by KY HUYNH
I learned from my parents not to be selfish as a child. I always wanted the last slice of pepperoni pizza or to be first in line for ice cream to get my favorite flavor, and I did that without thinking about how others might feel, but I didn’t mean to be rude, rather I wasn’t thinking thoroughly about the effect my actions had on others at that age.
“Children may be scolded for doing something that is ‘selfish,’ but that term might not fully be explained to them,” said Peter Thaxter, a psychology adjunct instructor at UMW. “They might then internalize that and not wish to engage in self-beneficial, positive behaviors later.”
Merriam-Webster defines “selfish” as “being concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself [or] seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others.”
What Merriam-Webster left off in their definition, though, is how things can change with age and experiences. As a child, I was incapable of thinking about others because the consequences of selfishness weren’t fully explained to me, so I only worried about myself.
In an article from Cornerstones for Parents, selfish behaviors from children might appear impulsive or mindless on the outside, but they are always a result of a self-focused heart. For example, when grabbing the last piece of pepperoni pizza, I was only thinking of myself. But, what I didn’t know was that this practice could continue in other aspects of my life as I grew up.
“As we age, we typically focus more on non-material items that we can share, like deciding who to share time with,” said Hannah Shipp, a junior psychology major. “I think the notion of being selfish by not sharing a toy as a child can translate into not sharing time as an emerging adult.”
Growing older has taught me to consider other people’s feelings before my own, as a sign of maturity and as a way to make them happy. Therefore, I now think about asking if someone would like the last piece of pepperoni pizza before I take it for myself.
“Life experiences and experiences of those around you can greatly change and shape our ideas and concepts, even for things like selfishness,” said Thaxter. “As they grow and mature and gain new life experiences with those around them, they may receive other messages that may change that view.”
But, as I’ve grown up, I’ve also witnessed and experienced a positive aspect of selfishness that has influenced me to want to be more selfish.
According to Harvard Business Review, if leaders selfishly take care of their feelings, it will benefit not only them but also everyone around them, including the companies they lead.
The past few months have taught me how to be selfish in my leadership positions. For example, I joined the UMW student newspaper, The Weekly Ringer, as the news editor, and my experience so far has given me a different view of selfishness.
Other students have also come to reconsider what selfishness is, too.
“The meaning of selfishness has changed for me during my college career,” said Shipp. “It used to mean me not sharing or others not sharing; however, I interpret it now as advocating for myself or others advocating for themselves.”
As an editor, I learned that my mental and physical well-being affected my performance, which meant getting enough sleep, eating enough food and improving my relationships with others. It isn’t just that I’ve grown to accept selfishness merely to become a better leader, but also that I’ve realized that selfishness allows me to be a better person for myself mentally.
“By ensuring that we are cared for mentally and psychologically, it actually makes us a more productive member of society in the long run, so that does have potential benefit and impact for those around us as well,” said Thaxter.
In school and my work as a news editor, I had a lack of motivation because I was physically and mentally fatigued. To solve this problem, one of the things I could have used was Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which, according to Simply Psychology, is a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs, which is often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid.
This hierarchy makes a good point about the importance of being selfish because it shows how you have to have certain needs met before you’re able to thrive in your own life, as well as in your relationships with others.
On the pyramid, the most basic needs at the bottom are physiological needs, such as food and sleep that you need every day. Next, are safety needs, such as health and employment, so that you have a secure life ahead of you. Following that is love and belonging, which pertains to your social connections with friends and family. These connections lead to esteem, which is a sense of your own self-esteem, respect and strength. The top of the pyramid is self-actualization, which is when we have become the most that we can be.
In the future, I can positively impact myself by utilizing Maslow’s theory, and we could also consider using his theory as an argument to be a little selfish since it is aimed at taking care of ourselves mentally over others.
“Being selfish can be a mentally positive thing because you are focusing on your needs, such as the need to rest, instead of constantly working and not taking time to yourself,” said Shipp. “It’s important to be selfish in this way so you don’t end up burning yourself out on schoolwork and in social relationships.”
A time when Maslow’s theory could have positively influenced me was during my senior year of high school in 2021. This was also the first school year fully in-person since the start of COVID-19 in 2020. I began my senior year with the mindset that I could juggle school work and a part-time job at Old Navy that I started the summer before.
I learned so many skills at Old Navy, including communication skills, and I made some great friends, but even though I reflect positively on the lessons I learned there, it wasn’t until my senior year of high school that things started to get hard for me. Juggling school and work wasn’t easy, as I was scheduled during the week, which meant I’d head straight to work after school. As a result, when I got home, I was either too tired or didn’t have time to finish my schoolwork.
I became so overwhelmed and stressed that it began to affect my mental health. Then again, because I had been taught that selfishness was negative, I was too influenced by this idea to ask my managers for less work or to say no to work because I didn’t want to disappoint anyone.
To keep my managers from being stressed due to having fewer employees who could work during the week, I internalized their responsibility and considered my weekday availability as a selfless act. However, it led to my mental health getting worse, my grades dropping and I became more and more unhappy.
Looking back, my selflessness that was intended to help my managers was detrimental to an array of factors in my life, and I should have prioritized my own needs before I started to meet others’ needs.
“There may be benefits to being ‘selfish mentally.’ It is important for us to act in a manner of self-preservation or in a way that protects ourselves. It is okay for us to take care of our mental as well as physical health,” said Thaxter. “Taking a ‘mental health day’ is becoming a more widely accepted practice as well as utilizing resources that may improve our mental and psychological well-being.”
I am not the only one who interprets selfishness as a negative quality, though.
When asked how the word “selfishness” was interpreted, Anna McCandless, a senior American studies major said, “Negative … because that’s just how I’ve been told—that being selfish is bad.” She also said, “You are putting yourself over others.”
But selfishness is more nuanced than its common interpretation makes it seem.
“As someone who has struggled with being a ‘people pleaser’ their whole life, it’s very empowering to finally being comfortable with being selfish,” said Shipp. “Selfishness to me looks like taking care of my mental health by making sure I am sharing enough time between myself, my schoolwork and my friends. From that, I’ve found that being selfish has led to less stress about school and that my friendships and life has improved.”
In balancing high school and work, I was losing the elements of esteem, love and belonging. In addition to not respecting my mental health, I had less time to socialize with friends and family. I wish someone had told me then that I could say no and take time for myself, like having a mental health day.
It’s unfortunate to see the overall idea of selfishness as a negative thing for society, and we should encourage putting ourselves over others as a more positive thing because it can positively affect your mental health and physical well-being.
“I believe that to change this idea of selfishness being a negative thing, one needs to reflect on their own needs and personal boundaries,” said Shipp.