Being Selfish vs Being Selfless, How to Find the Balance

A lot of people believe it is essential to care for their family and close friends. However, these same people seem to balk when the thought of self-care is presented to them.

So, how does one find a balance between being selfish and being selfless?

Here are some experts’ insights:

Dr. Carla Marie Manly

Carla Marie Manly

Clinical Psychologist | Author, “Joy from Fear”

Being selfless, which many people consider to be the “ideal” isn’t truly possible

We all must have some degree of selfishness in order to survive every day. Were it not for our ability to be selfish to some degree, we would give away all of our food, clothing, money, and other resources.

This would leave the truly selfless person with nothing at all—including life itself. Thus, it’s not that being selfish to a certain degree is a problem—in fact, it’s clearly necessary in order to survive.

Being “humanly selfless” (which is as close to selflessness as we can safely become) is often easy for those who are giving and nurturing in spirit. However, a “humanly selfless” person may be taken for granted or used by others—particularly those who are selfish. For those who are egocentric and miserly, being humanly selfless may feel like an impossibility.

True selfishness, which is at the opposite end of the spectrum of selflessness, is increasingly common in our externally oriented world. Whether a person is truly narcissistic or has strong narcissistic tendencies, a deeply selfish individual is generally lacking in the ability to consider the needs and feelings of others.

A truly selfish person puts his or her agenda and desires above the needs of others. Thus, a person who is deeply selfish will often have unsatisfactory or toxic intimate relationships.

Although a selfish individual may be able to sustain very superficial relationships—especially those that serve a personal agenda—more substantial relationships are often beyond their interest or capacity.

Related: Why Are People Selfish?

Finding a healthy balance between these two worlds can be difficult for those who are accustomed to being idealistically selfless or incredibly selfish. Although there is no “right” or “wrong” degree of selflessness or selfishness, it’s generally healthiest to care for the self as much as one cares for others.

These self-check questions can help an individual determine if they have found a solid balance:

  1. Do I have healthy boundaries that allow me to consider the needs of others without violating my own principles and needs?
  2. Do I factor in the needs and desires of others when making decisions that affect those in my life?
  3. Am I willing to have open, compromise-oriented conversations with others when disagreements arise?
  4. Do I give to others in a balanced way—saying yes to commitments that feel right and declining those that are not right for me?
  5. Do I take care of myself so that I am not chronically depleted from giving to and doing for others?
  6. Am I conscious of the needs of my community and engaged in supporting others as best I can, whether financially, physically, or emotionally?
  7. Do I prioritize others and live in a way that lets my loved ones know that they are important to me?

If your answers to the above indicate that you are out of balance, it’s important to take conscious steps to either increase your boundaries and self-care or to decrease your focus on your own needs while increasing your awareness of the needs of others.

Kama Hagar

Kama Hagar

Certified Holistic Wellness Coach

Even though “self-care” is one of the top buzzwords of the past few years, it seems we’re still working around the old-school stigma around it. As important as we know ‘filling our own cup’ is for our wellbeing and even the wellbeing of others, self-care can still feel, well, selfish.

Selfless and selfish are complete opposite things, yet so many of us seem to have a hard time finding the balance between the two. It’s either me, me, me or everyone else, so how can we find the middle ground?

First thing’s first: your self-care needs to be a non-negotiable. Self-care can be selfless in and of itself if it is done consciously.

Here’s how to do it:

Be conscious of time

Every once in a while you may need an entire weekend, but more often than not, self-care only requires a few sacred minutes per day.

It could be a 5-minute daily meditation, a bi-monthly pedicure, or a weekly lunch with a bestie, but it doesn’t need to be everything all the time. If your schedule doesn’t condone a full hour-long Ayurvedic ritual in the morning between the kids, your food prep, and your work, that’s okay.

Don’t try so hard or put so much pressure on yourself. Little blips of self-care are wonderful. Just have your own back and find what fits and feels good.

Be conscious of relationships

It’s not easy to define how much self-care is too much self-care as lifestyles are situations are completely unique to the individual. However, one surefire way to tell your self-care is becoming selfish is by monitoring your relationships and noticing if they’re slipping through the cracks.

Are you finding less time for friends and family because of your wellness regimen? Are you missing anyone special in your life? Do you seem to choose you over everyone else every single time?

If you reflect on your approach to self-care and find any of these things feel true and unsettled, there may be room to balance out your priorities.

