One of the things I learned as a child was that being selfish is to be avoided. I for sure wasn’t the only one who heard reminders inviting me not to be selfish.
Following that invitation often meant to give others more priority than myself. Here again, I’m not the only one, the desire to help others or please others is a habit I’ve seen many colleagues take up. Sometimes creating a sense that to avoid being selfish they prefer to be self-less. Their self becoming invisible.
The question they have not been able to answer is what version of selfishness and selflessness is right for them and how to grasp it.
Selfish or selfless actions are choices people make and connect with the goals they have. Beyond looking at these choices in terms of priorities given to oneself or the other, they can also be seen as based on someone’s long term or short term interest.
This distinction can be connected with two different philosophies. Pursuing a long term interest is closer to Kant’s view that being rational implies to be socially rational. The idea of short term interest connects with the Hobbsean idea of being individually rational.
The latter assuming that people will stick to follow their short term interest unless there is a mechanism for punishment in place. It found its way into education. The idea of punishment led to calling greed, avarice, and thus selfishness a sin. Telling children that it is bad or evil is a shortcut, one that leads to self-defeating behaviors any time unmet infantile needs appear. What is missing is the opportunity to learn how to honor the Self or complete person as C.G. Jung described it.
The inability to pay attention to one’s Self is one of the main causes leading to complicated team dynamics and the need to work hard on establishing psychological safety within teams.
A first step may be the distinction between being “wise selfish” and “foolish selfish” the Dalai Lama shared:
It is important that when pursing our own self-interest we should be “wise selfish” and not “foolish selfish”. Being foolish selfish means pursuing our own interests in a narrow, shortsighted way. Being wise selfish means taking a broader view and recognizing that our own long-term individual interest lies in the welfare of everyone. Being wise selfish means being compassionate.” —Dalai Lama