The Anatomy of Selfishness

Personal growth- Selfishness what does it mean?


Although many people consider selfishness a negative trait, they may want to take a more nuanced look at it. In some instances, selfishness can be for the betterment of others. In others, it’s simply a matter of looking out for only oneself. Whichever the case, selfishness often comes in many shades of grey.

Editors Note: This is part one of a three-part series on what it means to be selfish. In part one, the author focuses on what being selfish means and when it may or may not be okay to be selfish. In part two, she focuses on recognizing if you’re a selfish person. And in part three, the focus is on steps you can take to be less selfish and what you can gain by doing so.

I was asked a question the other day in an online forum, which was if it was selfish to leave a career of humanitarian service and pursue a career path to personally obtain “more.” My response took some time and reflection, and here’s what I learned.

Selfish Defined

Did this question bring forth the image of a person you know, or was your initial response an emotion such as disappointment or disgust? My first response was a feeling of the negative impact selfishness has on others. But that was quickly followed by the thought that at times a selfish choice is the right choice

We often personalize our reactions. Do you recall a time when someone else’s selfish act caused you distress? Take a moment and shake off your initial “fast thinking” reaction to the question and use your “slow thinking” rational brain.

In the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman discusses the differences between fast-thinking action and the emotion-fuelled processing side of our brain and the slower, logical rational-fuelled processing side of our brain (“side” not being literally applied). It’s often useful to stop and let your rational brain have a say in what you’re thinking.

Is selfish always undesirable or bad? Very often, you’ll hear advice to be “selfish,” often in the context of taking “better” care of one’s self or taking time to go after a goal one may have put to the side.

If you look up the definition of selfish, as I did, you’ll find it’s generally defined as a person lacking in consideration for others, or one being concerned with his or her own personal profit or pleasure. The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes it as, among other things, a lack of concern for others or acting with disregard to others to gain advantage for one’s self. At, the definition included being devoted to or caring only for oneself. When I read that definition, I thought that the “only” qualifier was informative.

Selfish in Deed or Intention

Is the act, the motivation or the intention a key consideration in defining selfish as undesirable? Does being devoted to oneself define someone as being selfish or is the qualifier “only” necessary? I think most people would agree that it’s important to care for oneself, although there are times when one may care for himself after caring for another.

Is the intention of being selfish to your own benefit—whether or not that comes at the expense of another—wrong? Is being selfish even if you do no harm to another but only to benefit yourself wrong?

Selfishness in Context

Many of us think the role of people is to be good and contributing members of society. But do occasional acts of selfishness mean that a person isn’t a good and contributing member of society? I suggest not. Although some acts of selfishness may negate acts of contribution, on balance, one can act to benefit both himself and, at other times, others and be a good and contributing member of society.

Do we identify a person as selfish and “bad” by looking at his actions, intentions or both in combination? Think about the initial question under consideration. Is a person who has lived a life of humanitarian service and now wants to find a career that benefits him personally selfish? And if so, is that wrong?

What if in undertaking his life of humanitarian service a person received great accolades and enjoyed the status of a great humanitarian contributor but in his personal and home life was miserable and made those around him miserable? Could his act of changing his career be unselfish and selfish at the same time?



Tara Orchard
Tara Orchard
Tara Orchard is a coach, trainer, consultant and writer who applies her insights into people and Masters training in psychology to facilitate performance improvements, relationships and communication for people and businesses. She has worked with organizations to deliver clarity on culture and brand, develop their people and manage relationships with social network communities. Over the past 18 years she has consulted with 1000's of people who want to make effective transitions in their lives. Tara has a knack for hearing what people are thinking and helping them see what they need to see. She is the founder of her own career and social network coaching business, works with several other organizations as a coach and consultant and is about to complete her first book on the "psychology of effective social networking".

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