You’ve heard it one too many times: “Stop being selfish!” You know you’re capable of being considerate.
It’s just that, when it comes to important decisions, you feel the need to protect your own interests.
I mean, if you don’t, who will, right? It’s complicated.
You want to be fair, but you’ve learned, somewhere along the way, not to let other people’s needs or wants eclipse your own.
It’s happened too many times growing up.
And now, you’re just fighting back.
Happily for all of us, it is possible to balance our selfish ways with more people-friendly behavior.
What Causes Selfishness?
With all the emphasis on success and wealth, it’s no wonder so many of us grow up selfish. But what really causes selfishness in people?
- Examples set by peers, authority figures, or heroes
- Praise for showing ambition, assertiveness, and drive
- Harsh consequences for hanging back and letting others get theirs first
- Permissive parenting allowing you to get away with selfish behavior
- Lack of support in your childhood, which drove you to make things happen yourself
People from every background grow up selfish, so no one should automatically blame yoru parents or assume they know exactly why you do selfish things. They don’t even know exactly why they do them. We’re all figuring ourselves out as we go.
That said, some reasons might make more sense to you than others.
Signs You Might Be Selfish
Your selfish ways may be obvious to others, but if selfish behavior is your default, you’re not as likely to see it in yourself. Here are some signs to look for:
- You resist making sacrifices for others but expect others to make sacrifices for you.
- You’re ungrateful for the good things in your life and keep wanting more.
- You need to be in control of everything in your life.
- You manipulate others to get what you want.
- You feel diminished by other people’s successes.
- You have a difficult time cooperating with others unless you can be the leader.
- You don’t acknowledge your mistakes or faults, but you’re quick to blame others.
- You don’t treat others as you want to be treated (unless it benefits you).
You might not be able to recall specific incidents for each of these signs, and you won’t necessarily be guilty of all of them. Whatever you’ve done so far, though, you can start making positive changes in your behavior today.
The following list of strategies will help with that.
How to Be Less Selfish: 13 Proven Strategies
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the best way to overcome selfishness is to act in unselfish ways. Sounds simple, right? But just knowing how not to be isn’t enough.
The goal here is to exchange one thing that has benefited you (in some ways) with something that will benefit others more — and will benefit you more in the long run. Unless you see it that way, you’re not likely to stick with it.
It needs to be said, before you read the following tips on how to be less selfish, that some of these will be more challenging for you than others. You’ll soon see why.
Ask other people how their day is going.
And listen long enough to get the full (not polite) answer. Most people will habitually answer with “Fine. You?” or some variation on that. They expect that’s the answer most people want to hear, anyway.
But if you have reason to believe they’re only saying that because they feel the need to put on a brave front, there’s no harm in gently pressing with something like, “Is there anything I can do to make you day better?” or “What would make this day better for you?”
Then really listen to what they have to say.
Practice active listening.
Give the talker your undivided attention. Listen to understand (not just to reply). Focus on making them feel heard and understood and remind yourself that you’d expect the same if you were trying to get your point across to someone else.
If you need some pointers on how to practice active listening, consider these:
- Maintain eye-contact (use the 50/70 rule).
- Let the other person speak without interrupting or reacting.
- Show encouraging, attentive body language.
- Summarize or reflect back what they’re saying (without using that tone).
- Ask pertinent questions to better understand what they’re trying to tell you
- Prioritize helping them feel heard over arguing your own (counter)point.
Put others’ needs before your own (sometimes).
I’m not talking about situations like “You’re on an airplane with your kids and the masks drop. Whose mask do you put on first?” Think of a situation where your wants conflicted with someone else’s needs.
- You want to smoke but someone in the room has asthma.
- You want to play your favorite music out loud, but your roommate is sleeping.
Sometimes, putting the other’s needs first is what the situation calls for. But it’s also important to identify what those needs are and separate them from wants.
For example, say you don’t particular want to be a parent, but your partner cannot wait to become one. Sometimes, it’s better to be honest about what you want and why.
Remember that everyone is going through something (even if it doesn’t show).
Don’t assume someone else’s path is easier (or that their load is lighter) than yours.
You don’t know what they’re dealing with behind the scenes. Unless you’re intimately acquainted, you probably don’t get to hear about what’s really going on with them — what they’re struggling with or why they share some things and not others.
Not knowing that makes it so much easier to assume they’re just lazy or that they’re too selfish to see beyond their own wants to the needs of those around them.
Instead of judging what you see, you could simply let them know you’re there if they ever need a friendly ear. Otherwise, you’re both better off leaving each other alone.
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Reach out to family and/or friends.
