When Kristy left Scott, she told him the main reason for their split was his selfishness, which she called narcissistic abuse. Gayle watched all her close friendships disappear and she now admits her egocentric nature ruined those connections. It may be too late for these relationships, but learning to eliminate selfishness is vital to maintaining close connections with others.

A selfishness inventory

Few of us want to think of ourselves as selfish, yet many of us are. Often, we’re unaware of how our behavior affects those around us. An inventory of our attitudes and actions can uncover this self-centeredness. Here are some questions to ask yourself. Do I:

  • Care about myself and my needs more than the needs of others?
  • Show little concern about how my actions affect those around me?
  • Make minimal effort to maintain relationships, expecting others to make most of the effort?
  • Look for others to be there to help or listen, but give excuses when the roles are reversed?
  • Talk about myself or my feelings, but take little interest or give little empathy when others share?
  • Make sure I’m the center of attention?
  • Resist compromising or giving in when others want something different?
  • Lie or cheat to get what I want?
  • Make promises but then fail to follow through on them?
  • Manipulate or control others by making them feel guilty, ashamed, or afraid so decisions go my way?
  • Obsess with material objects or status symbols, valuing things over people?
  • Feel jealous when others appear to have more money, status, or success in life?
  • Spend lavishly on myself but am cheap (or complain) when treating others?

If you honestly answered yes to a few of these questions, you may have some selfish tendencies that are hurting your relationships. The good news is selfishness does not need to be a permanent character flaw. We can learn to be less selfish and more other-focused.

The difference between selfishness and narcissistic abuse

Narcissistic abuse is, by definition, abuse perpetrated by someone who is a narcissist. More specifically it is harm caused by being in a relationship with someone who has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). People with NPD have low empathy and see others as beneath them, which is toxic in a relationship.

The term “narcissist” has become a common and highly over-used catchphrase describing anyone deemed to be selfish. However, the label is often incorrectly applied as studies quantify the percent of people who have NPD between 0.5% and 6%. Narcissistic abuse, therefore, is rare.

Just because you’ve been called a narcissist or accused of narcissistic abuse doesn’t make either a fact. True narcissists, my counselor friends tell me, are nearly impossible to treat because they don’t think anything is wrong with themselves. They may be incapable of caring about others.

I hear many people labeling others (partners, bosses, parents, etc.) as narcissists simply because they think that person should care more about them. So, if you, like Scott, have been accused of being a narcissist or of narcissistic abuse and you’re worried it might be true—relax. It’s a good bet that you’re reading this post and wondering if you are a narcissist, you’re not or you wouldn’t worry about it.

I’ll focus the rest of this post on selfishness—something we’re all guilty of from time to time. While this is an unhelpful behavior pattern, it’s also changeable. Gayle could be compassionate to her friends and family–but too often she was looking inward.

How selfishness affects our partner and relationship

A certain amount of focus on ourselves is normal and even desirable. After all, each person is responsible for himself or herself. However, getting the balance right between caring for ourselves and being concerned with others is key. Too much selfish behavior is harmful to both the selfish person and those around them.

Selfishly, we should all be motivated to put aside our selfishness because it destroys relationships. When our partners are pushed to act out of guilt or fear, it’s no longer a mutually respectful relationship. They’re likely to check out of the relationship, distance themselves, or become resentful.

Everyone has an innate desire to be valued, especially by those they allow into their inner circle. When we treat that person as less valuable with our selfishness, their essential requirement goes unmet. The other party may feel like they’re being taken advantage of, unappreciated, and not receiving adequate attention to their own needs.

The root of selfishness

Selfishness is often a bad habit that helped a person survive past hardships. Looking out for #1 may have been necessary for a child who grew up neglected by caretakers. Carried into adulthood and our intimate relationships, however, is unnecessary and does not serve us well.

One of the subconscious beliefs that can drive selfishness is uncertainty about being taken care of. If we’re thinking, “I’m not okay” or “How will my needs be met?” then we’re likely to over-focus on taking care of ourselves. Our hidden anxiety drives self-seeking behavior to the exclusion of seeing and responding to others’ needs.

Becoming unselfish

Understanding the root of selfishness helps us identify the cure. Recognizing our anxiety and the beliefs behind it allows us to challenge those thoughts and replace them with other, more constructive and accurate ones. Our fears are usually not based on reality.

Rick Warren wrote in The Purpose Driven Life, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” Being confident that we’re okay and that our needs will be met without being possessive frees us to be more generous. There’s no need to focus on or guard our time, attention, and resources—we’ll be fine.

Sometimes people worry about swinging the other way and becoming doormats if they relax their self-focus. One principle I found helpful to maintain a healthy balance is to think of others as equal to myself. This means they are not less deserving, but they are also not more deserving than me—we’re on the same level.

Role models can serve us well in our change quest. You likely know people who are humble, giving, and caring of others. Watch what they do in different situations and copy their actions. Or, ask them how they think about the balance between taking care of themselves and paying attention to others.

My wife Lynn is one of those examples for me. Often, she’ll defer to others to set the activity agenda, choose the restaurant, or have their wishes met. She’s able to do this without becoming resentful because she finds joy in seeing other people happy.

Faith note

Paul, in Philippians 2:4, wrote these God-inspired words: “Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.” Why does God give us this guidance? He knows it will change our relationships and transform other people.

Think about times when you treat cranky, unlikable people with kindness instead of the way they deserve. Surprisingly, they often become more agreeable.

Your initiative to put others’ interest first comes back to you by being surrounded by nicer, more likable people. And, your generous act of kindness refocuses the grumpy person away from whatever was weighing them down onto something more positive. It’s a win-win.