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What is Selfishness? What is Narcissism?
Are Human Beings Selfish by Nature or by Nurture?

Dr. Matt,
My name is Nathan, I'm from Nashville, Tennessee. I'm 27 and just newly married.

After a few months of marriage, I now realize just how self-centered my life has been as a single man. Being married makes a person more aware that there are needs to be met, beside your own.

Here's my question: I'm wondering at what point I am really loving my wife by serving her needs, as opposed to enabling her in being selfish?

Also, are the words Selfishness and Narcissism simply synonyms meaning about the same thing, or are there important distinctions? All these question make me wonder about the basic nature of human beings in the first place, and our purpose for existence — if there is a purpose?


Related Articles: The Cure for Narcissism and the Key to Joyful Living!
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The Secret of Life is Everyone's Possession: Principles of Emotional Healing

Dear Nathan:

With your last question, you pose an issue of vital importance. The answer to each of your question are interrelated: As you understand the answer to one, . . . you better understand the answer to the others!

What is selfishness?

Selfishness has a pejorative meaning in the minds of most people — especially Christians. Jesus taught that we should live to love and serve one another, hence, living a self-centered life is thought of in negative terms.


Here's how two dictionaries define the word Selfish:

* Focus upon one's own advantage to the exclusion of regard for others.
* Lacking consideration for  others; concerned with one's own personal profit or pleasure.

For most people the two words might be used interchangeably, but there IS a salient difference between Selfishness versus Narcissism. Consider this definition of Narcissism:

Excessive interest in one's self and one's physical appearance; extreme selfishness with a grandiose view of one's talents and attractiveness, having a consistent craving for admiration.

Selfishness is a word that applies to most human beings some of the time, whereas, Narcissism is a kind of consistent selfishness that is more pronounced. The word Narcissism derives from a mythological figure named "Narcissus," who was renowned for his beauty. Because Narcissus was cruel to a nymph named "Echo," who desired his affection and attention, Jupiter punishes Narcissus to fall in love with a reflection in a pool, not realizing it was his own. There, he perishes, not being able to leave the beauty of his own reflection.

In Junior High, we used to call such an extremely self-centered person: "Stuck on herself or himself!"

Contrary to what Hobbes asserted, Selfishness cannot be a universal condition. Hobbes went to great logical lengths to prove that, in all human acts, the underlying aim is always our serve one's own interest — even apparent act of altruism are really only an insurance-policy for one's egocentric goal of going to Heaven. In other words, according to Hobbes, we act virtuously only because there is a selfish payoff in the end.

Regardless of Definitions and Distinctions between Selfishness and Narcissism, it is MORE important that we learn to live in ways that bring joy, peace, and purpose. Thus, understanding conceptual differences means nothing, if we live a joyless, purposeless life of desperation and depression. This means overcoming narcissism should be a high priority in life.

In my book, Changing Your Stripes, I offer a unique explanation of Human "Nature" maintaining that there are really TWO basic natures in which human beings can primarily function:

Not One, . . . but Two Basic Natures. There is a philosophical debate about the basic nature of humanity. Built-in to the average question that generates this debate — “what is man’s basic nature?”— is an expectation that the answer lands upon one basic nature. But to assume and expect a single answer, is to begin wrong. An intelligent person can give good answers, but it takes a wise person to ask the best questions from the start. A better question to begin with is this: “What does it mean to be human?”

To be human is to live in a world where two fundamental natures are available, two possible natures to which people may yield: One of Light and another of darkness; one of Spirit and another of flesh. As we walk in Light and yield to the guiding voice of Spirit, it is natural for us to have empathy for humanity, it is natural to live altruistically. Conversely, when walking in darkness — yielding to the allure of the flesh — it is natural for people to be consumed with self-serving agendas, it is natural to live hedonistically.

Hedonism is often assumed to be humanity’s natural default position: to selfishly scratch the itch of furthering profit, pleasure, promotion, property, prestige, and power — basic motives that supposedly drive all decision making. Indeed, human history is replete with examples of hedonistic lust.

When seeing the world from this darkened perspective, the nature of Light and the possibilities of altruistic living are sometimes dismissed as real possibilities. From the hedonist view, all human action is motivated by a self-serving “pay off.”

Those who assume a hedonistic nature for all humanity argue thus: “People are inevitably motivated by self-serving payoffs, . . . human life operates upon the principle of exchange: Quid Pro Quo.” But this is to say that genuine Gift Giving is impossible and that so-called expressions of “love” are always “given” for what one is selfishly hoping to “get” in return. Such is not love . . . but manipulation. The highest expression of love is to impact others to their long-term betterment; a Love that altruistically considers the blessings and benefits of others; a Love that acts in the best interests of others. The life of Jesus is an example of pure altruism.

The hedonist nature is expressed in Freud’s notion of “ID”—Instinctual Drives. According to Freud, the ID instinctively drives a person to motives of pleasure, power, and reproduction. And Freud was right! Well, . . . half right, the other half is the real possibility of the "nature of Light." It is evident and obvious that the nature we began with from mortal birth is the nature of Light—the proof is in the purity of a newborn child. Because we all began with the nature of Light, some argue that this is the basic nature of humanity.

But, practically speaking, it doesn't matter which nature is more basic than the other, because both natures are available to our choosing and thus, both natures can become basic!

People can choose between these two natures, sometimes switching from one to the other. In other words, either nature can become the foundation from which we live life; further, both natures have a spiritual power to perpetuate and support it. Frankl forwarded principles termed “final freedom” and “inner liberty.” Final Freedom refers to humanity's most ability to choose between two basic natures; Inner Liberty represents the specific choice to embrace the nature of Light — and thus enjoy the liberty that come from the Light.

When we yield to the nature of darkness, we are naturally drawn to self-serving ways; being self-absorbed is instinctive when wallowing in betrayal. Thus we see more clearly why betrayers engage in self-justifying behavior—it’s natural. Conversely, when yielding to the nature of Light, it is natural to have genuine concern for others; it is natural to live with compassion; it is natural to live . . . to give. But only when you actually live in the world of Light and simplicity, can you “see” that living altruistically . . . is a real possibility.

Finally, let me briefly explanation the dividing line between "loving" someone by serving their wants and needs, and "enabling" someone in a negative pattern of narcissism:

The answer comes in understanding what it means to love! Love is to impact other to their long-term advantage; hence, we do not really "love" a person, when serving his or her immediate needs in the moment, leads to reinforcing a selfish pattern — enabling narcissism.

When the person you are serving fails to reciprocate similar service, this is an indication that you may be enabling narcissism. On the other hand, when the person that you serve does give back similar service to your needs and wants, then that person has a healthy sense of consideration for others — and is NOT stuck in the obsessive pattern of narcissism.

Ultimately, in the best relationships, you don't keep track of good-deed-doing one for another; instead, you simply pour out all your compassion and affection, and it will naturally return back to you, when you have a spiritually and emotionally healthy relationship.


Matt Moody, Ph.D.
Social Psychologist

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