In a personal experience after my meditation teacher training, I had been taught by my teacher to meditate for thirty minutes every morning and for thirty minutes every evening.

Like a star student, I dedicated myself to this practice just as he encouraged for about seven months. In the beginning, I felt balanced and centered, halfway through, I felt deeply disconnected from my significant other.

Meditation came first to a hurtful degree. I stuck it out for a few more months until I realized a modification needed to be made. My practice was not only becoming excessive and no longer serving me, but it was verging on selfish.

I still meditate every single day, but with a discipline that holds much more fluidity. I choose my love-life because it fills my cup too.

In an overt situation, maybe you’ve even been called out for having selfish tendencies. Take blows like this with a grain of salt, but don’t blatantly ignore them. If your loved ones are calling you out, take some time to reflect and observe your habits and indulgences to see if they’re necessary to fill you up. Notice if they give more than they take.

If you find your self-care is more important than the people who are being neglected, then hey, that’s your discretion. Simply be mindful of what and why you’re prioritizing what you do.

Be conscious of money

Spend responsibly. Self-care is a necessity, but it doesn’t need to be decadent. If self-care becomes indulgent beyond your means, it can become selfishly irresponsible.

Don’t fall into the trends and traps of what self-care is supposed to look like – just find what feels good. You’ll be surprised to find that a lot of self-care comes for free: spending time in nature, laughter, a big glass of water, a good night’s sleep, and some deep, conscious breaths. Let the rest be exactly what they are: luxuries.

Be conscious of what you’re supporting

Self-care can truly only be selfless if the products and habits are selfless. What is a selfless product? One that is cruelty-free, toxin-free, and as eco-friendly as possible. It goes beyond your body and your self-care.

Nothing happens in a vacuum. The water run-off, the packaging waste, and the ethicalness of the production of the product itself are all factors in whatever you’re indulging in. Not to mention, the company you choose to support.

It’s an awesome bonus if your local spa or favorite bath salt company donates to charity, but that’s not the point. What kind of product are they putting out and how are they doing it? We are part of a collective and choosing to ignore that is selfish. Choose selfless.

Related: How to Be Less Selfish?

Karen R. Koenig, MEd, LCSW

Karen R. Koenig

Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Being selfish is all about our needs. Everything that happens is about how it will affect us. Other people’s needs aren’t even on our radar. Alternately, being selfless means we don’t think about our own welfare or, if we do, figure it doesn’t count. Rather, we put other people’s needs first and above ours.

Our best bet for thriving on this planet begins with an “and” not an “or” and it is both taking care of ourselves and others.

Each behavior functions on a continuum from very well to very poorly. Optimally, we would each take care of ourselves and others well.

Understand that traits such as selfless and selfish are value neutral and apply only to situations

It’s important to examine if we were raised to value one trait over the other and understand that traits such as selfless and selfish are value-neutral and apply only to situations, that is, we can’t pick one and be that way all the time. Sometimes we need to put ourselves first and sometimes we need to put our needs aside and take care of others.

Once we understand our historical influences (parental, school, religion, culture) in one direction or the other, it’s helpful to take close look at what we value and what makes us feel taken care of. What are the basic needs we won’t sacrifice? Next is looking at what we wish to give others: friends, family, our community. What do they require of us?

Finding balance is not a permanent condition. We need to be flexible with the care-taking of others and ourselves. Sometimes we need more attention and sometimes others do. That’s fine.

Being healthy means being able to make necessary adjustments to accommodate whatever is happening.

A healthy balance involves honest self-reflection, good communication with others, setting and maintaining boundaries, and saying yes and no appropriately and effectively.

Dr. Brooke Smith

Brooke Smith

Body and Mind Confidence Expert

When balancing being selfish vs being selfless, it helps to think about the motivation

One trap that women fall into is being selfless all the time because we’re seeking validation or appreciation from someone else.

In other words, we’re being selfless in order to try to elicit a certain response from another person or avoid an undesirable response from another person. Over time, this sort of people-pleasing often leads to resentment.

Another sneaky motivation is an obligation – we’ll tell ourselves we have to do something, so we do it to avoid feeling guilty, and we usually end up resenting the other person and ourselves.

When you stop trying to people-please and let go of the idea of obligations, then everything is optional and you’re free to do whatever selfless deeds you want to simply because you want to.

