Wise Selfishness: a Systems Perspective

By March 26, 2023May 13th, 2023Define self

Can one be selfishly wise?

Dr. Kerr has a phrase that is familiar to those in the Bowen community: “How does one be for self without being selfish and be for others without being selfless? ”

Most of us do not see selfishness as good behaviour. On the contrary, for a social species, it can threaten the group’s cohesion. Cooperative behaviour was required for groups of humans to survive, so being selfish could threaten the entire group.

We can misunderstand the concept of being more differentiated as being more selfish in the negative sense of the word selfish. However, we can also understand differentiation and selfISHness as being for self without being against or impinging on others.

ChatGPT defines selfishness as:

“Selfishness is the act of putting one’s interests, needs, and desires above those of others, without regard for their feelings or well-being. It often involves a lack of consideration or empathy for others and a focus on personal gain or achievement at the expense of others. Selfish behaviour can manifest in various ways, including hoarding resources, refusing to share or cooperate, manipulating others for personal gain, and disregarding the needs and feelings of others. Ultimately, selfishness can lead to conflicts and damage relationships with others.”

Notice that selfishness is based on emotion and relationships. Therefore, it is part of our relationship processes. The above definition also describes a lot of impinging on others as a quality of selfishness.

Wise selfishness is about balance.

I like to test ideas by going from one extreme to another along a continuum. For example, at one end of the continuum, I would do everything for others and nothing for myself. If this included eating, I would not be eating or eating poorly because I would be trying to feed everyone else. I would soon be so weak that I couldn’t help anyone. I would now be a burden on others. So let’s say I eat just enough to keep going, but otherwise, I ignore my needs. Eventually, I’ll wear out from tiredness or get sick, again becoming a burden on others. On the other end of the continuum, I would be completely selfish, putting my needs before others, sharing nothing, and always asking for or demanding things from others. Hmm… I wonder how long I would last in that group. So somewhere along this continuum, there is an appropriate balance of being for others and being for self.

When selfishness is out of balance.

How do things get out of balance and become unwise? From a family systems perspective, there are several influences to consider. These would include the number and intensity of stressors in one’s life, one’s and others’ level of differentiation, the situation’s significance, and the relationship’s significance. These things combine, and one can then believe they have to make a hard choice – be for others and go along or face potential conflict, rejection, and disapproval for being selfish. The other individual(s) could be acting in a more selfish manner, which pressures you to give up “self ” and comply with their requests or demands. The brain can work overtime to resolve the internal conflict of “I don’t want to go along” versus “I don’t want the consequences of not going along.” This is the fundamental dilemma – what I want versus what others want. The tendency to go along is high for a person who wants to avoid conflict, tension, or disapproval, especially in significant relationships. This is how things get out of balance. One person(s) is not fully mature and pressures others to follow their wishes. But the person who goes along is also acting less mature by complying and going along. This is where the concept of defining self comes in.

Defining self is wise selfishness.

Differentiation is too big of a topic to discuss in this post fully. But one way to think about defining self is being able to share what one will do and not do in a situation. It’s not about what is right or wrong or fair because these are too subjective. Each person has to decide how their responsible, mature self wants to be in any situation. They can ask themself, what would my non-anxious, confident, responsible self do? There are several key elements in defining the self. First, it is about self and not about others. In one sense, it is about what I will or won’t do from a mature perspective. For example, if my partner wants to go out for dinner, I could say I’m willing as long as I can get vegetarian. Otherwise, I’m not interested. This isn’t impinging on my partner – they have a choice where we go or even if we go. When defining self, I am making a personal choice based on my convictions and principles. I am not saying I’m right or better. I’m certainly not saying that the other(s) are wrong or less than me. My choice isn’t about fairness. It is simply my choice, period. In addition, I will bear the consequences of my choice. In this example, we might go to a steak house with limited vegetarian options. If I decide to go, I’ve made my choice of my own free will.

Choosing to be selfless.

Defining self is about making a choice based on my principles and convictions. It’s not about going along based on anxiety or some perceived threat. My principles can include being helpful to my family members or my community. I could make a choice to “go along” with helping a family member because it aligns with my principles. Thus, even though I’d rather not, I’m choosing to go along with a request. The key is that it was my choice based on my principles. It was NOT driven by anxiety and fear of what others would think or say. A good test can be whether I regret my decision. Or if I have any expectation that others will return the favour. No regret means no strings attached. After all, I freely chose to go along based on my principles.

Wise selfishness requires serious thinking about how one wants to show up in the world. It requires conviction about one’s beliefs and principles in order to overcome the perceived threats of conflict or rejection. It places no expectations on others. And it requires calm humbleness that arises from knowing one isn’t right or wrong; they are just defining self for themselves and willing to bear the consequences.

It’s difficult. But at least we get lots of opportunities to practice. And it is worth the effort.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Dave Galloway


To learn more about Bowen Theory, click here.

To watch an interview on balancing care for self and others, click here