Selfishness: The Character Flaw That is Also a Virtue

We live in a society that views selfishness as the ultimate character flaw. Labeling something as “selfish” doesn’t even need an explanation; we just know that it’s horrendous.

We also live in a society that has had to resort to encouraging self-care as a prescriptive thing, ordered by others before being sought out by ourselves, rather than an automatic one.

When I interviewed for grad school, I was asked about my self-care techniques. I’ve since found out that the school’s concern for student well-being wasn’t a formality. Almost every time I’m on the campus, I’m hearing or reading something about the importance of taking care of myself.

I’ve also noticed that even though I want everyone else to take care of themselves (and routinely scold my friends if I think they’re not), I have a backlash of shame at the idea of carving time out for myself. There are a million other things I should or could be doing, and taking even half an hour to do something fun or nurturing feels like a sin…and I’m not even really that busy right now!

Although selfishness isn’t an emotion, per se; I’ve determined that it needs to be the next step on my “negative emotions reclamation” journey. My ability to pay attention to myself and give my body, mind and spirit what they need in the coming years will depend on my ability to be comfortable with seeming selfish from time to time.

And really, if you think about it, why is being selfish such a horrible thing?

That question first crossed my mind a year ago when a friend of mine was called ‘selfish’ for choosing to be child-free. Of course, my initial reaction was to fire back that it was far more selfish to have children for the wrong reasons than to choose to not have children…but then, so what if the decision to be child-free was selfish? What harm did it cause?

I think when we think of selfishness within our society, we automatically get a picture of someone doing something for their own benefit to the detriment of others. Obviously, self-focus that does not care or bother to understand the effect on others is a problem. Too much selfishness, and you have the infamous narcissist, obsessively staring at his/her metaphoric reflection.

Narcissus by Caravaggio

Narcissus by Caravaggio public domain

But should it automatically follow that any amount of self-focus is negative?

In the case of choosing to be child-free, I’d say it’s the best “selfish decision” a person could make. There is no child who will suffer as a result of that choice. No one gets hurt.

And with regard to self-care, I don’t think it’s possible to care for the self without at least a little bit of self-focus and self-concern.

I took a moment to look up “selfish” in the dictionary. Unlike most of my reclaimed emotions, I was surprised to find that there didn’t seem to be a positive or neutral definition that was forgotten at the end of a list. I can’t think of an alternative word that implied a healthy amount of self-focus.

So I’m left with reclaiming selfishness.

I want to learn how to be selfish—meaning, I want to learn how to practice self-care without feeling like I’m doing something wrong, I want to be able to say “no, that doesn’t work for me” without having to provide a convincing altruistic or globally beneficial reason to make my choice seem more palatable, and I want to have the right to love myself as much as I feel I should love others.

 

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One thought on “Selfishness: The Character Flaw That is Also a Virtue

  1. […] are selfish: And this isn’t a bad thing (when balanced with the next point). We have an internal drive for survival, which means that we […]

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