Similarly, when thinking about being selfish, it helps to question “Is this selfing thing really what I want? Or do I just want to exercise my right to do it?”

Selfishness exercised just for the point of being selfish is not nearly as delightful as something you actually want to do – selfish or otherwise.

Dr. Mark Sherwood

Mark Sherwood

Naturopathic Doctor | Founder, Functional Medical Institute | Author, Fork Your Diet

Dig the well deeper in care of self so that you can give more to love others

In addressing the concept of self-care in regard to being selfish versus selfless, allow me to come at it from a slightly different angle. Taking care of oneself is the supreme responsibility in regard to stewardship of the greatest gift of all, that being life.

Doing what needs to be done spiritually, emotionally, and physically in the way of self-care is never selfish. Placing priorities on allotting time daily for self-care in fact is the greatest gift one can give both the self and then two others.

It is extremely selfish to live in a way that would promote the possibility that loved ones would have to care for you because of the silly choices you made in regard to lifestyle.

Failing to make self-care a non-negotiable concept is failing to give full and abundant love to others. The analogy is like a well. Dig the well deeper in care of self so that you can give more to love others.

Living the wellness life together!

Kelly Cueto

Kelly Cueto

Yoga Teacher | Stress Educator, Wellness Technologies

Many of us have an innate desire to help others, especially the ones we love the most. That’s great, and oftentimes, doing so helps us feel happy, energized, and fulfilled. However, when we continually disregard our own needs to help serve others, we are often left feeling overwhelmed, drained, and depleted.

Why does this happen? Helping the people around us may be important to us, but when we help others too much, we start to ignore the other things in our life that we value. Doing this often leads to burnout – and not only does this burnout make it harder to help others, it makes it harder to do almost everything.

Be clear on the things that bring joy to your life

How do you find the right balance? First, it’s important to get crystal clear on the things that bring you joy in life. What things are truly important to you? Some ideas that you might want to add to your list: pets, alone time, work, getting enough sleep each night, travel, time with your family, etcetera.

Create boundaries based on your values

Once you have a clear list of your values, you can then use that list to create boundaries (which will help you fit all of these things into your life).

Setting boundaries to uphold your values may look like: saying “no” to helping your friend move next Saturday so you can fit in some alone time to recharge, or declining an invitation to a social gathering during the pandemic because your health is one of your highest values.

It’s important to know that boundaries are uncomfortable to set (especially at first), but they get easier with time. And, the more comfortable you get with setting boundaries, the happier you’ll be. They are a good thing, and they will help you find the balance between selfish and selfless.

Holly Dowling


Global Keynote Speaker | Founder, The Extraordinary Leader Program

One of the biggest hypocrisies (and it is such an oxymoron) is that the greatest gift we can give ourselves and the world is to be a little selfish. When we are a little selfish we can be far more selfless.

Be clear on your boundaries

What this means is that instead of giving the world a half-assed, half-version of ourselves which we are notorious for because we want to take care of everyone else, there is nothing left of us.

When we figure out where we can bring our best to the world – meaning our gifts and our strengths – then we can get really good at being selfless.

In work/life boundaries, when you are being very clear on what we can bring to the world, we then know what to say no to and what to say yes to.

When we have those boundaries and non-negotiables set we are able to leverage our best where it is needed without feeling guilty. There is power in the “no” because we know we are not giving the world anything when it is not our best.

Pablo Solomon

Pablo Solomon

Award-winning Designer

“It is better to put your own house in order before overdoing your generosity”

In life, you learn that you must look out for yourself and for your own interests.
You also learn that one of the great joys of life is helping others in need and having others help you in your time of need.

Putting yourself first is not bad. However, taking more than you need at the expense of others or hurting others is bad.

To have respect, you must both give respect and be worthy of respect. But you must also respect yourself and demand respect from others.

While it is important to consider the circumstances, needs and feelings of others. It is important to weigh your needs, circumstances and feelings. You do not need to go broke, to be humiliated, to be injured, etc. to be helpful to those in need.

In general, it is better to put your own house in order before overdoing your generosity.

Sharing in a sensible way is good. Giving away what you actually need is not so smart. Nothing is gained by your becoming a beggar to feed a beggar.

Yes, God blesses giving. But I believe He also expects you to make wise gifts to those who want to help themselves. Throwing your money to ungrateful, lazy, drug addicted people with no intent of changing is stupid.