When was the last time you called or sent a text message to a family member or friend? Or when was the last time you had a heart-to-heart with anyone about something that mattered to you both?
If it’s been a while, check on them. Invite them over for tea/coffee and something, or see if they need anything. If there’s a lot of snow on the ground, ask if they need help shoveling. Or if they’re sick, ask if they’d like you to pick some things up for them at the store.
Find a way to make their lives a bit easier or more enjoyable. More often than not, you’ll find it makes the day more memorable for you, too.
Do frequent self-checks.
Sometimes it helps to ask, “What have I done for someone else today?”
If you know you’re prone to selfish behavior, it’s a good idea to do regular self-checks. Make it a point every morning to plan on doing something helpful or thoughtful for someone, without advertising it or expecting praise or gratitude.
Any time you’re at odds with someone, ask yourself the following questions:
- “Am I being rude or inconsiderate?”
- “Is it possible I’m jumping to conclusions about this person?”
- “What could I do to help us both move past this?”
Not every mess between you and other people will be your fault. But be willing to ask yourself hard questions when people get angry with you.
Get off your soapbox.
Your opinion isn’t the only one that matters. So, give others the time and space to voice theirs without responding critically or judgmentally.
Once you show your cards, and it’s obvious you care more about being right and shaming someone for thinking differently, your welcome tends to run out.
On a related note, when you’re on the receiving end of judgment or rude behavior, it’s tempting to respond harshly and put the other person in their place.
But unless speaking up will actually improve the situation for someone other than yourself, it’s best to just give the jerk a pass and let them on their way.
Stay in the present (or get back into it).
Build a new habit of mindfulness meditation and cultivate a readiness to center yourself when things get messy. Download a meditation or mindfulness app to help you get started cultivating this habit and making it part of your daily routine.
Every morning should start with at least a few minutes of mindful meditation. It’s a new day, and being aware of the present moment helps you live it consciously, so you can make better decisions and mindfully enjoy the things you’ve come to take for granted.
Obsessing over the past or worrying about the future makes it harder not to act selfishly toward others. If you’re not in the present, other people aren’t present for you, either.
Practice gratitude on the regular.
Make it a daily priority — every morning and before bedtime — to identify three things you’re grateful for. You can write these down or say them out loud, but your gratitude will make a stronger impression on your brain if it involves your body as well as your thoughts.
Consider the following ways to make gratitude a daily priority:
- Make gratitude statements part of your daily journaling or planning page.
- Collect gratitude affirmations and start each day with a favorite.
- Write gratitude affirmations or reminders where you’ll see them.
- Set times to remind you to take a moment and express gratitude for something.
Identify what others bring to the table.
Other people have good ideas, too. Other members of your team have untapped gifts or hidden talents.. Not all those talents will be useful, but each member has something to contribute.
The more you get to know your co-workers or colleagues, the more likely you are to see where each of them will shine. And in helping them do that, you can make their work more fulfilling for them — and their results more profitable for your employer.
Everyone’s good at something that can make the world better.
Volunteer your time and energy to help others.
Find opportunities that allow you to serve those you’ve gotten used to regarding as an alien species. You know what I’m talking about. We all practice selective empathy to some extent.
But putting yourself out there and spending your time and energy to help those you don’t ordinarily identify with can help broaden your perspective and change the way you interact with others. It can change your life and make you a better person.
So, what do you really have to lose (other than your preconceptions)?
Donate to an organization that resonates with your values.
Research organizations that do work that’s important to you and support them with your hard-earned resources. Or, if you’d like to take baby steps with this (or you can’t donate much at the moment), find ethically-sourced or ethically-made products to support.
It’s easy enough to find products made by disadvantaged communities. And while they might cost more than what you could pick up at Walmart, you’ll know the money you spend on those hand-crafted items will benefit real people in difficult situations.
When you look at it, you’ll see a person behind it who appreciates the fact that you prioritized their good over a short-term savings.
Set aside some money to give to those who need it more than you do.
Reserve a percentage of your income for random (or planned) “pay it forward” gifts. These can be smaller, more frequent gifts or larger, less frequent ones.
The important criteria for this giving is that you don’t expect to be repaid. The money is gone. You’re letting go of it — releasing it to the universe — as a thank you for all the blessings you enjoy.
You’re paying it forward yourself, not expecting to be noticed or thanked or rewarded.
Now you know how to overcome selfishness in a relationship, which of the tips described above will you practice this week? Which will you do first?
If you’re an introvert, the more socially-demanding strategies will be more difficult to embrace, let alone make a regular part of your day. But try to choose at least one of them to challenge yourself.
You won’t regret becoming more present for the people who matter to you.