Selfish vs. Selfless: What’s the Difference?

Monday, Mar. 12th 2012 12:36 AM

Selfish people take. Selfless people give. Selfish people make life harder for others, while selfless people make life more pleasurable for those around them. This is how many of us distinguish between “selfish” and “selfless,” and most people would rather be perceived as the latter. Generally speaking, “selfless” gets a warmer welcome and is more widely accepted as good. I challenge both generalizations. Neither selfishness nor selflessness is good or bad. In fact, the two concepts are inextricably linked, not opposites, as their definitions imply.

Regular Frank Love readers know that I believe we are all selfish – that even the choice to be selfless stems from a selfish place, either because you enjoy helping others, because it supports the image that you have of who you want to be, or because you get something out of it. For example, I might “selfishly” take a weekend trip by myself just to have some quiet time. My mate could choose to see me leaving her to deal with the children while I relax on a beach for a couple days as selfish. But if I return a happier person, with more energy and patience to share with my family, she might also see the trip as selfless. Likewise, if I surprise my mate with a spa weekend while I care for our children, I might also have the “selfish” intention of helping her relax so that she will be more patient and happy, and therefore, more likely to do nice things for me. It all depends on perspective.

The point of this semantics lesson – one which has caused philosophers to argue in circles for centuries – is that it’s pointless to judge an action as selfish or selfless. Instead, focus on the results. If your mate makes a “selfish” decision that benefits you, it’s unlikely that you’ll complain much. If it doesn’t, consider being “selfless” enough to just let your mate be selfish sometimes, without any guilt trips or manipulation. Not only is a happy mate more fun to live with, but you never know how you might benefit down the road.

For example, I know of a man who had sex and a child with his wife’s sister. He and his wife never conceived. The wife was bitter and angry until her husband and her sister died – 38 and 42 years later, respectively. When there was no one left to be mad at, she finally forgave them. She was well into her 80s when she died. And guess who cared for her in the 12 years after her husband passed away? The “illegitimate” daughter.

Whether or not the husband was being selfish or selfless when he had an affair and conceived a child with his sister-in-law doesn’t really matter in the long run. What matters is the result. Whether it was his intention to produce a child (I’m not sure) or just God working through him, a child was conceived, and she turned out to be as much of a blessing to her aunt as she was a source of pain upon her conception – by her aunt’s own admission.

Many of us are unwilling to admit it, but we want to be liked and accepted. Sometimes we do things hoping they will lead others to accept us. Other times, we act without thinking about the reception our decisions will get and just hope that we will be accepted anyway. When you are a Powerful Person in a Partnership, you are both selfish and selfless, because you are true to yourself while also accepting your partner’s truth – even when you don’t like it.

Do you have a story of a choice that seemed horrible or “selfish” in the beginning but turned out to benefit others in unforeseen ways? If so, I want to hear it. If you know someone with one, ask him/her to drop me a line. I would love to highlight it in a video… anonymously or otherwise.

Keep Rising,


Frank Love

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Leave a Comment: Let Us Know Your Thoughts

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18 Comments on “Selfish vs. Selfless: What’s the Difference?”

  1. Susan Berg Says:

    Self-actualized is where my focus is. Thanks for the question.

  2. Mary Torney Says:

    However for some people ‘selfless’ can be a form of selfishness where they need to give to others in order to feel valid in themselves. Maybe it could be more useful to take away the value judgement and look towards encouraging an empathic or compassionate response. This allows also for compassion towards the self. Perhaps we could look at the ‘others-for-self” orientation of the developing person before negotiating ‘the depressive position’ (Klein) and the ‘self-for-others’ orientation afterwards??

  3. Robert Herrmann-Keeling Says:

    As an Adlerian, I’d say there are several differences. Adler place the individual person within the larger human community, saying the individual is “socially embedded” in, and responsible for, the larger human community, represented first by family. Despite the name of his approach (“Individual Psychology”) hIs was neither an intra-psychic nor a “single person” psychology. (“Individual” in “Individual Psychology” was from the Latin for wholeness and unity; Adler’s was the first holistic psychology.) He was first in fostering the social side of psychology. He saw personality is the result of social factors, choices, creativity, etc., as well as environment & heredity. His 1911 debates with Freud challenged The Master’s insistence that sex is the detrerminant of personality, and offered other ways to explain personality development, based on social factors.

    He said that individual behavior is of two types (which you suggest in the words “selfish” and “selfless.”) ONE is based on the “private logic” a person uses to excuse self-oriented and other-ignoring behavior. He called this “socially useLESS” behavior. An example is the person whose behavior suggests, “The rules that apply tio others do not apply to me.” Such a person, we say, “has no conscience.” THE OTHER is based on the community’s wisdom about actions that preserve the community’s well-being. He referred to this as “common sense” (the wisdom we have in common), and called behavior based on it “socially useFUL” behavior.

    I think a major issue in this discussion is whether we treat the individual as self-created with no relational input…or as the product of the larger, human, community. If we say it is about the individua only, then we empty “selfish” and “selfless” of any meaning. They are, after all, terms that refer to social, not individualistic, behavior. Or as Adler said, “All problems are social problems.”

    Good topic…thanks for raising it!
    Bob (at

  4. THOMAS AW Says:

    The SELF is in static confidence.

