The Fallacy in Calling Someone "Selfish"
By definition and according to Oxford Languages, the word selfish is an adjective that describes “a person, action, or motive lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one's own personal profit or pleasure.”
In alignment with this definition, would it be accurate to call a person who makes time for working out selfish? Or a mother who drives a long distance to spend time with her children after they ask her to see them, selfish? Or what about someone politely declining a social invitation out because they’re simply not in the mood to socialize? Or how about this one; an entrepreneur mother who is stretched to the maximum in her schedule and struggling to achieve a work/life balance being accused of selfishness by her child’s father?
I would argue that none of the above examples warrant a “selfish” label by any means, although all four of these are true experiences by women I know. Interesting that all condemned are women.
A 2011 article written by insight therapist Noam Shpancer Ph.D. titled “Women and Selfishness – it’s not selfish to care about yourself,” for PsychologyToday.com, describes the slippery slope of the word selfish beautifully:
“A genuinely caring and unselfish person can more easily be manipulated and controlled by a needy lover, parent, or child with the simple admonishment, ‘Not meeting my needs means you are being selfish.’ (Ironically, a truly selfish person doesn't care enough to be responsive to that kind of threat.) Thus the average woman, perhaps more than the average man, may need a reminder that when making complicated calculations involving the needs of others, she should give sufficient weight to what she needs and wants for herself. Taking your own needs and wants into consideration is not the same as selfishness.”
Is the mere act of me writing this blog and exposing the fallacy of free-wheeling such an abundantly misused word, selfish? Egad, how confusing!
In thinking back on all of the times that I’ve been called selfish – and of course it’s been an accusation made a few times by others because I’m an ambitious, driven and outspoken woman, and we all know what society thinks about that – I’m genuinely baffled at a couple of incidents where I’ve been called selfish. It’s so confusing, in fact, that I have to question the motives of the accuser (are they being selfish in their accusations and holding up a large, hypothetical mirror?), dig deeper for the why by stepping into their shoes, and walk a mile or so.
“People who call us selfish are usually doing so because their needs (or demands) have not been met,” wrote Francesca Lewis in a 2015 Medium.com article titled, “Am I a Selfish Bitch or Are You Just a Controlling Gaslighter?” Lewis goes on to explain:
“You have refused to give them something and therefore you are selfish. According to them, being selfish is bad because it is all about your needs being placed above theirs. But wait, isn’t that exactly what they are doing now, calling you selfish because you chose to meet your own needs and not their own? Does this not imply that their needs are more important than yours? And isn’t it weird how what they’re calling selfish, others might call healthy boundaries? Something tells me this charge of selfishness is not coming from a place of genuine moral concern but from a place of frustration. They are frustrated because they cannot control you. You are not selfish, you are free (able to act as one wishes and not under the control of another) and that irks them. If you are free, how are they going to be assured that you will meet their needs? In other words, for making choices that make my life better, without also making your life better. I mean, how dare I?”
I suppose the anecdote to so recklessly throwing around a loaded word like selfish, would be compassion. Compassion, for and from both men and women, to be brave enough to step into the other’s shoes. But really, really, not just superficially saying that you understand what the other person is going through and then going about your business pointing accusations of selfish, self-centered or self-important labels on people, namely those undeserving of such harsh claims.
At one point or another it’s safe to assume that we’ve been on both sides of this argument; so bewildered at the path and destruction, shame and confusion that is being the victim of the “selfish” sling, and then being the accuser, condemning individuals with such a charge. I double-dare anyone brave enough to heed the challenge to reconsider so freely throwing around the term “selfish” and resisting popping it like a coiled spring ready to pounce on an unsuspecting victim. Let’s pause, question why this is our go-to, especially for women, and potentially rethink our strategy with a more concise, poignant message to the receiver.
Pretty much guaranteed that the results will be less volatile.