How to Know the Difference Between Selfishness and Strength

Let’s start with a little test to see where you are on this.

Selfishness Quiz

Read through this list of personal actions, and label each as either “strong” or “selfish.”

  1. Your elderly aunt asks you to take her out to dinner and you say no because you have to get home to your children.
  2. Your elderly aunt asks you to take her out to dinner and you say no because you are really tired, and need to go home and get some rest.
  3. Your elderly aunt asks you to take her out to dinner and you say no because you don’t want to miss the Red Sox game on TV.

If you answered “selfish” to all three:

Chances are, you are highly uncomfortable with saying “no” under any circumstances. You are governed by guilt, and you believe that your own needs are less important than those of others.

If you answered “strong” to:

Number 1: You are able to be strong, at least for the sake of your children. If you are saying no for the sake of your children, you are putting their needs before your elderly aunt’s, and that is a judgment call. Who needs you more right now? If it’s your children, then being able to say “no” to your aunt is a sign of strength.

Number 2: Saying no because you are tired could very well represent strength. If you get enough rest for yourself, you will be in better shape to take care of others. It’s an example of putting your own needs first, which makes it easier for you to contribute to the world in a positive way.

Number 3: You could potentially be crossing the line over to selfish here. Is the Red Sox game truly more important than giving your elderly aunt an outing? Unless there are some mitigating circumstances, you may be making a self-centered choice here. This one may require some careful self-reflection.

In truth, the line between selfish and strong is blurry at best. For example, saying no because of the baseball game may not represent selfishness if you need to be able to talk about it intelligently at a sales meeting the next day, or if your aunt asks you to dinner more often than you can comfortably accommodate in your life. Or saying no because of your children could be selfish if it’s really because you would enjoy being with your children more than dinner with your aunt.

Few people are purely selfish or strong. Most of us struggle with decisions like these all the time. Many people feel selfish and guilty for the simplest personal choices which are actually healthiest and best for them or their families. Sometimes we err too far toward selfish; at other times we give too much because of fear of being so. Often a decision which appears selfish is not, and strong decisions can sometimes come across as selfish to others.

The Role of Childhood Emotional Neglect

If you have a tendency to feel guilty or selfish when you put your own needs first, it may be because you were emotionally neglected in childhood. Emotional Neglect happens when parents either purposely or unwittingly give a child the message that his feelings and emotional needs are irrelevant. The unspoken message is: “Your needs don’t matter.”

Children who grow up this way, once they become adults, have great difficulty viewing their own needs as important enough to trump anyone else’s. They feel guilty valuing or emphasizing what they want, feel and need. This is an important quandary since emotional health requires us to take care of ourselves first.

Guidelines for Making Sure You are Strong, Not Selfish

  1. Be thoughtful in your personal decisions.
  2. Take your own health and wellness into consideration with every decision. You are the guardian of your own needs. You have a responsibility to care for yourself physically and emotionally.
  3. Consider others’ needs and feelings and weigh them against your own.

Do you worry that you are selfish? Truly selfish people don’t usually struggle much. They easily make the decision that’s best for themselves. They don’t think too much about it, and they don’t look back.

If you follow the above guidelines, you will be strong. Because, in the end, for each and every decision that you make in your life, your strength comes from the fact that you cared enough to think it through.

Strength comes not from putting another’s needs before your own. Instead, it comes from the simple act of weighing another’s needs against your own.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, and how to place greater value on your own feelings and needs, Take the Emotional Neglect Test and see the book Running on Empty

A version of this article first appeared on It is republished here with the permission of the author.


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Brenda - July 13, 2019 Reply

Afraid to express my feelings e

Tracy - June 13, 2019 Reply

In the last year my Mum m Dad have passed away and my 2 sisters have been together a lot since then sorting out the house for my younger sister to live in. As the middle child I have always been called selfish and spiteful and jealous. I’ve always felt that whatever I do will be wrong. Just before my Dad died my sister and her family all told me that I was of no use to them because I wouldn’t look after my Dad who kept falling. I had been and knew he needed more care. I couldn’t do it . He died the week later and I can’t go back into that home where I was born because it now belongs to my younger sister who I always have found it difficult to be myself with. I’m always seen as the selfish one but think that she is because she always got what she wanted from my Mum. Even to the end my Mum wasn’t particularly nice to me. My feeling are mixed up and I feel alone as always.

