Selfishness is also Selfless


Quick summary: If you allow yourself selfishness you can increase the effectiveness of your selfless intentions. 

There are many different types of people and people are impacted by the drives of selflessness and selfishness in differing ways and by differing degrees. The message here is most suited for the people who act with intended selflessness with greater frequency than selfishness.

In this post I am not engaging in an argument as to whether true selflessness exist (I have tried to create a case against egocentrism’s apparent universality, but that subject can be for another time)… so let me quickly suggest that selflessness is doing for others with greater effort than you do for yourself. Selfishness is doing for yourself with greater effort than you do for others. (In this post lets assume that selfishness does not inherently have a negative effect on others… it is simply focusing the positives on the self).

When I say that selfishness can be selfless I am pointing out an apparent truth of the human reality… the innate limitations of the human body and mind make a degree of selfishness necessary to properly operate (which is why egocentrism is so difficult to disprove). In short, we must do enough for ourselves in order to operate at a level which would lead our selfless intentions to effective actions.

At times the more selfless people give more than they can truly afford to give… the result is deterioration of both the brain and the body’s ability to function optimally (and in some cases to function at all). 

the truth is that often many selfless individuals work in positions in which they are asked to do more than is reasonable (or rational) and those in positions of authority unknowingly reduce the effectiveness of their employees by ignoring the limitations of being a human.  It is very likely the vast majority of all healthcare, social workers, educators, military personnel, and police officers (to name a few) are being asked to work with greater time and effort than is ideal… yes, I am saying that by decreasing there time spent at work you would likely increase their effectiveness (though this seems counter intuitive it has been researched to be true). 

When we neglect the self we can unintentionally put our body into survival mode… often the willpower (or ego) of a selfless individual is so strong that they stay the selfless course… they are able to resist the body and mind’s plea for rest and recovery.

In doing so they maintain an ability on the surface to continue to engage in selfless actions… but the body and mind are self-protective, and they will shut down. 

Though the individual might engage in the same selfless actions, they will likely be doing so with less cognitive, dialectic, physical and empathetic etc ability. The result is a dramatic decrease in the efficiency and effectiveness of the helpful act. The helpfulness of the help given is reduced. So by this I suggest that selfishness is also selfless in such an instance.

If you allow yourself the time and space to recover… to find balance… to reduce reactivity… to increase supports for yourself… to increase hope… to increase the happiness of your own existence, then you will be better able to offer such benefits to others. Therefore selfishness can increase the effectiveness or your selfless intentions. 

My supervisor put this point very succinctly the other day when he stated… “It is unethical for you to not take care of your self.” I had just received some personal news and I was contemplating whether my ethical responsibility was to cancel an appointment or to keep an appointment. 

In the field of psychotherapy there are many very well trained people with an advanced knowledge in helping people to find solutions… in order for a therapist to actually help they must be empathetic… it is empathy which is the driving force behind effect therapy (though on the surface one might conclude that strategy is most important).

Without a high degree of selfishness a therapist will lose there ability to engage with their full empathetic potential… therefore I agree with my supervisor… from a business and from a personal view of ethics… it is unethical to not indulge in a bit of selfishness.

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.
William Hambleton Bishop
William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

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