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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 Psychcentral.com. It is republished here with the permission of the author.