    Selfless & Selfish are Yin Yang sides of a coin.

    FISH : Full stomach, glory success, prosperity

    LESS : Give away, empty – simple enjoyment

  5. Dr. Smita Pandey Says:

    Neither selfish nor self less, one must be self actualizing. As per Maslow’s theory that could only be attained if basic needs are fulfilled and also the self esteem needs are fulfilled. I feel each one of us at times or other become actualizing and realizing one’s self. But usually deep inner core helps oneself to actualize or realize.

    About selfish and selfless, I would say it is a matter of degree. Everyone is selfish and selfless to a lesser or larger extent.And too much of anything is bad. Too much of perceived selfishness would tarnish the moral values and ideal self ;and too much of selflessness would be a danger to one’s integrity and identity. Hence, there must be a balance between the two- selfishness and selflessness.

  6. Barrie Whitaker Says:

    I believe there is a saying that the past will haunt you and your article touched a nerve. Some 50 years ago when I was about to leave school to go to university, I won a school prize and had to make a speech. My speech was based on friendship and selfishness.

    I postulated that all people are selfish, including people like Mother Teresa, and all the others who supposedly do good for other people, they really do it for themselves. I was told by my headmaster that he thought I would not make a very good psychologist since I have no empathy with other people! (he was probably was quite right) but this has stuck with me over the past 50 years.

    However, I have to say that I have had a very successful business and academic life and I feel I’ve done fairly well in the psychology field, in training as a therapist and I think my objective (perhaps a little critical) approach has helped other people understand their own problems easier. I gave up psychotherapy because I was too selfish to spend time helping others!

  7. Scott Polenz, M.A., MFT Says:

    I’m not certain if my two-cent’s worth is warranted here, and I’m going to offer it anyway.

    I generally use the language of Selfish vs Self-care. If we boil things down to a ‘pure reduction sauce’ or base foundation, selfless (and semantics may be getting in the mix here) I have found is usually not completely true. We may feel our actions are selfless, yet how much would we continue our selfless actions if the recipient is not appreciative. I do believe we as human beings have an innate need to ‘be of service’ to others, or something even deeper within ourselves. We invariably benefit from offering this ‘service’ or ‘self-less gesture’ by feeling a sense of reward, satisfaction, or connectedness. This is a good thing to feel and participate in. Because of the deep sense of reward felt by giving ‘selflessly’, I have, instead, come to call it self-care. Ultimately we are taking care of that deeper part of us fulfilling our needs as compassionate and giving human beings. Were we NOT to have that sweet experience, would we continue ‘selflessly’ to participate in that way, or that dynamic (or with that person or persons?) Perhaps some would, however being completely real within myself, I am more drawn (not selfishly or with ego) to follow that sweet reward of gratitude or appreciation that I can feel within myself, which perpetrates more self-care. When a recipient appreciates and benefits from my actions, it’s truly the icing on the cake.

    Selfish, for me, simply means taking something away from someone for my own benefit. This is a great topic and I’m glad you broached it…..

  8. Greta de Kock Says:

    Self-less. SPIRIT, My Divine Creator’s will for me. Self-ish. My will for me..


    We all approach life from the perspective of our identity. Sometimes we see “More “from our center ; sometimes we see “Less” . I suppose the idea of this good or bad comes from other peoples viewpoints. Ish and Less do not have a value, Self does! I think it’s time to meditate!

  10. Cheryll O'Callaghan Says:

    I feel to answer this we must start with the connecting, common element. “self”, and focus on Selfness. In this 3D perspective of polarizing our life we continue to feel the separation of self and divinity. I agree that selfish and selfless are actually the same thing. They both take away from the self. “Selfness” empowers and creates self responsibility. To give or to take, one must first have knowledge of who one is.

  11. Erich Morris Says:

    Good article:

  12. Erich Morris Says:
    one more

  13. Danny Wink Says:

    My is a possessive pro noun. My neighbor, my friend, become my possessions. By becoming selfish you become selfless.

  14. Afsaneh Tabassian Says:

    Erich. I looked, read, and loved what both articles had to say. Thank you.

  15. Sonja Hellman- Bogumill Says:

    I find that whether what you are doing is deemed selfish or selfless is in the end result. If it benefits me at your expense, I am selfish. I it benefits you at my expense, it is selfless. We tell people, especially women, not to be selfish. Are we telling them to be selfless?

    I talk with my clients about “self respectful”. That is when you have a decision to make, you weigh the options, and you make a conscious decision one way or the other. The outcome might look selfish, or it might look selfless, but the decision is made from a loving place.

  16. Mary Moonen, L.C.S.W;C.A.P. Says:

    Interesting for me as I like to “ponder” and love philosophy.
    I encourage my clients to use the words SELF CARE when they are clearly helping themselves heal….or recovering from addiciction…now they need alot of AA/NA..etc is self care.vs. living in the addiciotn that was totally selfish…hurtful to self or others..hurtful to the community..etc.
    I like to use the word selfish when it means doing harm.
    Selfless…can be a great personality trait..but if to the point of co-dependency and people pleasing…then it becomes not only self destructive, but it hurts others. It becomes more an act of trying to control…but still sounding “nice.”
    Interesting stuff, thanks for sharing it Frank.

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