How to Know the Difference Between Selfishness and Strength

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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.


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UnicMinds - November 27, 2023 Reply

I must stay I stumbled upon this post and the comments and replies are just really beautiful. Quite often when a person says “No”, it is not clear if the person is being strong or selfish. Thank you Dr. Jonice Webb for this work

Margot Parker - July 2, 2020 Reply

My mother was raised by a vain and narcissistic mother in the 1920’s. My grandmother and her well sounded opinions played a big part in my childhood as well. My mom was raised to be a lady and keep her mother proud of her. That meant her children needed to be perfect as well as her.

My mom raised me similarly… no feelings allowed. “when you feel bad do something for someone else” “Give until it hurts” Crying never solved anything, get up and get on with it” “When life gets tough the tough get going”

My father was born in 1915, saw the depression as a teen, fought in the war, came home with pride and confidence in himself and the 1950’s mentality of strong men, supportive wife. He was raised hard to be a man and raised my brother the same, with a belt and firm hand.

It may have been the times, being raised in the depression, a teen in WW2, but it seems my mom never allowed emotions to be show except happiness or full tilt explosive anger. and lots of passive aggressive jabs, That’s all I knew and even happiness I’m not sure of, perhaps it is really just pretend to be happy to please other and “behave properly”
be good, be right, please others, don’t make a fuss.

My teen years were difficult, abusive older siblings and I was black sheep too emotional and needy. looking for approval and not meeting the bar my mom set. Not a girly girl, more my dads helper.

My mom was depressive after the death of my younger sister as a baby. She had a hard time with menopause and my Father had affairs. She withdrew from everyone by my 13th birthday, no celebrations for me and we kind of raise ourselves. Not much care or guidance. My mom commited suicide at 57 when I was 17. We never talked about it. No funeral. Just carried on. I came back from christmas break and never told anyone my mom died. Never cried. Just carried on with school, looking after the house and my Dad.
I had a severe accident 6 mths later and nearly died. Even in emerg I was worried my dad would be mad at me, or would have a heart attack and die and it would be my fault that I was selfish and got run over. I was in hospital 3 mths and many surgeries. I was supposed to die, to lose my leg, to never walk, never have kids….My job was to get well my dad said. Never give up. It took a yr to learn to walk again so I could get back to School. I sued the bus co and got a settlement which I invested and have done well from.

My brother took off 3 days after my accident… getting in trouble with police and running out on loans etc that my dad signed for. He didn’t even know if I’d live,,, he just left.
My brother didn’t talk to my father for 35 years cause my Dad wanted him to pay back the debts he left. He died never resolving things. My dad left him $1000.

My sister just took over the house and basically had my dad pay for everything for her and her friends… still did it after she married and borrowed, took, manipulated, guilted money from my dad for the rest of his life. He live with her and paid huge amounts of money to her as rent. She stop speaking to him after he was broke. He called me for help I moved him into care which I paid for. She hadn’t spoken to him in 8 years when he past. She was left a half of his estate but there was nothing much left. 2k She owed him over 100k in loans.

I spent 90 dys in hsptl talking with and getting to know my dad as a person. Not many kids do that. Over the years we had big disagreements about issues, but we also respected and gave advice to each other, for the better good of all. We didnt always get along. We didnt speak for a bit because I didn’t agree with they way he treated women and made passes at them. It bordered on assault in my mind.
When my dad was broke I did what I could to help him, but that meant him selling part of is land to me that was a family lot. I cared for him as he aged, and my siblings stopped speaking to him.We tried to get them to come to family events, but they wouldn’t , They did cash the cheques he sent for christmas and Birthdays though

My father has died and left me the balance of the lots to repay me for paying his seniors care costs.
My siblings cried crocodile tears at the funeral and were mad that i “kept him” from them…but were more mad that they didn’t get any more from the estate.

The point is… what is selfish, what is duty, what is strong, what is self preservation. what is doing things to make life easier… what is doing things cause you are excepted to, or cause it looks right to others.

Why is just trying to do the the right thing for someone always seem to be twisted by others.

I don’t understand how my siblings can not see my Dad but then blame me for it. AND expect to receive lands from someone who theyused and took from but ignored and abandoned when he needed help. But me helping my Dad and paying for his debts and care and receiving recompense for that from him it seen by them as manipulative and conniving.
Was I selfish? Was I strong? I am just trying to understand if I was wrong…or if I should have tried more to rebuild their relationship with him.

Am I selfish to be glad of being a good daughter? To be glad my father acknowledged and validated my care of him ?

Sorry long post.. lots of conflicted feelings.

    Jonice - July 3, 2020 Reply

    Dear Margot, this is a complex family story. When parents leave unequal amounts to their children in their wills it almost always leads to anger and hurt among the siblings. I wish your father had used his own money to pay for his care and that may have prevented this problem! That said, I hope you will stand strong and protect yourself. As long as you’re certain you did nothing manipulative or wrong, you can keep your boundaries with your sibs and take care of your own feelings and needs.

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 - 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.

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