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My View of Selfishness. MINE!

Here we lay in the Horse Latitudes (that listless, empty span near the equator where old timey sailors couldn’t catch a breeze) between  the Day of Thanks and the Season of Giving. This is a wonderful time to talk about selfishness. Philosophers, psychotherapists, people of faith and historical icons have all struggled with the issue of selfishness. Some, like a Forensic Psychologist below, see selfishness as spiritual journey yet the ascetic sees the opposite, denial of self, as spiritual journey. No discussion would be complete without mention of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism and it’s glorification of selfishness as a quasi-spiritual ideal morality.

But right up front, I’m making clear that—though I value the insight—I disagree with all of them. Yes, I know. That’s selfish, too.

Psychotherapist Dr. Nathaniel Branden crafted a functional definition of selfishness for articles nestled within the folds of Ayn Rand’s classic “The Virtue of Selfishness” which read “Selfishness entails: (a) a hierarchy of values set by the standard of one’s self-interest, and (b) the refusal to sacrifice a higher value to a lower one or to a nonvalue.” I said it defined functional selfishness. I did not say it was objective. Which is kind of amusing since, while is Dr. Branden able to hammer together some truly complex philosophical constructs, he also seems to be a convert to the Objectivist quasi-spiritual ideal morality of selfishness.

Ms. Rand and Dr. Branden’s view of selfishness as a “hierarchy of values” is a much more cerebral perspective on selfishness in action than I, most therapists, and people in the real world interact with every day. “Psychotherapy patients [and everyone else, I add] struggle regularly with the issue of selfishness,” according to Forensic Psychologist Dr. Stephen Diamond, “both with the gluttonous narcissism of excessive selfishness and the soul-starving, saintly rejection of healthy selfishness. Often, they feel conflicted and guilt-stricken about acknowledging and asserting their own selfish needs, feelings, wishes and wants.”

I’ve done a bunch of research and it all points to the same question “What do we do about selfishness?” Apparently, the wide-spread answer is over think it, or marginalize it and then create a doctrine. We can do better.

Why are We Selfish?

In psychological terms, the issue of man’s survival does not confront his
consciousness as an issue of ‘life or death,’ but as an issue of ‘happiness
or suffering.’ Happiness is the successful state of life, suffering is the
warning signal of failure, of death.

– Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness

Look, I’m gonna be straight with you. I don’t know Ayn Rand. I turned the pages of Atlas Shrugged  because I’d heard it was up there with On The Road. My eyes glazed pretty quickly. I didn’t finish it and can’t really claim to have started it. What I know of Rand’s Objectivism—“her new morality—the ethics of rational self-interest” which, according to Dr. Branden “is the underlying theme of her famous novels”—has been long ago bastardized by the splendid video game, BioShock.  

However, if you take all of the “new morality” gilding off of the concept, they do have the “why” right. “The root of selfishness is man’s right—and need—to act on his own judgment. If his judgment is to be an object of sacrifice—what sort of efficacy, control, freedom from conflict, or serenity of spirit will be possible to man?” Dr. Branden wrote in the article, “Isn’t Everyone Selfish?”

I love the title of the article. “Isn’t Everyone Selfish?” Yes. No matter if you look from an evolutionary or Devine standpoint, man is a selfish creature. The crux is still the same. Selfishness is born of the need to survive, the desire to thrive and the hope to enjoy life. One might also call it self interest or self care. Self interest and self care are healthy. Selfishness marks a shift in perspective away from functional self interest, a universal tilt toward the self and away from social balance.  

Is Selfishness Really That Bad?


 “Is nurturing one’s own soul or sense of self selfish?” Dr. Diamond asked and continued to ask, putting the rhetoric in rhetorical. “Trying to attain one’s innermost needs? Actualizing one’s innate creative potential? Constructively expressing one’s self and will in the world? And, if so, could this sort of selfishness be positive, beneficial or therapeutic?” It’s obvious that to him—and to the view of selfishness as self-improvement—selfishness is not bad because he considers “The Self…both the center and totality of the personality” and thus “the right kind of selfishness–an honoring of the true Self–is essential to emotional and spiritual self-healing. And to finding and fulfilling one’s destiny.”

Dr. Diamond also asserted that the less selfishness you have, the greedier you are because, due to unmet childhood needs, adults “avoid the self” and thus “Greed grows from ignorance (unconsciousness) of one’s self.”

