Selfish or Selfless? There Is Another Way

Photo of Cat Saunders, author of article "Selfish or Selfless"

“The only way to be truly selfless is to be dead.”  —Cat Saunders

By Cat Saunders

I’ve long wondered why the question of “selfishness” versus “selflessness” is nearly always couched in black-or-white, either/or terms. Those who believe that selflessness is the highest ideal consider “selfishness” a dirty word.

On the flip side are those in the “selfish” camp. Selfish people pursue personal comfort at the expense of anyone or anything else. People in this camp know nothing about the age-old maxim to “put others first.” They have a hard time considering others at all!

Now tell me, which camp sounds more attractive?

Frankly, I don’t want to be exclusively part of either camp. Raised in a predominantly Judeo-Christian culture, I was taught to “put others first.” As a corollary to this rule, I was admonished to deny my feelings and needs. I was also taught to discount my passions and my dreams, and “hide my light under a bushel.” That way, supposedly, no one else would feel uncomfortable.

Because of this conditioning, I’ve spent countless hours in therapy learning how to take good care of myself without feeling guilty about it. I’ve also struggled with the idea that there is only so much to go around. That means it’s never okay to take what I need because this means someone else will go without.

Worst of all for a writer, I struggle with speaking my truth freely without fear of ridicule or shame.

Those of you who were raised in an atmosphere of acceptance will think it’s crazy to fear speaking up. However, those of you who were raised with conditioning similar to mine will nod knowingly.

My father, now dead, once gave me an elegant, Egyptian-style cat he had carved from an 18” piece of wood. I had the carving for years before I noticed the cat had no mouth. When I realized the significance of this, I did a ceremony and burned it. The fire didn’t extinguish all my concerns about speaking up. But it did burn a hole in the wall of my fear, so more light could come in.

I wonder, am I being selfish or selfless when I speak my truth and write articles about my passions and my dreams? When I step through my fear of criticism and write my heart out—and when these articles help others—am I being selfish or selfless?

I don’t think it’s one or the other. I think it’s both.

For me, balance between selfishness and selflessness is the key. I cherish win-win solutions that allow self and other to be cared for with equal consideration.

The people I treasure most are those who take good care of themselves. People who take good care of themselves don’t need to manipulate others into taking care of them. And when they give, they don’t rip their hearts out to do so.

Think about it this way: Would you prefer a feast served by someone who is starving, or by someone who has had enough to eat?

If I was faced with a skeletal server, I would offer my meal to her. On the other hand, maybe it’s a situation where we’re all starving, including the one serving the food. What then?

I’d consider my options. If I thought I was closer to death than the server, I would graciously accept the food. But at the same time, I would offer to share it with her.

This simple example shows how tricky it can be to balance the qualities of selfishness and selflessness in a world that is endlessly full of situations that are decidedly not black or white.

Truthfully speaking, I think there’s a way out of black-or-white thinking regarding selfishness and selflessness. It’s a way that includes both polarities and doesn’t require you to adhere exclusively to either one.

Surely there are people in the “selfless” camp who are tired of all the black-or-white judgments. They’re tired of all the critical self-talk and tired of all the “shoulds.” They’re tired of the arrogance that masquerades as spiritual humility dressed in the robes of martyrdom.

By the same token, I bet there are people in the “selfish” camp who are exhausted with the endless parade of material accumulation and self-gratification. They are sick to death of taking without giving. And they are scared that if they don’t kick-start their compassion and get their souls in gear, they will die a lonely death surrounded by nothing but their toys.

One of my beloved mentors from graduate school, the late Dan Kelleher, used to talk about the “frozen compromise” model. Dan was famous for saying “There is always room for everything.”

In case you’ve never heard of the frozen compromise model, let me explain. First imagine that you have two polarities—say, selfishness and selflessness—which seem locked in unresolvable conflict. Now, on piece of paper, draw a big circle with a line down the middle. On one side of the divided circle, write the word “selfishness.” On the other side, write “selflessness.”

For the next part of the frozen compromise model, think of something that is “bigger” than both of these polarities. It should be something that allows the qualities of selfishness and selflessness to co-exist. To help you visualize this more encompassing quality, draw a larger circle around the divided circle that contains the two polarities.

Can you think of something that is bigger than either selfishness or selflessness that includes them both and yet transcends them? Whatever you come up with, write that word or phrase inside the larger circle that surrounds the circle containing the two polarities. (Hint: There is more than one valid answer.)

Balance is one of my answers to the “frozen compromise” between selfishness and selflessness. Mutual consideration is another quality that includes both polarities.

Balance and mutual consideration allow me to move between the polarities of selfishness and selflessness, depending on the situation. Best of all, balance and mutual consideration honor the fact that a true humanitarian values the needs of self and others.

As Laurence J. Peter said, “When given a choice, take both.”

This article was originally published by New Spirit Journal in July 2005 and updated in July 2017.

Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).