When we are being selfish, we do not think we are being selfish. We will have at our disposal a ready language to make sure that we sound selfless.
‘I’m tired,’ we say. ‘I just can’t give any more. I’m feeling exhausted, and no one realises just what I’m going through. I am not being aggressive. I just have to defend myself against people who take, take, take. If I don’t push back, then how am I ever going to get some space for myself? It’s important to be firm, exercise strong boundaries…’ And so on. This is the usual talk of selfishness.
The reason for this ‘double speak’, replacing straight talking with self-justification, is that no one likes to think that they are subject to being selfish. So we disguise our selfishness behind a whole vocabulary of words which is designed to present us as fighting the good fight.
When it comes to other people, however, we are very good at finding the language to describe them as selfish. ‘They should give more, but they can’t be bothered,’ we say about others. ‘They just lie around all the time, full of their own problems. They’re so aggressive, and they just take, take, take. They should stop trying to push me around, and realise that I need a bit of support. They should be more empathetic, and soften their harsh approach to me.’
Notice that this is exactly the opposite of what we say about ourselves when we are being selfish. It’s probably the same behaviour, but we describe ourselves as saints, and others as sinners. It’s a traditional bias in stressed humans.
SELFISHNESS CAUSES SUFFERING
The irony is that selfishness causes suffering. So, when we are selfish, and yet disguise it, we are giving ourselves two problems.
Firstly, we are allowing ourselves to be trapped in an endless cycle of feeling sorry for ourselves. If we imagine the world as tiring, harsh and aggressive, then that is what it will be. An angry, sad mind perceives an angry, sad world, and so by definition lives in an angry, sad world.
Secondly, we are blocking our way out of the hole. If we insist to ourselves that we are merely defending ourselves, exhausted, fighting back… then we prevent ourselves from improving. We become like an unfit athlete with a distorting mirror – we look good to ourselves, but haven’t solved our problems.
Just for today, try reversing the flow.
Say to yourself:
‘I should give more, but I can’t be bothered. I just lie around all the time, full of my own problems. I’m so aggressive, and I just take, take, take. I should stop trying to push others around, and realise that they need a bit of support. I should be more empathetic, and soften my harsh approach to them.’
And think of others:
‘Maybe you’re tired. I imagine you just can’t give any more. You must be feeling exhausted, and I bet no one realises just what you’re going through. You are not being aggressive. You just feel you have to defend yourself against people who take, take, take. If you don’t push back, then how are you ever going to get some space for yourself? Maybe you need to be firm, exercise strong boundaries.’
Reversing the flow is quite enlightening, because it helps us to see that our delusory self-talk only serves to disguise our selfishness, and keep us suffering. Maybe try it, and see if you feel better.
When we are being selfish, we make ourselves saints, and others sinners. We use language to criticise others and justify ourselves.
If we can reverse that flow, then we can learn to cure our own selfishness, and make the world a better place.