Selfish or Selfless?


To call someone selfish is quite vague. There are several ways in which the word selfish can be defined. Depending on the context of the word, it can be considered derogatory or positive. Degrees of each kind of selfishness also vary widely from person to person, some people possessing several types of selfishness. In order to properly define selfishness, we must also speak of it’s opposing component selflessness.

Selfishness, most commonly is defined as a negative term meaning that one thinks too much of themselves, disregarding others at someone else’s expense. Many people use this term to condemn someone for only thinking of ones own happiness and incorporated in that is often a selfish person’s willingness to hurt someone else in order to boost themselves.


Selfishness, in the next most common context, refers to one taking time out from the dedication to other facets of ones life in order to focus on oneself. This type of selfishness is needed in every human. People need to take a vacation and divulge themselves in pastimes that are purely enjoyable to them. This is a person’s way of remaining sane in an overwhelming world. Though this act of selfishness may not seem productive, it really is, because once the focus from every day activities is given a rest, one is more apt to be able to function more sanely. Though these two definitions seem opposite because one is negative and the other positive, which are antonyms, they are quite similar. The distinction between the two is that selfishness becomes negative when one abandons consideration of another’s welfare in order to gain happiness for oneself.


It is quite necessary to examine the various degrees of selfishness by both definitions to understand the comparison I am attempting to make. Selfishness can often be quite essential to ones growth as a human being. If one is always looking out for other people, they are neglecting their duties to themselves.


I feel this goes along with the saying, “Every man for himself.” One should not pursue happiness, however, at the expense of another’s happiness, but one must look out for oneself and enjoy the niceties of life, because one should be loyal to oneself. However, if one is constantly helping others and abandoning all pleasures and concern for themselves, this is actually a form of selfishness as well as selflessness. Someone like Mother Theresa, who gave her life to helping others who are destitute, did this because it felt good, and it fulfilled her sense of selfishness. I believe that everyone has some type of quota for selfishness and selflessness. The two concepts are not identical but they can be similar acts that are separated by their intent and execution. They are not quite opposites as many people purport. When one acts out of selflessness, one does it because it feels good to them, and although the party whom one helped also benefits, so does the person acting out of selflessness, because they are also acting out of selfishness to feel good. This type of selfishness is obviously of the positive sort, because it also entails selflessness as well. Here the two go hand in hand and work together.

Very similar to the last case I presented, yet with a slight difference, is the case of someone doing something for someone else, seemingly out of selflessness. In this instance, one may perform the same act as in the previous case. To make sure I am clear, I give you the scenario where someone gives clothes to the poor. In the first case which I propose, one would give those clothes willingly for the good of another person, expecting nothing in return except for feeling good about themselves, which, as I proved before, is a combined act of selfishness and selflessness. Now in the new case, a different person performs the same act of giving clothes to the poor. The difference between the two cases lies in the person’s attitude. In the second case, the person who gives to the poor is doing so mainly so that he might be able to deduct that amount that he gave in clothes from his taxes. This person performed the same act, yet with a different interest in mind, and that is where the difference lies.


Often, many people do something for someone because it is also self serving. Although it may benefit another, it is also done because it benefits them as well. Someone who does this all the time could be considered selfish in the negative sense. I do not propose, however, that one help another at his own expense, but one should not help oneself at someone else’s expense either. To achieve the correct balance is a very fine line, but everyone must explore that line in order to find that harmony between selfishness and selflessness, and when that harmony is found, one will find the two working together.

Author: Alice Funk Farie

Ecclectic Eccentric, Adoptee, Mom of a child with Aspergers Autism, Complex-PTSD from childhood trauma, Daughter of parents with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Dependant Personality Disorder, Anxiety and Depression Warrior, Empath, Indigo Child, Musician, Educator, Wife of a Sociopathic Addict, Stepmom, Martial Artist, Artist, Philosophizer, Quote Collector, Survivor

26 thoughts on “Selfish or Selfless?”

    1. Thank you so much. This is actually a paper I wrote back in college, 20 years ago. I happened to be reading through them and it fit with the prompt, so I did a little tweaking. I was pretty astonished with how ahead of my time I was for a 20 year old, 20 years ago.

