That’s Men: Healthy side effects of a selfish streak


A man who had given up the drink years previously told me it was the most selfish thing he had ever done. “And that’s the only reason it worked,” he added.

He had tried giving up drinking because of the effects on his family. That worked for a while but not for long. He had also tried giving up because he knew his drinking was holding him back at work. That worked until Friday night. Then he tried giving up for the sake of his health. He got about two days out of that.

Finally, he got sick of drinking and wanted the life he could have without it. Although the next couple of attempts failed, he tried again quickly and succeeded.

The lesson, he said, was that if you plan to give up something, you need to find a selfish reason if you are to succeed. By the way, he reckoned that giving up for the sake of his health was really an attempt to placate the health police, as he thought of them at that time, and not for himself at all.

Listening to him, I recalled my own attempts to give up smoking, which lasted for about 20 years (both the smoking and the attempts).

Wanting to please
I tried many times to give up because the great and the good told me how bad smoking was for my health and I wanted to please them. Never worked. It was only when I saw my small daughter coughing when I was smoking in the room that I quit.

The idea of my child coughing on the smoke I was generating was so distressing that I needed to get rid of the source of that distress, in other words, my tobacco addiction.

You could argue that this was a selfless act but it was not: it was an attempt by me to spare myself the distress of harming my child. In other words, my attempts to give up smoking worked only when I did it for selfish reasons.

Selfishness has had a bad press for reasons I don’t need to go into. But it has its uses too. It may be, indeed, the only dynamic that can get people through the unpleasant business of giving up and staying off something to which they are addicted.

By the way, I define a selfish act as one in which you put yourself first whether or not it means incurring the disapproval of other people.

I am not a “greed is good” guy but I believe selfishness has its uses. Many people are exploited by their children, their parents and their partners. They selflessly allow these people to take and take from them without ever standing up for themselves.

They are expected to be selfless and in the process they become unpaid domestic servants. A dash of selfishness would even up the score no end.

I wrote recently about givers and takers. Imagine you are involved in an arrangement or relationship with a taker and that you are a giver by nature. The taker has hit the jackpot.

Selfish streak
With your aversion to selfishness, you will allow yourself to be taken to the cleaners again and again. Givers in this situation would be well advised to develop a selfish streak to free them from exploitation.

Selfishness that infringes the legitimate interests of other people is probably a bad idea. And completely uncurbed selfishness, say in a child, produces a monster.

That said, though, it seems to me that selfishness deserves to be led out of the shadows and given its proper place in healthy functioning.

But isn’t selflessness the more moral choice, you may well ask? Maybe not. Sometimes selflessness is self hate; sometimes it is smouldering anger: so selflessness is not always a pretty sight either. Maybe selfishness is the more honest dynamic of the two and perhaps it might make our lives better to acknowledge this and accept it and to try to move forward with some degree of honesty.

Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email.

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