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It is normal, natural and a pure survival instinct to think of our own needs first. When one person calls someone else selfish it suggests to me that they do not understand emotional needs, nature and survival. Without such understanding there can be little compassion for another person.

When they call themselves selfish, it suggests they have been emotionally abused and they don't understand their own needs. Thus they are very likely to lack self-compassion. S. Hein


In our work with adolescents we have noticed that the word "selfish" is routinely used by emotionaly abusive parents as a way of manipulating and guilt-tripping their son or daughter. (Read more about this below). Here we want to call attention to this word and the way it is commonly used.

Teens and Emotionally Abusive Parents

When an emotionally abusive parent calls their teen "selfish" it is usually becaue the parent wants something from the teen which will help meet one of the parent's needs. In other words, if anyone could really be called selfish then, it would have to the parent more than the teen.

These guilt trips take their toll on the teens. The teens end up feeling guilty for things which they do not deserve to feel guilty about. One teen, accustomed to guilt trips from her parents, actually started feeling guilty and therefore more suicidal, because she was using up the world’s resources and not contributing anything. Another teen who wrote to us said something very similar.

In fact, nearly all of the depressed teens think of themselves as "selfish." In our experience though, as we see how they try to help others, they actually think of other people much more than the average person. They think of others so much -- putting others's needs before their own -- that it becomes literally unhealthy for them. One teen, not long before she tried to kill herself, told us "I am selfish and I can't be helped." Yet this teen was in reality one of the most self-less people you would ever meet. Here is something I wrote about her:

Jen is one of the most intelligent, caring, sensitive teens I have ever met. She is also one of the most self-destructive. The first time I chatted with Jen she told me she had been searching "desperately" for someone on the net to talk to. She had been keeping so much inside for so long that our first chat lasted four hours. She only left because she was afraid her mother would "kill her" if she caught her on the computer so late at night.

I can't do much to help Jen. She is convinced she is worthless and everything bad that happens is somehow her fault. She can forgive others, but not herself. She prosecutes herself harshly, but defends others. She tries to help people as much as anyone I know, yet is called selfish by her mother and so now she believes this and calls herself selfish when she thinks about or talks about her own needs and feelings.

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The Connection Between Needy, Selfish and Responsibility


It is more helpful to talk about a person being needy than to call them selfish. If we say "selfish" we tend to think of it as a "character flaw", as if the person was born bad. But if we say "needy" then we might start to ask ourselves why the person is needy, what they need exactly, and why their needs were not met.

If a teenager is needy, why? Is a teenager supposed to fill their own needs? What about a 12 year old? Or a ten or a two year old?

How is nature supposed to work, when it is working as close to perfectly as is naturally possible?

Someone once said that babies are born with perfect DNA. This is an interesting concept. Most of the time it seems to be true. So what happens then to make a person think so much about their own needs that they don't think about others and we are tempted to call them selfish? In my experience, we are most likely to use this label, by the way when that person is helping us fill some needs that we have, or perhaps they are refusing to allow themselves to be used by us.

When depressed teens feel bad about something they did, in other words when they feel guilty or responsible, they tend to think of themselves as a bad person. This often contributes to their desire to kill themselves. If they feel bad enough about themselves, they will feel weak, powerless and won't feel able to repair damage they have caused or make any kind of restitution for pain they have caused. They will also feel undeserving of forgiveness. These feelings are connected to thoughts which go something like this: "I am a bad person. I will do everyone a favor and kill myself."

In other words, suicidal people don't believe they are capable of fixing things, of making restitution. They have been taught that they are powerless, and that they are hurtful people. Typically they are taught they are selfish, uncaring, not kind etc. The parents in particular are the ones who are teaching this to them since the parents feel hurt, frustrated, out of control, etc. when the child or teen doesn't do what the parent needs them to do for the fulfilment of the parents' needs.

When a parent calls a child or teen "selfish" two things are happening. One is that the parent wants to hurt the child or teen simply because the parents feel hurt by something. Dysfunctional, soul-killing parents don't say "We are in pain because of our own unmet needs and our wishes that you would have filled our needs and our unrealistic expectations". (See also disappointment).

Basically one of the two things that happens is that the parents feel pain, they feel hurt, so a natural instinct is to hurt the thing which hurts you to try to stop it from hurting or killing you. But the other thing parents are doing is more subtle. They do something animals in the jungle or forest don't do. If one animal attacks another and the second one escapes, the first might feel frustrated and hungry. But it is unlikely to call the prey "selfish." If it did, it would be like saying "Hey come back here and let me eat you. You should feel bad about running away from me." We wouldn't expect an animal to go back and be eaten, so why do we expect humans to?

So what parents do is psychologically try to get their prey to let them be eaten psychologically. This reminds me of the term "emotional vampire".

Writing from My Journal on Oct 14, 2006

I am wondering...is it selfish for me to turn off my cell phone when I need sleep? Is it selfish for me to tell a suicidal teen I need to go to sleep?

Is it selfish for me to have any of my own needs? What about going to the bathroom? Is that selfish of me? What about eating? Is that selfish?

One Teen's Writing on Suicide and the Label of "Selfish"

Many people say that it is selfish to kill yourself. But this is what teen Cara, from New Zealand writes:

When someone tries or succeeds to kill themself they are NOT being selfish. They are cracking under the weight of all the emotional needs that were unmet. And they have always cried out for help in some way. Those around them can't expect a suicidal teen to be thinking of their parents when those parents failed to fulfill those needs.

Feb 21, 2008

Today I was writing about Sveta in Bulgaria. I remembered how she called me selfish. I started wondering "How is someone feeling when they call someone else selfish?" I have gotten to know Sveta quite well so I will try to explain how I think she was feeling when she called me selfish. The first word that comes to mind is "defensive." I say defensive because Sveta is very sensitive and also very insecure. She doesn't want to think that she is the cause of anyone else's pain. She feels overly responsible for someone else's feelings because this is the way she was raised. Her mother, in particular, used Sveta, much in the same way that my mother used me, to try to fill her unmet emotional needs. Our mothers did this by trying to make us feel responsible for their feelings.

The second word is hurt. The third is unimportant. The fourth is uncared about. The fifth is not understood.

I'll just talk about the last one now. I have seen several times that she has a big need to feel understood. It is very difficult for her to listen to someone else talk because she has such a big need to talk. She wants people to understand how bad life is in Bulgaria, how much corrpution there is, how much her parents have suffered, how much she has suffered, how important her family is to her, why English is so important to her, etc. Sveta doesn't feel understood by enough people. In particular she doesn't feel understood by her parents.

She would like me to help her fill her unmet need to feel understood, loved, cared about. When I don't, she calls me selfish.

When and Why Do We Call Others Selfish?

This is from a blog entry questioning our use of the word selfish. The author makes the point that when we call someone selfish we usually have our own personal motives for doing so.

Can you recall when you called someone selfish? Perhaps the experience can be recollected like yesterday as you play back the scenario in your mind. Chances are you spoke from a point of rejection, meaning you didn't get your way.

I'm almost certain that there is a part of our society who tries to heap shame on people by calling them selfish. It is used as a weapon to inflict emotional pain or to show your disagreement with someone. Again I ask what is the real purpose in calling someone selfish? Are we seeking to change or modify their behavior in order to benefit us or someone else?

From: qatch1.blogspot.com/2010/11/why-do-we-call-people-selfish-what-is.html


See also selfish, suicide

Editorial about Selfish, Suicide, Rape  
Add your Stories

Please write to us and add your stories about when you have been called selfish, or when you have seen the word used to manipulate someone.