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      1. Thank you! What were you a professor of? I am a private music instructor, so I dont grade writing assignments, but I have written many a paper in my day! And I have missed writing, and hence why I decided to start blogging! You are most welcome. I enjoyed your post from today. I couldn’t agree more. I struggled at first with trying to fit in but then have reveled in being unique once I got to high school and further. And I am still one who stands out in a crowd at 40. I look forward to reading more!


      2. It sure was. The class was called Reason and Value. I was originally going to be a music therapy major and took some psychology classes and then changed to performance, but got very interested in all of the social sciences. Even my math fulfillment course was a cross between math and philosophy. How fun to be a sociology professor.


  1. Oh my goodness that was brilliant and insightful. I really loved it … The sad thing is that the text from Butterflies and Pebbles (??) is me … that’s just how I was. Never wanting to be in the way, always so overshadowed, overwhelmed and in truth somewhat insipid. I didn’t feel worthy but equally I was so envious of those who were full of fun, laughter and a joie de vivre-filled ‘don’t care about anything’ sort of people. Children should be seen and not heard was what I was brought up to believe, but when you never transform from a child to an adult …. you are lost and still not heard. I’m working on this which is probably why I love to post my blogs. Thank you so much for this post, it really made more sense to me than you’ll ever know. Katie x

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    1. Oh, that you so much! That means so very much to me! I feel exactly the same way. I am trying to use the butterfly and pebbles meme as my guidepost now every day to crack that shell and help me become what I want to be, despite what I was taught as well (that children should be seen and not heard). At times I had more of a voice, but it easily got quashed by constantly feeling that I was in the wrong, because I was made to feel that way growing up, and then it was only reinforced by others because I taught them that it was the way I was to be treated, because I was always the one blamed. I, too, am continuously working on combating this. I developed this blog as a form of therapy. It is under a pseudonym and only 2 people who know me in real life even know about so that I can write freely. Today’s word prompt couldn’t be more fateful (invisible) because that is the EXACT reason I am here. I have felt invisible on Facebook to my real friends who don’t seem to even notice when I don’t post for a month on Facebook, don’t comment or like anything I say there. I get more response here from total strangers. And so, I am pouring my heart out here now, where I will finally be heard…my parents and friends don’t hear me, but strangers do. Thank you for being one of those strangers and for relating! You have made me feel less invisible in the world and will actually be a part of my daily prompt post today. 😁

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      1. I continue to look at Facebook (for now), mainly just to keep updated on my so-called-friends lives and their superficial posts (to receive all the likes and comments) and for the groups I’m in for the information purposes, but the majority of my social media time has definitely been spent here for the past month, and I feel so much more fulfilled. I am very glad to have met you as well. Thank you so much for reaching out!

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  2. Reblogged this on Oh, border! and commented:
    This is a very well-written piece about selfishness vs Self-ishness. I love her comprehensive coverage of the idea, which debunks many MISgivings people have about these two terms.
    I take it that it’s Alice’s birthday pressie to me 😉 – the perfectly phrased writing that I have been dreaming of, – that which I can now effortlessly spread it around to my friends what I mean when I went in circles with my words trying to put this point across. ❤

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    1. Oh my gosh. That is one of the most beautifully written compliments I’ve ever received on my writing. Thank you so much. I am truly touched. I am so glad you were positively affected by my words! Thank you for making my day!

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    2. By the way, is it your birthday today, or coming up soon? If it is…Happiest of birthdays to you😊 I have also been reading the Theta healing blog. I am on page 4 or so. Thank you so very much for that link. Many of the posts have been very thought provoking for sure!


  3. There are other forces at work in our characters which make us selfish. Desire and ambition can make us lead selfish lives and these are encouraged by western democracies . People study to get good jobs and earn more money to buy what they want and enjoy themselves.
    We are surrounded on all sides by adverts to entice us to want more and more. When Steven Pinker wrote ‘The Blank Slate ‘ there was an out cry from many but Mr Pinker was right ; we inherit a large evolutionary part of our characters and to suggest a baby is a blank slate is not true.

