Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

When I was a child and didn’t want to share playthings with my cousins, my aunt would call me selfish. She could also call me an egoist if I didn’t want to help my cousin with her homework. And she was quick at explaining to me what a lousy person an egoist is and what long-lasting negative consequences will this type of behaviour have on my future life. 

Later at school and the university, my classmates would call me an egoist when I refused to help them cheat homework. I have been called selfish if I choose to treat myself to a spa weekend instead of helping my ex-parents-in-law with gardening. I have had some employers who were genuinely surprised about my belief that I should receive an additional remuneration when working over the weekend. They expected me to act selflessly for the benefit of the company.

The world around us seems to have a list of expectations. Parents expect kids to take care of them when they grow old. They back up these expectations with the gratitude for the care the kids have received in the childhood. Our partners expect us to adjust some of our wishes and character treats to fit into a relationship. Society has developed certain expectations, and an entrepreneur who is mostly interested in profits is considered selfish and avoiding social responsibility. 

I still think that there is nothing egoistical in my unwillingness to share my playthings or help my cousin with her homework. I have learned that we use egoism and selfishness as synonyms. We often refer to a person as selfish or egoistic when this person does not want to share something with us – be it information, tools, food, money or love. People would often suggest to an egoist to re-think his values, learn to be more humble, accept that giving is preferential to taking.

For years I have been trying to understand the negative connotation of egoism. Why is it so wrong to take care of yourself? Why is it bad that I am more valuable to myself than other people I don’t know? Why is it unacceptable not to share my playthings with other kids? Why am I expected to be grateful to my parents for taking care of me when they did it because they wanted a baby at a certain point? Why sacrificing own plans, dreams and ideas in the name of love is considered to be a good thing? 

I learned that there are a lot of misunderstandings and confusions around the idea of being selfish or being egoistic. There are different types of egoism, according to Wikipedia. Some people think egoists are revenge-seeking and aggressive, Psychology Today argues that selfishness can be good, neutral and bad. 

I have developed my understanding of the idea that my mum calls “healthy egoism”. You can loosely interpret this as self-love. I know my worth. I don’t give advice or offer help if not explicitly asked for it. I take time for myself, caring both about the body and mind. I don’t compromise on things essential for me – my time, my health, my principles. I plan my life goals and avoid actions that do no help me achieve them. I don’t accept offers that are below what I know I am entitled to (working on this). I allow myself to be correctly selfish, and I learn not to feel bad about it.

What I have also learned recently is that sometimes I am a false egoist. I make decisions that seem to benefit me. However, they don’t. They might even harm me in the long run.

Ever skipped the workout in favour of more extended reading break or hanging around with friends? Planned to build healthy eating habits and ended up with that delicious cheeseburger or mac and cheese? Guilty of hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock again and again? Or are you procrastinating some project you should be taking care already?

Our mind is playing tricks on us. Princeton University study shows that impulsive choices or preferences for short-term rewards result from the emotion-related parts of the brain winning out over the abstract-reasoning parts. Our emotions push us to choose the instant gratification over long-term benefits. And this is what I call the false egoism. If we were adequately selfish, we would choose what is best for us at all times. 

According to Tony Robbins, delayed gratification is a learned behaviour. He also suggests making your goals emotional. It is not enough if you tie a specific positive emotion (pleasure) to the goal itself. You should also link some strong negative emotion (pain) with the situation when you have not reached this goal.