Rule of Thumb: Selfish People Aren’t Worried About Being Selfish

There was a time in my life when basically everybody I was talking to on a daily basis was, like me, an adult of a culturally Catholic background; practicing, lapsed, grown up children of recovering Catholics, the whole spectrum. And the thing that caused me to notice this was a conversational tic that everybody around me seemed to have:
is it bad if I ____?” Sometimes it would be, “How bad is it if I _____?” 

It was never anything actually bad, often nothing in the neighborhood of badness, but eventually the requests for reassurance got so prevalent in conversations that I started laying down the law: I am nobody’s confessor. I can’t give absolution. I have my own Catholic guilt to process.

These days, I have an irregular hobby of browsing relationship advice forums. I started because some of the people I follow on Twitter have the habit of highlighting particularly awful “gems”. Snippets and screen shots got me curious enough to go over and see what I was missing, which eventually got me sucked into reading other posts, and then, offering advice.

And I’ll tell you, there’s a pattern I see in people asking for help that reminds me of the Catholic tic: Am I being selfish if I ____? Is it selfish of me to ____? and so on.

And I’m not going to say there’s no one in the world who ever asked that question in a situation loaded with irony, but I haven’t really seen it in the context of people asking for advice from strangers. It’s not “Am I selfish if I only think of myself? Am I selfish if I expect everyone to put my needs above their own?”

It’s, “Am I selfish if I want some alone time? Am I selfish if I want my partner to compromise sometimes instead of it always being me? Am I selfish if I expect my partner to help me meet my needs as much as I help them meet theirs? Am I selfish if I leave because this relationship is destroying me, knowing that my partner will be devastated?”

A real selfish, manipulative person might tack a “Is that so selfish? Is that too much to ask?” onto the end of a rant, in an attempt to coax the target of their manipulation to agree that it’s quite reasonable and not selfish at all, but at the point where you’re wrestling with this, really wrestling with what to do about it, with a bunch of strangers, it’s more likely the case that you’re not being selfish at all, and the fact that you’re worried that you might be is pretty strong evidence in support of that.

Selfish people don’t often worry that they’re selfish. They don’t think of themselves as selfish. Few people want to be selfish, so your average selfish person’s problem isn’t that they’ve decided to be selfish but that they’ve defined things for themselves in such a way that their expectations and behaviors are normal. This is how it comes to be that so many selfish people see everybody else around them as the selfish ones. They’ve set a baseline where their level of centering themselves is normal, and anyone who doesn’t meet that skewed bar is falling short.

When you find yourself wandering if you’re asking for too much, if you’re wanting too much, if you’re needing too much, try stepping outside your situation and imagining that someone else is confiding to you about it. Extending compassion and empathy to ourselves is a skill that few of us learn at the level we really need it, but anybody who worries about being selfish is very likely to possess the skill of empathizing with others.

Is it too much to ask for another person to have some support from their partner? Then it’s not too much for you to ask. Would it be selfish for another person to want to have some time and space for themselves? Then it’s not selfish for you. Is it selfish for anybody else to not martyr themselves in a relationship for the sake of somebody who wouldn’t begin to do the same in return?

No, it’s not selfish for them, and it’s not selfish for you.