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    1. I completely agree that the Blank Slate Theory is completely incorrect. I am living proof of that. I am adopted and I located my birth parents and I am 98% like them, a perfect blend of both of them. I am hardly like my adoptive parents who raised me. I even went in to the field of music without knowing that I come from a line of musicians in my birth family, I was drawn to it and inherited the ability for it. My morals and values come from my birth parents as well. My adoptive father’s first love in life is money, it’s the way I was raised, and I still fled from that, despite his influence on my life and despite being raised in a fairly well to do family. I still chose a career in music that is for passion and not for financial comfort. I chose a husband that works hard but isn’t so great with money and we struggle. I left my life of financial security that my adoptive dad would have hoped I would have pursued for myself for one that made me feel fulfilled. There are external factors that entice everyone, but there are always temptations in life in everything. And depending upon each individuals inherent weaknesses, the ability to avoid those temptations, especially when it comes to making choices that would hinder the welfare of others, are what show the true character of a person. Sometimes psychological issues are at play, and I’m not talking about those kinds of scenarios, because that is a larger scope that involves multi layer problems, not just a simple will power choice. But even with genetic coding, I believe that there is free will. Both of my birth parents had alcohol and drug addiction environment that I was raised in did not have that. But people argue very strongly for alcoholism and drug addiction being a genetic coding trait. And due to the traumatic things I have been through in my life, I would have been a perfect candidate to resort to that, but I didn’t. There are many factors at play in the selfishness game. But ultimately, we are the decision makers in our lives (baggage and all).


  4. Do you think we should perhaps separate musical ability from the talent to compose works of lasting quality?Top class performers are far more prevalent than the score of two of talented composers. By talented I don’t mean those who learn musical theory and can therefore compose but those like Mozart who created music which has passed down the centuries.
    To my mind it is very similar to writing ; how many of today’s novels will be read in one hundred years? A journalist can write well ( better than me ) but can we compare journalism to Oliver Twist ?
    It is true that the Bach family tree is a large one leading to the conclusion there must be frenetic links as you point out.
    Regarding free will I have discovered that those who fiercely oppose it , largely on deterministic grounds , carry on just as if they possessed free will. Sam Harris is a classic example , but he is a deep thinker who sometimes finds himself in deep waters and has a job to swim.
    I can see you have had quite a tough struggle as many do , my own life has not been simple . I’m 76 now and living in a small bungalow on the south coast of the UK with my wife . We had four children the oldest is over 50 now and beginning to look back as well as forward;they are all in the fast – lane.

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    1. You definitely pose an interesting question in regards to music and it’s being classified differently. It is actually something I grapple with from time to time in a different sense. I have always said that I am terrible at composing and improvising and that I feel it is due to my strict classical training and my reliance on theory and being glued to the page for performance purposes. I feel I lack creativity in the music genre. Which is quite an oxymoron because everything about my being and my soul is creative. Even as a music instructor, I am one of the most creative and ecclectic teachers out there. Some of my students who are very conservative must think I am extremely eccentric. And so, it makes me wonder had my passion been for composition, what could my output be. My husband watched me as I painted the largest painting I had ever done (which was back in 2014), and he told me that he thought if I had put even half of the time I did in to art that I had in to music that I could have been genius at art (and he doesn’t dole put those types of compliments regularly). And art has always just been something I’ve done for fun when I am inspired. I only took 8 art lessons in my entire life. So, sometimes I think it might be more of a magic formula and all of the stars aligning to bring forth the “geniuses” of this world. I think there are many latent geniuses in this world that may not have had the opportunity to hone their craft due to financial circumstances, or perhaps what they are naturally the most genius at might not be what they are most passionate about and have the most natural proclivity towards, and so that particular strand of what would have developed in to the lasting genius quality falls by the wayside and their star doesn’t shine as brightly, simply because it is just not what they chose to follow. I also thinkt specifically on your original question, that performers are just different renditions of a composers original work. So a composer will always seem more genius than a performer because a composer by nature is more creative and working from scratch and the pure ‘blank slate” (pun intended) of their mind. The medium lends itself more to admiration and longevity. I am hoping that my legacy will be in a few different music educational bodies of work that I am in the midst of. That is how I hope to pass down my contribution. I am not relying on my performance ability to make my mark on the world because I agree that I will easily be forgotten 100 years from now 😉

      As for free will, I think that our snap judgments and in the moment reactions may be based more upon deterministic qualities, and in that I might agree a little bit with the likes of Sam Harris, but if it is a matter which there is time to ponder a situation, while background circumstances certainly do come in to play, everyone has the power to go against what would “feel natural” to them.

      Yes, my life has been a roller coaster. But it has given me character and I would not wish to change it, much as I dislike having to go through some.of the things I go through and wish for some peace and some breaks sometimes. I hope that you now have some peace in your life and are able to start feeling some tranquility as you watch your children still riding the fast lane.


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