What to Say When Someone Calls You “Selfish”

by | Mar 14, 2015

I want to control you, which is why I intimidate you by calling you “selfish.”

Target Businessman

Watch out when people call you “selfish.” They’re trying to paralyze you with guilt. When you’re paralyzed, you will tend to comply. The term “selfish” isn’t about morality at all; it’s about control.

When people call others selfish, they are really saying “you are doing something I don’t want you to do.” It’s not just six year olds that have a hidden agenda when they use the term. The adult response to being called selfish by a liberal do-gooder who wants the government to redistribute your income is to say “Too bad, I’ll decide what to do with my own money and time. If I’m going to donate it to charities, I’ll decide that and I’ll pick them myself. Go mind your own business.” [from Thomas Malone’s book, “In Defense of American Ideals”]

Psychologically, the use of the term “selfish” is always motivated by control.

Sometimes the control is for a good thing, as in: “Don’t be selfish. Be honest, tell the truth, don’t mislead people.” In such cases, the error in lying isn’t selfishness or self-interest. The issue is faking reality. By distorting the truth one sets one’s own mind at war with reality, and it creates unnecessary and unjustified risks in one’s relationships (personal or professional) with other people. Setting your mind against reality — trying to keep track of what lies you told, and what’s true — is hardly self-interested, not in any rational sense of the term.

While it’s true that some people do wrong things, and that the label “selfish” is sometimes used to identify those actions as wrong, don’t blame the wrongdoing of others on the presence of self-interest. Blame it on the lack of self-interest, if anything.

The person calling you selfish should own up to their motives. He or she should prove why your action is right or wrong. Instilling guilt is not a substitute for advancing a code of morality.

Instead of saying, “Don’t be selfish, you moral scoundrel,” the moralizing, preaching politician (or family member) should say, “Here’s my case for why you should do this. Let me persuade you, if I may.” And, in the end, the decision will be the other person’s.

Moralizing with terms like “selfish” is the psychological equivalent of using fists or weapons.

It all starts in childhood, for most people. Other children place a claim on a child’s toys because they’re uncivilized. That’s why we call them children; they’re immature, and they don’t know any better. Most of us tell children that they’re obliged to share, not just because some little friend is important to them, but because sharing is an end in itself — regardless of with whom you’re sharing, or whether the sharing even amounts to theft or destruction of property. This is wrong. And this is where it all starts.

When someone tells you, “Don’t be selfish,” they’re basically saying: “I don’t like what you’re doing and I won’t explain why. Instead, I’m hoping you’ll feel guilty due to my use of that term, and that you’ll change your actions because I’ve intimidated you into doing so.”

Of course, while this sometimes works in the short-term, it always backfires in the end. If you’re drinking too much, or spending too much time on the computer or with television sports, a loved one might say, “Stop being selfish.” Most will bow in humility and change one’s actions for a moment or maybe a day or a week; but then the habit recurs. Why? Because no explanation was ever given. Only honest persuasion works, in the end, and “guilting” is not a form of persuasion.

There’s a deeper and more lethal contradiction inherent in the use of the term “selfish.” In the act of telling you not to be selfish, I’m requesting or demanding that you do something for me. I’m demanding that you do something for my sake on the assumption that personal benefit is always wrong. This can only mean one thing: Personal benefit for me is a good thing; personal benefit for yourself is not. Let’s cut to the chase here: I want to control you, which is why I intimidate you by calling you “selfish.”

Even if I’m demanding that you give money to some charity, or help out this person I want you to help out — it’s still a demand I’m making on my own behalf. “Help this charitable cause because I want you to do so.” Or: “Keep less of your money, or less of your free time, because I judge your time better spent in some other endeavor.”

It’s contradictory on its face. Why? Because I’m telling you not to think of yourself in service of something that is important to me. In effect, I’m asking or demanding that you give up merely for the sake of giving up — for my sake. In the process, I will personally benefit. Or, if it involves charity for someone else, that person will benefit. The moment that person benefits from your selflessness, he or she is experiencing some kind of selfish benefit to him- or herself. In order to attain the moral “ideal” of self-sacrifice, someone else must become immoral.

What kind of morality is this? In order to practice selflessness, you must give to others — who, in the process, selfishly benefit the very extent to which you give. It’s contradictory. It’s insane!

Multiply this by millions, billions or trillions on the social level, and you’ll see what’s happening today. Islam, Catholicism, Christianity, and the leftist secular President (himself a moralist) constantly ram it down our throats: You are your brother’s and sister’s keepers. Shame on you for suggesting otherwise. That’s selfish.

They expect us to be self-responsible, to be all that we can be, and even to flourish from exhibiting those characteristics in daily life. And, when we get good results, we’re supposed to be selfless. In other words, to not even care about ourselves precisely because we exhibited the self-concern and pride to become effective and successful at life.

Why are we supposed to be selfless, and give all of our earnings away (as the leftist politicians insist), and never feel pride (which Catholics and others label deadly sins)? For the sake of others. We must give it all away — our money, and also our pride. Why? For the sake of others — others who will selfishly benefit from our acts of self-sacrifice.

In order to uphold the morality of selflessness, there have to be givers and takers. There’s no room in such a world for producers. There’s no room in such a world for justice, fairness, rationality or integrity. Particularly integrity, since attempting to live up to such an absurd and contradictory standard is impossible, and in order to make it seem like we’re doing so, we have to practice deceit or hypocrisy. (Religion is full of such hypocrisy; so are Hollywood and Washington DC.)

Toxic, contradictory and stupid ideas have a way of festering in your subconscious, and coming out as stress, anxiety, depression, or a whole host of other ills.

If you want to know what might be wrong with yourself, and what’s definitely wrong with all of society and most of human history to date, it’s this false belief that self is evil, and sacrifice is good.

The next time someone tells you you’re selfish, challenge them. Respond by saying, “But you’re demanding that I do what you want me to do. I see how that benefits you; but I don’t see how it benefits me. If doing something entirely for your sake is a good thing, then why is selfishness so bad?”

It will stop the conversation, for sure. But sometimes that’s a good thing. If only we did it with our elected leaders, you’d have a revolution underway, probably without ever firing a shot.

Dr. Michael Hurd is a psychotherapist, columnist and author of "Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference)" and "Grow Up America!" Visit his website at: www.DrHurd.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.


  1. you may blame some Christians, but don’t blame Christianity. It is a misapplication of Christianity to force sharing. It is always voluntary or it is theft. Thou Shalt not Steal.

  2. The relevant quote from the article is Christianity’s exhortation to be our brothers’ keepers. The corresponding Christian moral ideal is altruism, or self-sacrifice, i.e., selflessness. Politically and economically, the Catholic church in particular explicitly advocates for state-imposed redistributive policies–otherwise known as theft–as do the other religions mentioned in the article. Of course the blame accrues to Christianity itself. The idea that the near-universal regard for altruism as a moral ideal can be laid at the feet of a few scattered misunderstanders of Christianity is ridiculous. The fact that Christianity’s code includes a prohibition on stealing just makes its practioners raging hypocrites who pick and choose which edicts to follow, buffet-style.

  3. to say that Christianity exhorts us to be “our brothers keeper” is a false understanding of what Christianity teaches. That phrase was asked by Cain who had just murdered his brother. Cain was responsible for his brother’s death, because he murdered him. To take from that story that we are all responsible for each other’s well being is to stretch the meaning. It matters not what a particular church teaches or does not teach. The Bible is God’s Word not what a man in a white robe says. So to understand Christianity is to understand Christ and what He teaches, not anyone else.

  4. But that is the intended take-away from that parable: Cain’s answer to the question was negative, but the moral of the story is that he should have answered in the affirmative. In any case, it’s irrelevant to the main point that Christianity and every other major religion upholds altruism–the negation of self–as a moral ideal and does so wrongly. As for the rest of it, you’re arguing for subjectivism any way you slice it: It’s either, “My priest says that our imaginary friend told us this,” or “My imaginary friend personally told me this.”

  5. It’s Narcissism and in some cases Sociopathy.

    “You are lesser than I am and you had better do what I tell you or else!”

    If they want more, why are they not taking the risks and effort required to get it?

    Why are they not working things out with other people or choosing to just leave?

    Why should someone else have to suffer because they lack courage, persistence, and ambition?

    The only reason I can think of is they honestly believe they are exempt from doing anything honestly or taking on any risk.

    They feel entitled to another person’s life, property, and happiness. None of which they had a hand in creating.

    They may be able to package servitude as being good for their Prey, not helping them as destroying them, and often threaten, if not sometimes actually act, to destroy your work and impede your development as a human being. (It is especially cruel and evil when children are the target!)

    Such people are not innocent or do not know any better as they often claim. They know exactly what they are doing and the results they want.

    They are not victims, servants, or superior beings. They are people who want to be your Master, and view your attempts at escaping their Slavery as being “difficult”, worthless, inferior and countless other excuses.

    I trust a Selfish person who outlines what they expect, knows what they want, and sets boundaries far more than any of the people I described.

    People who claim they want nothing or that have a lot and claim it is evil to want more are power seeking thugs.

  6. Cain did not answer the question, he was being snarky in such an answer. God was holding Cain responsible for his brother, but He was doing so because Cain murdered his brother. God did not appear to a random person and ask them where some other random person was? Anyone, Christian or not, who thinks this story means Christianity teaches we are responsible for each other in the same sense that Cain was responsible for what happened to Able is missing the point. And no Christianity does not uphold altruism, it upholds charity. Voluntary charity. That this is a good thing is only not obvious to Randian cultists.

  7. And the resort to name-calling and invective begins in…let’s see. Two posts. Well, thanks for trying, anyway.

  8. uh, where did I call someone a name in my post? I didn’t. What are you talking about?

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