Susana Rinderle, MA, ACC

Susana Rinderle

Writer | Wisdom Coach | Wellness Warrior | Workplace Wizard

Being selfless is desperately overrated, especially for members of power non-dominant (marginalized) identity groups like women, people of color, LGBTQ, and youth. We’re taught to be selfless in service of the needs of other people, who essentially are more powerful and more important than ourselves.

Our culture and many religions celebrate this notion of ‘selflessness”, especially in love and family relationships, that can be toxic and oppressive.

Once some of us “wake up” to the realization that our selflessness has exhausted us, or has not resulted in reciprocity or appreciation, many of us swing the pendulum the other direction and start to focus exclusively on our own needs at the expense of others’.

Learning to create and live more balance in meeting one’s own needs while also serving others requires a few shifts in thinking.

  • Realizing and celebrating without shame that your needs are important and worthy.
  • Learning to give out of generosity instead of obligation, fear, codependence, or habit.
  • Taking on a “both-and” way of thinking — that in serving your own needs you also serve the collective you are a part of.

This is a path of recovery that supports healthier individuals, families, workplaces, and society which is more equitable, but which requires effort because it disrupts an existing power dynamic that relies on power non-dominant folks to do more than their share of the emotional and psychological work in all relationships.

Tia Evagelou

Tia Evagelou

Relationship Coach

I used to be a person that put everyone’s needs before my own. People-pleasing became a core conditioning of how I validated my worth and measure of being loved. It took me many years to understand how this behavior had me conducting myself from a place of lack instead of abundance in self-worth.

At the same time, I am a giver and get lit up helping others, so finding that balance of giving from a place of the cup runneth over vs neediness leads me to deeply explore my relationship to self and nurture my own inner wounds.

Invest in your personal evolution

Over the years, I explored prioritizing myself, and through the years of learning to develop a deep love affair with myself, I was able to get to know myself intimately enough to live more confident and embodied in my values.

When people are used to your one way of being that fueled dysfunction and then they suddenly experience you in a different way that is more honoring to self (and they are not used to it), you may be criticized and considered selfish – especially in your more intimate relationships like family and partners.

But the truth of that is, people aren’t good with change, so when the rules of relationship dynamics shift, the automatic response is typically to reject it.

What has given me the strength to sustain my shifts in establishing healthy boundaries, prioritizing myself, and harmonizing my time and energy between what I give and don’t give to others is my continued investment in my personal evolution. Is it selfish? Absolutely. But, in a way, I wish everyone could be selfish.

Because when we invest in improving the quality of our lives emotionally, spiritually, mentally, physically, and relationally we actually improve the quality of the lives around us.

Yocheved Golani

Yocheved Golani

Mental Health Editor, e-counseling

Selfishness sounds negative at first blush, but it has a pleasant meaning, and many of us use different words to describe it: Self-respect, self-care, and/or a sense of boundaries aka self-protection.

Selfishness doesn’t have to mean self-centered. Balancing a sense of selfishness with selflessness keeps our minds and hearts in order. The trick is to focus on being other-oriented aka selfless, too.

Letting someone else’s welfare be a priority, instead of your concerns, is sometimes sensible, especially if the other person’s actual or sense of health or safety are involved.

Moral people feel a sense of responsibility (selflessness) for the welfare of another. They live according to two major principles: 1) The realization that property ownership is sacred. 2) The acceptance that one’s mind and body are sacred.

Think about that when you read current headlines about “I’ll use any handy excuse” rioters and their hapless victims who hadn’t harmed their attackers in the first place.

There are ways to know that you’ve balanced being selfish and selfless. The energy that results in happiness, a sense of self and integrity, harmony and balance comes from being balanced.

If energy only fires us up to waste time, to dwell on negative cycles of thinking and behavior, it is misdirected and selfish. The energy that we draw from activates different parts of our consciousness. Our energy informs our mind and our body how to function.

People, places and time can bring out energy. We can learn to tap into that. We need energy sensitivity. Make conscious choices to align with positive energy. Surround yourself with upbeat selfless people, messages, and activities.

If you spend time with negative selfish people, upsetting selfishness messages, and selfish pursuits, you’ll probably end up sorry that you did. You’ll think and behave in increasingly selfish ways that bother or harm other people.