    Jonice - June 13, 2019 Reply

    Dear Tracy, you may be looking for validation and love from a family who is unable to provide it. Please focus on yourself and your own life, and look for those things in new place, with people who can actually see you and are capable of loving you. You must put yourself first!

C - June 12, 2019 Reply

I have read your book.It was helpful to see another factor to consider in my recovery. Keep up the good work and thank you for the guidance.

    Jonice - June 13, 2019 Reply

    Dear C, I’m very glad to hear it. Keep up the good work!

Karen Malone - June 11, 2019 Reply

Excellent and enlightening information.
A family member is 13 and has basically been selfish since little despite much direction from her parents. Jealous of her younger brother even pinching and hitting him which continues to this day. He is 9. I think she was born sensitive and then CEN came to play. She has matured but still
has these symptoms. She prefers animals over humans however she does have friends. So, i just wish her family would get into this information and take it seriously. It has been so very helpful for me! Thank you so very much for sharing it freely.

    Jonice - June 11, 2019 Reply

    Dear Karen, all children are “selfish.” It’s part of human development. Teens are too! I’m glad my work has been helpful to you.

Alice - June 11, 2019 Reply

What if I’m somewhat of a hypochondriac with my health? What if I’m too self-focused, and an outing with my aunt will do me good?
I’ve been focused on my health for years because my health has controlled my life. I’m sick of it, sick of having so much anxiety over everything, and I’m trying to not let it rule me, but it’s a monster that is hard to control.

    Jonice - June 11, 2019 Reply

    Dear Alice, please see a therapist to try to figure out what’s going on. Anxiety often requires a combo on therapy and medication.

Michelle Stangarone - June 10, 2019 Reply

Great article. I said selfish to all 3. I knew in my head it wasn’t selfish. But I know I would have felt selfish if I said no under any of those circumstances. Something interesting to reflect on.

    Jonice - June 11, 2019 Reply

    Yes, Michelle. Please do reflect on that. It’s important!

Jacqueline - June 10, 2019 Reply

Thank you for your wisdom, Dr Jonice. I find your insights very helpful. For me, the identification of CEN has become another tool in my understanding of why I am where I am today in terms of my emotional wellbeing and physical health. All the best for the continuance of your great work, Jacqueline UK

    Jonice - June 11, 2019 Reply

    I’m so glad Jacqueline. Thanks for sharing!

U.V. - June 9, 2019 Reply

People often say I have a strong character because I know what I want. I do not consider myself as strong. But I learned the importance to respect my own needs in order to have meaningful and balanced relationships.

I grew up with CEN and I had to learn how to say no, how to stop pleasing people.

I started with the things I didn’t want. Listening to my body feeling. When someone asked me to do something and I felt good about it I did the favor for them because basically I like to help people.
But if I felt uncomfortable I learned to respect my body feeling. To say no was very difficult in the beginning but it became easier with practice.

This article really resonated with me.
Thank you from Italy.

    Jonice - June 11, 2019 Reply

    I love how you explain the process of listening to yourself and honoring your feelings. Thanks for sharing!

L - June 9, 2019 Reply

A thing i grew up with was my father offering for us kids to help other people without asking us first..we were just there to be used. Didnt matter how we felt or if we had made other plans!!

    Jonice - June 11, 2019 Reply

    Now you can make your own choices, L. And I hope you are doing so, with the confidence that it is your essential right.

Seretha Curry - June 9, 2019 Reply

Thanks so much, that’s helpful!

David OBrien - June 9, 2019 Reply

I see these actions as being “responsible”. We are responsible for raising our kids; we are also responsible for ensuring we maintain our health to the extent we can.

    Jonice - June 11, 2019 Reply

    Exactly David. Couldn’t agree more.

Julia - June 9, 2019 Reply

Guilt seems to be a a major issue. Very destructive for my self worth. I find it a big challenge to find a space where this can become undone. But I am getting better bit by bit to take my place and my own space. Your book running on empty was a revelation and such a relief! Like pieces of a long-time puzzle falling into place! Thank you so much. This is so helpfull

    Jonice - June 11, 2019 Reply

    Bit by bit is exactly how it happens Julia. Keep up the good work!

Shane - June 9, 2019 Reply

Really good and quite helpful for me. Thanks.

    Jonice - June 9, 2019 Reply

    I’m so glad, Shane! Thanks for your comment.

Leave a Comment: