’s natural tendencies by defining them as bad and wrong and by inducing shame.

Let’s consider self-centeredness. This one is easier.

In the same dictionary, the term self-centered has two definitions: 1) independent of outside force or influence: self-sufficient, and 2) concerned solely with one’s own desires, needs, or interests. While the first definition sounds like a virtue, the second is, again, morally pejorative and shame based.

When I break the word self-centered down into it’s two components and look at their meaning, I get a different picture. Again, self is me, my person, my being. Centered is defined as “emotionally stable and secure”. When I put these together they describe an emotionally stable and secure self. This version definitely sounds healthy.

A young woman that I love and hold in the highest regard, responded to my assertions about the virtue of self-centeredness by asking me “Where else would you be centered?” Good point.

I offer you some considerations about selfish and self-centered to support my argument that they are virtues. First, I distinguish between selfish/self-centered on the one hand and self-absorbed/self-obsessed on the other. The critical distinction is regard for others.

When I am self-absorbed/obsessed, I am so blindly focused on my own wants, needs, desires and interests that I disregard and offend others. I proceed as though others don’t exist and I violate them and their rights.

When I am selfish and self-centered, I put my wants, needs, desires and interests first. I put them ahead of my regard and caring for others wants, needs, desires and interests. That is, I take care of myself first and make sure that I am meeting my needs.

When I take care of myself and my needs are met, my tanks full and I am centered and grounded, I am far more regarding and considerate of others wants and needs. I have far more to give them than when I put their needs first. When I put others needs first, I feel depleted, sorry for myself and resentful because I did not get my needs met. To make matters worse, I am most likely to blame others for this unfortunate condition.

Taking care of me first allows me to be so much more giving and generous with others. They get all of me with all of my internal resources replenished and filled up. They get me at my best.

An analogy brings the point home for me. When we fly in an airplane, the attendant informs us of several safety considerations. Among them is: “Should we loose altitude during your flight, air masks will drop from the compartment above your head. Please pull them toward your mouth and place the elastic band around your head. If you are traveling with children or other dependents, put your own mask on first before assisting others with theirs.” That is very wise advice.

The same principle applies to the interpersonal relationships in your life. Take care of your self first, fully and completely, so that you can be maximally regarding, considerate and giving to those you love and care about.
Is there any greater virtue?

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Doug Sawin is the founder and director of the Life Skills Training Institute (LSTI), which is based in Ladera Ranch, CA. Dr. Sawin (pronounced “Saw-win”) uses a cross section of approaches, pulling from his dual Ph.D.s in Personal Guidance and Human Development and his experience of university structures and corporate cultures, to transform lives and business enterprises. He can be reached by e-mail.