Selfish vs Selfless: 5 relations of the opposites

H has a dream – to go on a bike trip for three months alone.

“That’s nice. Go for it. I’ll support you,” I said.

“But then we won’t be able to meet, as I have limited holidays,” said H.

“Hmm… But if that’s what you want to do, you should do it. Or I think you’d do it sooner or later anyway,” I said.

“That’s nice of you. It’s selfless,” H said.

“Is it? I don’t know if it’s selfless or not because I am also doing what I want. I didn’t just leave everything behind just to be with you. So… shouldn’t it be the same for you? You should do what you wanna do with your life.” I said.


I don’t need you to act in a certain way

When I am in good condition, I don’t need H to act in a certain way. I can support him to do what he wants. Back him up.

It appears to be selfless, respecting and protecting your partner’s freedom in the relationship.

But sometimes I wonder, “really? Am I like that?” or maybe I just don’t care enough to put efforts in this relationship? I don’t really care what he does with his life because I don’t care if our relationship would last?

Sometimes I can’t be sure with the borderline of “selfless” and “selfish.” I don’t know if I am really “selfless,” or just extremely “selfish.”

Then I started to ponder on the “relations” of the opposites, using “selfish” and “selfless” as an example.


5 relations of the opposites

1. Black and white

When we first think of opposites, we think of “black and white,” “either-or.” One person is either “selfish” or “selfless.” One act is either “selfish” or “selfless.” And — if you’re not selfless, you’re selfish.

2. Circles that intersect

But in the previous example, “not needing your partner to act in a certain way” appear to be both “selfish” and “selfless.”

Selfish – because you’re also only focusing on yourself. What you want to do with your life. Instead of a shared one.

Selfless – because you’re supporting your partner doing what he wants.

In this way, “selfish” and “selfless” are like circles that interact. Certain behaviors could be categorized in both of them at the same time.


3. A subtle line

Or they are not circles that intersect, but a subtle line that you need to balance with caution.

When I interfere with my partner too much or too less, it all becomes a certain degree of “selfish,” and “only thinking about oneself.” And there’s a “just-right” level of interference that I can show that I care, but not end up in over-controlling or alienation.

When I show interests and opinions on his plans, he doesn’t feel pressured. When I don’t say anything, he doesn’t feel abandoned. — Then I know we’re balanced.

It’s a subtle line, that – a little bit more is too much, a little bit less is too less. And it’s dynamic, always updating and re-balancing between people.

4. Left and right foot

Sometimes, “selfish” and “selfless” are like the left foot and the right foot – when the left one takes one step, the right one also needs to follow up and make one. After that, the left one can take one more.

“Selfish” and “selfless” have to take turns and not to be too far away from each other.

For example, taking care of yourself and others.

Sometimes you have to be “selfish” – to put yourself on the top priority, taking good care of yourself so that you could have the energy needed to take care of your loved ones.

When we are taking care of ourselves, it’s more likely to give and expect nothing in return.

If we are not “selfish” enough, ignoring our own needs, we might end up in emotional blackmail – we think that we have sacrificed so much that the others should just be “more considerate and listen to my advice.”

Without notice, we started to expect certain returns and rewards when we give.


5. To the extreme, one meets the other

If “selfish” means “doing only for oneself,” and “selfless” means “doing for many.”

Then, if you’re “selfless” to the extreme, can it also be a kind of “selfish”? For example, if one decides to be a religious practitioner, contributing his life to the world. It would be described as an extreme selfless.

But he might be “selfish” to his close friends and families because he only does what he wants to do. Could we thus say that his extreme “selfless” contains certain degrees of “selfish”?

A person that is “selfish” to the extreme could also develop top-notch technologies out of pure curiosity and passions. He didn’t start to build anything because he wanted to contribute, but only for and to himself. He was just curious.

But then, these technologies could end up being very useful and in the end, serving humanity. Thus, the “selfish” act became “selfless.”

5 relations of the opposites, in one graphic

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