I’m sorry, I can’t buy this. It logically does not follow that being more focused on identifying your unmet needs and then pursuing them by being “sufficiently selfish in the present” will make a person less greedy. Sure, it may make them want less of a breadth of things, like hording, or want things with less intensity, like in addiction, but that rationale seems to rationalize greed-based thinking. I do agree with his statement that “an honoring of the true self is essential to emotional and spiritual healing” but greed should not be the means. As a clinician I would strive to help my patient identify how, as a functional adult, they are over-looking that the need was already met and that they should be putting their energy into releasing the feeling of unmet childhood needs or processing through neglectful trauma.

In a more socially philosophical bent, Dr. Branden contested that selfishness has communal benefit “Because a genuinely selfish man chooses his goals by the guidance of Reason—and because the interests of rational men do not clash—other men may often benefit from his actions.”

Class, we see the flaw in this logic, right? “Because the interests of rational men do not clash” the selfishness of one will benefit all. That, class is a fallacy. The interests of rational men are clashing every minute of every day. Good Heavens, it’s what keeps the internet running!

Being so focused on your own self-care and self-interest that you fully lose sight of the needs of others at all times is bad for others because of the afore mentioned lost sight, and bad for yourself because you become a prig that no one seeks to be around or a universally hurtful person. This is not complex math. However, the converse, a person who has low self esteem and no self care will hurt themselves through unmet needs and hurt others because they are not helping them foster their own self-reliance, rather than dependency on the one that they are pinning all their need-meeting on.

There is a balance to selfishness. You get hurt and become hurtful the farther you go to either end of the spectrum. That is bad, no matter how much you spiritualize or rationalize it. However, we’ve received mixed messages all our lives. “Look out for Number One!” or “Be a Giver!” themes have been drilled into us so that all of our met-need meters are out of whack. Some meters only have a “Full” mark and everything else is a red danger zone so they live in a bullying panic. Some have been taught to live on “Empty” and may quietly resent everyone around them for not noticing and filling them.  

Worms, Pilots, Acrobats and Astronauts


Dr. Diamond and I agree. “One of the most difficult tasks for psychotherapy patients is learning to be selfish in the proper way.” But it is key to not becoming a selfish person, either greedily obsessed with the needle on “Full” or so resentful of the needle on “Empty” that you are selfish in smaller, hurtful ways.

This is not to discredit those who, through effort and sweat have earned many nice things. A full material life does not make one selfish. Some of the most materially rich people can also be some of the most generous. This is also not to demean those faithful who take a vow of poverty, the ascetic on his fast, or the aspect of the Christian life in which selflessness is key. That type of selflessness is beautiful, as it is, in itself a reliance on God or higher power to meet personal needs. In fact, both of those examples illustrate what the balance of Self Sustainment looks like.

I try to help my patients become self sustaining. Much like the rich man who gives away some of his wealth, the ascetic monk or the selfless Christian, those who can be self sustaining acknowledge A) That there is a way to meet my needs (Either totally through effort, or by reliance on God or a higher power) B) That desiring to have my basic needs met shows I’m valuable. C) That I can still function if some of those needs are not always fully met. D) While always in the process of keeping “some in the tank” I always should be giving to others because that will help me keep my perspective and balance.

Dr. Timothy E. Ursiny puts it differently. “The person who shows healthy self-care balances her needs with the needs of others involved and does not show a pattern of consistently picking her needs over the needs of others. Dr. Ursiny outlined the balance in his own way in The Coward’s Guide to Conflict, “While there is no right equation to determine when you cross the line from self care into selfishness, the most important factor is the level of care you have for what the other person wants. When your care for their wants is close to your care for your own wants, you are stepping out of a selfish perspective.”

I use the analogy of the Earth to help people step out of a selfish perspective. Selfishness is like the Earth. Both astronauts and pilots have said that if one looses sight of the Earth, they feel detached, have no perspective and don’t know which end is up. Selfishness is our base level. It is the lowest point which helps put our achievements into context. Every time you take a step away from selfishness, you soar like an acrobat, fly like a pilot or sometimes rocket into space. But we must always return to Earth to keep our needs met. The adventure and beauty is in leaving the Earth. Worms never leave the Earth, only burrow within it, seeking to only fill their base needs again and again. The poor worm never sees the sky without fear. Soar instead.


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