At some stage in life we've all come across a person whom we label 'selfish'. Worse, sometimes we're labeled 'selfish'. I personally heard this many times from family and friends in the past. I still hear it more often that I'd like to.
That said, I've always been a bit perplexed by the word 'selfish'. You might say that surely everyone knows what 'selfish' is. Well, we seem to know the definition. But what's the mechanics behind it? What does it actually mean to be selfish, to experience selfishness?
So, what is selfishness?
The definition is quite clear. I disagree, by the way, that selfishness equals introversion, but that's an entirely different conversation. But what does it mean to be selfish? How does it feel - is it a specific mindset which stays unchanged throughout lifetime? Is it something that people have the power to change?
We all can be a bit selfish - some more often than others, and some to a greater extent than others. We all know that when we're happy and relaxed, we give others more consideration. When we're stressed, unhappy and tired, we give others less time and consideration, because we simply don't have the mind space and the physical energy to share with others.
Being selfless (vs being selfish) seems to be about having capacity to have consideration for other people. This capacity is based on our personality and the way we experience life, which stems from our mindset, our emotional state and our physical health.
If we're generally a balanced positive and healthy person, we care about others and we can quickly bounce back from stress and physical fatigue. We're probably regarded by others as quite caring and considerate individuals.
However, if we're troubled by inner self-limitations, insecurities and negative mindsets, we may have very limited capacity to show consideration for other people, or even think of other people. We're so focused on our own negative patterns, we're angry at the world, we feel sorry for ourselves and we don't have the energy to resolve our own troubles.
Increasing our capacity for selflessness
The good news is that if selflessness is a capacity, then like any capacity, it can be increased. We can increase our capacity for consideration for other people by reducing the burden of our own troubles, be it troubles with our physical health, troubled mindset or unbalanced emotional state. We need to help ourselves first before we can help other people.
We can take responsibility for our life by expanding our self-awareness and paying closer attention to what we think, how we feel and what we do in life. We can take a closer look at what we believe about ourselves that makes us selfish in the first instance. We can start - slowly and steadily - changing the way we think, feel and react into a more constructive and balanced way, so that we get more positive results in life.
Read my article 10 Steps to Overcome Limiting Beliefs
Once we learn not to react as much to our own negative thoughts, it becomes easier to be more positive towards other people. We're no longer trying to protect ourselves from the unfriendly world, and therefore we can stop and take a good - calm! - look at other people. In fact, we can train ourselves to start noticing positive things about people who used to annoy us. And that's part of practicing a more positive mindset, too.
The idea is that we stop focusing on the quiet negative voice in our heads and instead start listening to people. Not judge them and think what we're going to say back. Just listen and observe. Find good things we can like and admire about that person. If we can't find anything we like, we can simply observe the person and enjoy the presence of another - so vastly different - personality. Isn't that an amazing experience?
The more I listened and observed, the more I noticed other people's fears and insecurities. It became easier for me to see the connections between people's mindsets and actions. I realised that most people, like myself, are so preoccupied with their own insecurities and worries that they don't have the desire, energy and time to hurt me, well, most of them anyway.
It became difficult to judge people. I learned to find pleasure in helping others, not because my ego felt good about it, but because I was energized by it.
Have I become less selfish? Absolutely. Am I now a totally selfless person? Not at all, I have a very long way to go. Perhaps it's too long for my lifetime.
So why bother overcoming selfishness?
Someone might ask: Life is too short and it seems unfair to spend it overcoming negative mindsets, fears and selfishness. If other people think I'm selfish, this must be their problem. Why bother?
I'll say that as we grow as individuals and develop greater self-awareness, more balanced mindsets and more positive perception of the world, we also increase our capacity for selflessness (eg consideration for other people). The idea is that as we become better humans we can start helping others and changing the world to be a better place. And we can do all this and enjoy our life at the same time.
If we refuse to grow and improve our awareness, mindsets and perceptions, then why are we here and what's our purpose in this world?