Are You Selfish or Self-Responsible?

03/17/2015 01:46 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2015
Robert George Young via Getty Images

One of the last things any of us want to be called is "selfish." We often end up doing things we don't want to do to avoid being seen as selfish. In my counseling work with people, I often hear the questions, "Aren't I being selfish if I take care of myself instead of take care of everyone else? Am I being selfish if I do what I want instead of what someone else wants me to do?"

The problem occurs because of an inaccurate definition of "selfish."

You are being selfish when:

  • You expect others to give themselves up for you.
  • You make others responsible for taking care of your feelings of pain and joy.
  • You get angry at others for doing what they want to do rather than doing what you want them to do.
  • You consistently make your own feelings, wants, needs and desires important without also considering others feelings, wants, needs and desires.
  • You believe you are entitled to special treatment, such as not having to wait in line.
You are being self-responsible when:

  • You take care of your own feeling, wants, desires and needs rather than expecting others to take care of you.
  • You support others in doing what brings them joy, even when they are not doing what you want them to do.
  • You show caring toward others for the joy it give you rather than out of fear, obligation or guilt.
  • You have the courage to take loving action in your own behalf, even if someone gets angry with you. For example, you go to bed early because you are tired, even if your partner gets angry at you for not watching a movie with him or her.
  • You have the courage to speak your truth about what you will or will not do, and what you do or do not feel, rather than give yourself up to avoid criticism, anger or rejection.

Giving yourself up to avoid being called selfish is not self-responsible - it is manipulative and dishonest. When you give yourself up to avoid criticism, you are trying to control how another feels about you.

Taking loving care of ourselves, with no intent to harm another, is self-responsible. Yet we are often called "selfish" when we take care of ourselves. For example, Tammy had signed up to take one of my Inner Bonding weekend workshops and was really looking forward to it. She let her husband, Frank, and two children know weeks before the workshop that she was going, and that it was important to her. The day before the workshop Frank was given four great tickets to a basketball game. He wanted Tammy to go with him the next day, which was the first day of the workshop. When she said no, he got angry at her and told her she was selfish for doing what she wanted to do rather than spending the time with the family. Tammy came to the workshop with much to work on!

In reality, it was Frank who was being selfish in expecting Tammy to give herself up and do what he wanted her to do rather than what was really important to her. He was not caring at all about Tammy - he just wanted what he wanted. He felt entitled to be angry at her and try to make her feel guilty when she didn't give in to his demands.

For Tammy, this was a crazy-making situation. Being labeled as selfish when it is really Frank who was being selfish is crazy-making. Many of us grew up with parents who crazy-made us in this way - demanding that we give ourselves up for them and telling us we were selfish when we were actually taking responsibility for our own happiness and well being.

It is important for each of us to define selfishness and self-responsibility for ourselves so that we are not dependent upon others' definition of us. When, through your inner work, you become secure in knowing that you not only have the right, but the responsibility, to support your own joy and highest good - with no intent to harm another - then you will not be tempted to give yourself up when someone tells you that you are selfish for not doing what he or she wants. When we are secure in knowing that our own intent is a loving one, we do not have to manipulate others into defining us as caring by giving ourselves up.

Join Dr. Margaret Paul for her 30-Day at-home Relationships Course: "Loving Relationships: A 30-Day at-Home Experience with Dr. Margaret Paul - For partnered individuals & couples, & people who want to be partnered."

Take our free Inner Bonding eCourse at

Connect with Margaret on Facebook: Inner Bonding, and Facebook: SelfQuest.