Selfishness, others, and therapy

It’s natural to want resources. Selfish behaviour evolved to achieve this, but can be counterproductive. Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

When we behave selfishly, we seek opportunities to bring resources, attention and time to ourselves.  It’s natural.  A child screams for food, care and attention – that is how it thrives.  But an adult still screaming for food, care and attention can be an unpleasant sight, an object of fear and repulsion.


When we are in ‘selfish mode’, we focus on ourselves, not how others see us.  We are powerless to stop ourselves asking for more and more, regardless of what others feel able to give.  Then, in reaction, we pretend to be independent.  We pretend that we would be happy to disengage from society and live without burdening anyone else.  But, really, we are just feeling dependent, and masking it with a show of independence.


Selfishness makes us ill and disjointed as a society.  If there are ten people in a room, then one person gathering everything to themselves gives everyone else a problem.  The remaining nine people notice that one person is hogging resources, and create an in-group, a kind of club, to protect each other.  If the selfish person wins, the other nine suffer.  If the other nine win control, the selfish person is excluded.  We can see this in the political divisions into right and left.


Unfortunately, selfishness can become a habit.  We repeatedly try to elicit support and resources from others, while doing our best to hide our real selfish motives.  Practiced selfishness can easily make it look like it’s someone else’s fault.  We gaslight, we blame others.  We abuse others, and then make it look like they are the delusional ones, the badly-behaved.


If we want to change, to become less selfish, how do we do it?  In order to break the cycle, we need to learn negotiation.  It’s natural to need resources, but we don’t need to force it.  By cooperating better, we can share resources without the stress of controlling or deceptive behaviour.


Our selfish nature will want to escalate things, to create arguments.  Logical arguments will come thick and fast, as to why the denial of resources, to us personally, is a terrible thing.  We may even consider suicide or self-harm.  The message is clear: if I am suffering, the world is responsible for relieving it.  The world must see its error, so I will use myself as a hostage.  Others will see my escalating pain, and will be forced to help.

When we escalate, we are using guilt and fear to try to control the world around us.  Eventually, others will walk away, because it doesn’t feel nice, and because it feels unfair to them.  If others walk away, we will want to make their life even more difficult.  We may even trigger a big argument with others, just to get a rise out of them, and to feel noticed and cared-for again.


Eventually, we experience the social consequences of selfish behaviour.  We are disruptive, and in consequence others withdraw.  We escalate, and in consequence others eventually either fight us, or withdraw even further.


If we are a client in therapy, we may find ourselves using the same behaviours with the therapist.  We steal extra time, we stage emergencies, we threaten suicide.

A good therapist will see what is happening, but will gently give the responsibility to us.  They won’t respond to the threat game, but will sit peacefully, watching, ready to relate on more equal terms.  They will disarm the option of emotional brinkmanship.

Of course a good therapist also preserves life where possible.  They will try to make sure that the client has access to emergency help where necessary.  But equally they do not, in the long term, pander to a client’s blackmailing and destructive tendencies.

It may be that, sensing the lack of supply and control, the selfish person drifts away from therapy.  In this case, they have made a judgement.  The price of recovery is too high, and they would rather keep the behaviour.  But, sometimes, a client will start treating the therapist as an equal.


Selfishness hurts both others and ourselves.  Over a number of years, we build up an unfortunate skill: the ability to use guilt and fear to control others, and then hide the fact we’re doing so.

Others will eventually impose clear, strong boundaries.  This is also true in therapy.  By providing the client with a clear sense of firmness, but also remaining sensitive, a therapist may be able to give the relationship enough stability, but also enough legroom and reflectiveness, to help effect change.

Some clients may not escape the grip of their own selfishness.  The price of change may feel too high to them.  But some achieve a development in their behaviour, and an improvement in their mental health.  The whole thing takes patience, and, sometimes, an inordinately long time.