Where does selfishness come from?

It’s all about the L-word

Photo by Henley Design Studio on Unsplash

‘Don’t be selfish’ is probably among the first life lessons parents pass on to their kids, because they are only too aware of the stigma the label of ‘selfish’ carries. Whether it’s justified or not, being thought selfish by others can be disastrous for your social standing. There is good reason for it too.

In our distant, prehistoric past, being selfish was to put the safety and cohesion of the tribe in jeopardy. A crime so grave naturally used to carry proportional punishment. If you were lucky, you’d be quickly murdered by your mates. The worse fate was banishment from the tribe which would only end in either of two ways: starvation or being eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger.

While civilisation has (thankfully) ensured we can’t club selfish people in broad daylight anymore, the taboo around selfishness still endures. And that is why you don’t qualify as a good parent if your offspring refuses to share her toys and candy with others.

While selfishness still remains an undesirable trait, the context within which we evaluate it has completely changed. In contrast to earlier times when there was simply no concept of individual aims, most of our personal goals are now zero-sum in nature. Whether its material success or social status, one person’s gain is another’s loss, even if it is anonymous individuals going against each other.

In other words, our success in the real world depends on being selfish, at least in the broad sense of thinking solely about ourselves. How then do we reconcile this reality with what our elders teach us about not being selfish? Erich Fromm, German-American psychologist and philosopher, wrote that this contradiction is no laughing matter. Most people struggle to balance the two sides and end up with a kind of split within themselves, leading to an ever-present sense of guilt.

This friction probably has its origin in the way we are taught to think about selfishness. The admonition to not be selfish is usually a way to suppress our spontaneity and keep us from pursuing our own wishes, especially when we are children. By the time we are adults, we’ve learnt that it’s not the expression, but the suppression, of our uniqueness that makes us acceptable to other people. Being unselfish, then, is like a price we have to pay for getting accepted to the groups of our choice.

Genuine unselfishness, however, is so hard to achieve because it depends on you liking the object of your generosity. But since liking cannot be commanded, we end up indulging in unselfishness as a performance. According to Fromm, this ‘put on’ unselfishness not only causes inner confusion, but it also leads to a basic ‘lack of fondness’ — both for others and for ourselves.

The most common symptom of this lack of inner liking is low self-esteem, a basic sense of low self-worth and a constant stream of self-criticism. As Fromm, puts it we are our own slave-drivers, constantly berating ourselves for not meeting the standards set for us by people around us. Even leisure time is not free from this barrage of negativity as the feelings of guilt for enjoying ourselves keep us on the edge.

Does this mean that those who are selfish do not suffer from low self-esteem? Selfishness, and its extreme form, narcissism, does after all come from an inordinate obsession with yourself. I mean you do have to love yourself to be selfish, right? Why else would you risk being called an asshole?

This is where Fromm unfurled his most penetrating insight. He wrote that it is a mistake to assume that selfishness is just self-love taken to unreasonable heights. It is rather more like greed where you can’t help but grab more for yourself. Fromm’s argument is that this greed is rooted in self-hate because you can’t stand who you are, and are anxious to become someone else.

Selfish behaviour, therefore, is not a lack of concern for others, but heightened anxiety for your own self. Driven by insecurity, a selfish person is forever grasping at more and more, in a desperate attempt to get close to their ideal version of themselves.

In other words, a selfish person doesn’t love herself more than anyone else. Instead, she loves herself too less. The unconscious lack of love is what translates to a lack of concern for others, a condition better known as — you guessed it — selfishness.

But if I don’t exactly like who I am, why must I be terrible to others? Fromm got to the heart of this phenomenon by recasting how love actually works. Love he wrote, is not a reaction to an external stimulus. Rather, it is an existing capacity, based on a genuine desire to see its object happy and thriving.

So when you hold your lover close, or gaze at your sleeping child, the flood of emotions is not caused inside you, but is an existing readiness that is awakened by the focus of your affection.

And here comes the real question: if love is a capacity already built into you, how can it possibly exclude our own self? As Fromm put it:

If an individual has this readiness, he has it also toward himself; if he can only love others, he cannot love at all.

The object of our feelings and attitudes is not just others but also we ourselves. This means that our attitudes towards others and towards ourselves aren’t contradictory, but run in parallel. In Fromm’s words:

It is this absence of the readiness to love that we see and denounce as selfish behaviour. Unbeknownst to us, the selfish person has lost the capacity to love herself as well.

This means that the admonitions by our parents, teachers and society to be unselfish might be doing more harm than good. Since we are as much a part of the world as any object of our kindness, we cannot genuinely care for others while denying the same care to ourselves. Self-denial can never be fertile ground for generosity to thrive in.

This is probably why a genuinely confident person is rarely selfish. When someone is secure in their own skin, they have a solid base from which to reach out to and build an authentic connection with others. An under-confident person, on the other hand, is focused inward, desperately trying to remedy her insecurity. And therein lie the seeds of selfishness.

Unselfishness is, therefore, a state you reach not by willing yourself to be so, but indirectly, by becoming the kind of person who is incapable of being selfish. Your job, if you are to be a kind and unselfish person, is to become secure in your own self and learn to love yourself. This is not the pseudo-love of the Instagram-narcissist, but a genuine comfort in your own skin. For that you must first begin to treat yourself kindly. You must, as Jordan Peterson says:

Genuine feelings of generosity and kindness for others can only be rooted in self-assuredness. So if you want to do good for others, achieve your own potential first. Beware those who wouldn’t take responsibility for themselves but want to change the world.

So don’t be an asshole, but be temporarily selfish. Build a secure foundation for your self-worth by becoming the best version of yourself. Rare are the individuals who find a sense of achievement by dedicating themselves to the service of others. The rest of us? We can do good for others by first doing good for ourselves.

I read like a man possessed | I write to understand the world | Twitter: @DhawalHelix

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