Humans 101

You’re Supposed to Be a Little Bit Selfish

Many of us neglect our own needs to avoid seeming self-centered — and then we wonder why we’re so unhappy

Portrait of a person—wearing a bob haircut, big dark sunglasses, and an orange knitted sweater—looking to the left side of the image in a very dark space. Reflected in the sunglasses is an open window showing a sliver of blue sky on each lens.
Portrait of a person—wearing a bob haircut, big dark sunglasses, and an orange knitted sweater—looking to the left side of the image in a very dark space. Reflected in the sunglasses is an open window showing a sliver of blue sky on each lens.
Photo: Marco_Piunti/E+/Getty Images

In my early twenties, the subject of “selfishness” came up frequently in my therapist’s office — specifically, my fear of being selfish. In my attempts to avoid selfishness, I was living in its opposite — and equally self-centered — extreme: self-negation.

My therapist explained it like a thermometer: Boiling hot was selfishness. Freezing cold was self-negation. And somewhere in between, right around the normal body temperature of 98.6 degrees, is a self-caring and responsible zone (which involves moving through a challenging zone of self-doubt that lies between 98.6 and ice).

“I feel like you’re freezing to death. I’m trying to help you get closer to 98.6, but you’re worried about boiling over,” he said.

My fear of selfishness was so pervasive back then, and I don’t remember which specific situation brought it up at the time. Maybe I was having a hard time saying no to someone who wanted a babysitter. Maybe I was giving someone a ride to a show I didn’t even want to attend. It could have been any number of things, but the image of the “selfishness thermometer” stuck. At first, it was just a hairline crack in my defense system, but it gradually widened. It opened my mind to the fact that there was plenty of room between where I was and where I feared to be.

Over time, I came to realize there was a whole range of “normal temperatures” — healthy ways to be responsible to both myself and others.

Both personal and cultural factors had gotten me to this point. We were living in north Alabama when I learned to read in 1970. Outside the churches that populated most churches in town, I frequently saw signs proclaiming “God first, others second, self last.” Like most children, I was prone to binary, either/or, thinking. I assumed that my choices as an adult were either between “bigger” or “littler.” I thought I could either grow up to be “powerful” in a way that harmed others, or I could use what power I had to try to stamp out the most basic needs for care and respect. In my mind, there were only extremes; there was no possibility of avoiding those extremes, no middle way.

As I grew personally, and still later spiritually, I came to understand that the “cold” extreme, the extreme avoidance of selfishness the Buddha called self-mortification, is just as self-centered as selfishness.

Too much or too little selfishness is a problem—both for you and for those around you.

When I worked in mental health treatment centers, I shared the “selfishness thermometer” with clients. After discussing it with a visual example on paper, we’d often move into experiential work, using our bodies to see and feel how far apart the extremes can be. In this version, we would designate one end of the room as “too hot” and the other end as “too cold.”

The client would start at whichever end of the room represented their most comfortable form of self-centeredness. This allowed us to feel the difference as we tried standing at different “temperatures.” It helped us identify what made certain points of the thermometer so scary.

Drawing of a thermometer with text by the following temperatures: 102: Selfish/self-centered: Unrealistic/dishonest inflated self image concerned w/avoiding discomfort at expense of others’ needs. 98.6: Self-caring/responsible: ie, able to respond to one’s own needs & the needs of others… Unlabeled: Self-doubt zone: As one begins to “thaw” from self-negation, fear of the other extreme my slow progress… 32: Self-negating/self-centered: Unrealistic/dishonest deflated self image…. Lack of self-care
‘Selfishness in Fahrenheit’ handout by the author

For example, if you’re a person who struggled with fear of being “too much,” there may have been someone in your formative years who illustrated the extreme of being “too selfish.” It may have been hard for you to imagine that it’s possible to be harmful through being “too little.” But if you suffered in childhood from a lack of protection, including witnessing the abuse of a caregiver, then you know it’s absolutely possible to be “too little,” so you may tend to run too hot. Either extreme of identification with self is inauthentic and can lead to stress and pain for you, and for others.

As I watched clients move carefully toward the middle of the room where the “normal temperature” was, I saw them experience dramatic insights. As they literally stepped into the zone that represented more assertiveness and responsibility for self-care, most people became viscerally aware of their fear of the opposite extreme.

Some people could only get partway between freezing and normal before they had to stop and admit it felt too hard to keep going. Then it was time to ask, “Who in my life was on the other extreme? Who am I trying so hard not to emulate?” Most people were unaware, until that moment, how much of their behavior was driven by someone from their past.

Trying to be the opposite of another person makes that person your god. As long as you are molding yourself to fit an image of another or its opposite, you are not free to be your most authentic self. The green zone of the “selfishness thermometer” is where you can create and express what you really want to be in this life.

Asking more specific questions can lead to clarity: “What ways of coping do I find unskillful and want to avoid?” is a good beginning, but still keeps us focused on where we don’t want to be. To help us move beyond reactivity and into authenticity, we can ask: “What are the values dear to me, those that I want to embrace and express in my life?” “What do I want my experience to be?” “How do I want to show up in relationships?” These questions help us move toward the 98.6 area between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.

We typically hear that a normal human body temperature is 98.6 degrees, but in reality, some people’s baseline temp runs slightly lower or higher. Our selfishness thermometer, too, has room for a range of normal. There is no absolute perfection.

Prompts for written contemplation

Buddhism teaches four “postures” for developing mindfulness: sitting, standing, walking, and lying down. I’ve come to believe that writing is a fifth posture, and that written reflection can be a meditative practice. Here are some prompts for written reflection on this article:

  • Do I tend to run hot or cold based on the selfishness thermometer? What makes me say so? What feedback have I gotten from others to check my perception of this? Am I willing to ask for feedback if I haven’t gotten it?
  • Do I show up as radically different in different areas of my life? Am I at one extreme at home and the other extreme at work?
  • If I’m dedicated to being unlike someone in my life, who was it? How young was I when I made this decision?
  • If I don’t want my sense of self to be organized “for” or “against” this other person, what values — those truly important to me — might help me be responsive both to my own needs and those of others?

Your voice matters. I’d love to hear some of your reflections.

Buddhist Minister at Deep South Dharma. Brainspotting Professional. Writer. All about Practice.

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