You might end up sick if you don’t balance your life sensibly. You might harm other people and some property with your selfishness, too. Psychoneuroimmunology is the science of emotions causing illness. Chronic stress can compromise the immune system. Dr. Bill Bankston studied anomalous healing techniques: opening consciousness heals disease.

Shift the consciousness to a higher state such as selflessness; the body will accelerate its healing process because the negativity is disappearing as positivity dominates your thinking and behavior.

Protect your wellbeing and that of other people by balancing your selfish and selfless thoughts and behaviors. It takes practice. You might make mistakes here and there, but you’re doing fine if you focus on re-balancing yourself.

Sheva Ganz


Divorce and Single Parent Coach, Are Creative Life

Selfishness and selflessness seem to be diametric opposites, but what they do have in common is the inability to create healthy boundaries and distinctions between your needs and wants and other’s needs and wants.

Selfishness can be defined as putting your wants above other’s needs, while selflessness is putting others’ wants before your needs.

Make the distinction between needs and wants

To truly find a healthy balance, it is important to make the distinction between what is a “need” and what is a “want”.

“Needs” are things that are necessary for our survival, and include physical needs as well as emotional needs. We are all wired with a need for self-esteem, belonging, and safety.

A “want”, on the other hand, is something that is desired, beyond a basic need and differs from person to person.

The balance between selfishness and selflessness is called “contribution” and requires the self-awareness to know what your needs are, the agency to meet them, and the desire to give to others while recognizing what it is they truly desire.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you be selfish and selfless at the same time?

It’s possible to be both selfish and selfless simultaneously, depending on the context and motivation behind a particular action. 

For instance, volunteering for a cause can be selfless because it involves helping others, but it can also have selfish aspects if it’s motivated by a desire for social recognition or personal satisfaction. 

In these cases, the blend of motivations can actually be a positive force, as the self-serving aspect can fuel one’s dedication to the selfless cause.

What are some signs that I might be too selfish in my life?

Difficulty empathizing: If you struggle to understand or relate to the feelings and needs of others, you may be overly focused on yourself.

Prioritizing personal gain: Consistently prioritizing your own interests, desires, and goals over those of others may indicate selfishness.

Frequent conflicts: If you’re constantly clashing with others due to your unwillingness to compromise or make sacrifices, this may be a sign of selfishness.

Lack of gratitude: An inability to appreciate the efforts and contributions of others could be a sign that you need to be more focused on yourself.

What are some signs that I might be too selfless in my life?

Neglecting self-care: Consistently prioritize others’ needs over your own, to the point that you neglect your physical and emotional well-being.

Difficulty saying no: If you find it challenging to set boundaries and say no to others, even when it’s necessary, you may be too selfless.

Feeling resentful: Regularly feeling unappreciated, taken advantage of, or resentful towards others because you’re always putting their needs first.

Overextending yourself: Frequently feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, or stressed because you’re trying to meet everyone’s expectations and demands.

What situations where being more selfish might be beneficial?

Prioritizing self-care: In today’s fast-paced world, it’s easy to get caught up in the needs of others and neglect your own well-being. Taking the time to focus on your mental, emotional, and physical health is essential for maintaining balance in your life. 

Setting boundaries: Establishing healthy boundaries is crucial for maintaining harmonious relationships with others. It might feel selfish to say “no” or express your needs, but clear communication and boundaries will ultimately lead to a more fulfilling and balanced life.

Pursuing personal goals: Pursue your dreams and aspirations to enhance personal happiness and contribute positively to others’ lives.

Making tough decisions: Life often presents us with difficult choices, and sometimes, the best decision for ourselves might not align with the desires of others. Prioritize your own needs and long-term interests when making difficult choices for the sake of self-respect.

Nurturing personal growth: It might feel selfish to allocate resources (time, energy, money) to your personal growth, but doing so will ultimately benefit not just you but also those around you.

What situations where being more selfless might be beneficial?

Strengthening relationships: Acts of selflessness can foster trust, understanding, and connection within personal and professional relationships.

Personal growth: Practicing selflessness can help you develop empathy, compassion, and a deeper understanding of others, enriching your own character and perspective.

Contributing to the greater good: Engaging in selfless acts can lead to positive change in your community, environment, and the world at large.

Boosting self-esteem: Helping others and making a difference in their lives can provide a sense of accomplishment and purpose, enhancing your self-esteem and happiness.

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