Recently someone told me that she was brought up not to be assertive about what she wanted because that would be selfish. She was taught that “others came first”. In the “me first” society of today that might sound strange and anachronistic. Yet in other cultures, and in parts of Western culture too, it is not uncommon, particularly in older age-groups. Parental and societal rules or injunctions can be introjected by a child and absorbed as their own belief unquestioningly, such that when they are older they hesitate to take a course of action for fear of how they think others might react, or their own sense of guilt at possibly breaking such an injunction to observe what others think is good behaviour. The belief then limits their choices and their ability to advance their own needs effectively and they suffer as a result.
To be selfish is to place one’s own needs well above those of others, or to act in such a way that it negates those other needs. Like many such ethical choices, there are different interpretations of what is selfish. What would be OK with one person might be deemed selfish by another. There may be a collective view of what it means, and then there may be personal ones. The difficulty for some individuals is that they may limit themselves through an interpretation of selfishness that most others wouldn’t be bothered by. Thus it won’t necessarily serve them.
Unfortunately others can then take advantage of this. It can leave one open to manipulation. Thus if one felt guilty about doing something or was worried about what others might think then those less scrupulous others may then assert their needs at one’s expense. This is often the danger for those who are less assertive or confident, for example.
Letting go of limiting beliefs around being selfish
This is is a good example of where a shift towards personal responsibility and accountability and towards developing self-belief pays dividends. When we identify and shake ourselves loose of limiting beliefs we adopted when very young, we become more able to choose our own beliefs rather than live purely by those of others, and live by values that express who we are. Then we can still act in ways that respect others and their needs but also respect our own too and make choices that can be a win-win, rather than the “they win-I lose” of non-assertiveness. We can be aware of when we feel guilty, recognise where that came from and choose to let it go. Guilt is a messy set of emotions often involving these introjects or out-moded rules and judgements that we took on board and which don’t serve us.
Rather than the word selfishness we can instead hold to the value of respect, where we both value ourselves and others as equally special beings, all God’s creatures and all wonderful. Thus when we approach a decision that affects others a more liberating perspective might be to think of what serves both you and me and all of us, where we all deserve value and respect. Thus we value ourselves and others too.