How Can I Be Less Selfish?

Once a week, I take the time to recount the good things in my life.

Every day, I meditate and focus on my own breathing.

I do these things in an effort to be happier. However, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the advice of my Poppy: If you’re unhappy, stop thinking so much about yourself and focus on someone else.

It’s not a bad idea, and I’ve since heard it repeated in various forms by multiple gurus. Taking care of our fellow man is a much happier pursuit than obsessing over ourselves. And yet I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s something I have struggled with of late. Actually, I’m concerned that this isn’t just a short-term issue.

It seems my most sincere self is more than a little selfish.

When I write, I write almost exclusively about myself – my experiences, my perspective, my gratitude and fears. But it is this writing that other people seem to connect the most to, probably because it is what feels most authentic and genuine. I always feel fraudulent when I try to focus on what you need or what you should do.

At all times, one of my eyes is looking out and another is turned inward – a permanent symbol of my tendency to focus on myself.

Not surprisingly, this is often a complaint that’s lobbed against me. When someone is angry at me or wants to hurt me, it’s my self absorption that’s mentioned. I hate that – mostly because I worry that I don’t know how to be less selfish.

I’m having trouble finding ways to be less selfish.

Yes, really. Those aren’t easy words to write, but I do so in hopes that someone out there will understand and have compassionate words of wisdom.

I know I do some things that aren’t selfish. I make an effort to focus on other people’s perspective. I try to put aside my own agenda and listen when someone else is speaking to me. In those ways, I’ve gotten a lot better at looking out rather than in. But still, I’m keenly aware of how that benefits me and I know that isn’t enough.

But, I don’t have an excess of money to share at the moment. I give what I can, when I can, but right now we’re saving up for a move and trying to be vigilant about what we spend. Still, I know we do have more than many and perhaps I could a place where a small donation can make a big difference?

My time, too, is eaten up with working and planning and trying to visit friends and family before we move. All of these activities are for me and mine, and they leave little leftover for volunteering. To be honest, there aren’t even a lot of opportunities for volunteering in the tiny town in which we’re currently living.

To be more honest, I haven’t looked very hard.

I worry that seeking out opportunities to help will only build up my ego. I worry that it will still be about how helping affects me. I worry, too, that in my eagerness to appease my own guilt, I will take something precious from someone else: the power they have to help themselves.

What if my helping does more harm than good?

Ironically, selfish as I may be, my natural tendency is also to fix. I have worked really hard to let go of that need, to learn to trust people to take care of themselves. I don’t want to now, in my desperation to be a “better” person, start barging into people’s lives and offering my help where it’s not wanted.

I could, of course, just wait to be asked – but I’m already doing that. I rarely turn down a request for help, but that doesn’t seem to be enough.

I guess what I’m saying is there’s still something missing.

I want to give back, but I’m not sure how.

Do I keep waiting? Do I go looking? Is the fact that I don’t know proof that I’m inherently flawed? (Actually, I don’t believe that last one is true anymore. None of us are inherently flawed.)

But I’m still not sure what I can do to look more out than in this week.


How do you keep your perspective focused more outward than inward?

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  1. daniel says:

    This is where my faith comes in, as I am able to channel my selflessness through those charities, both monetarily and in deed.

    At times, however, you are unable to give. This does not mean you are taking. Instead, you need to focus on the things you need to take care of in order to be able to reach beyond yourself when you are able to. There should be no shame in not being able to “give back” or whatever for periods of time.
    daniel’s most recent post: July 4, 2012

  2. Megan says:

    Good lord, child, you think WAY too much. :)

    If you want to think more outward, start on a small scale. Let the person with 10 items and a squirmy kid go ahead of you at the grocery store, slow down and let someone merge into traffic ahead of you, move a neighbor’s trash can up the driveway after the garbage has been picked up. Pick up a piece of litter off of the ground. Offer to help an older person take their groceries to the car. Send a card to someone just because.

    It doesn’t have to be a big investment or a grand gesture. Those will present themselves when the time is right. Focus on what you can do right now, this minute, to make someone’s day better in some small way. It can make a huge difference.
    Megan’s most recent post: About Meme

    • Momma says:

      What Megan said!!! I’m trying to become less me-centred by doing these little everyday things too. Then it becomes a part of us, causing us to become, bit by bit, a little less selfish.
      And, especially what Poppy said, by trying not to spill the beans about a good deed done.

  3. This is something I think about too. I know it’s simple, but one of the ways I work on my selfishness is to not tell people the things I do. If I donate to someone, give something to someone, etc., I don’t tell anyone else. Sometimes, when I think about doing something that will helps someone, I think about the ways I’ll get “credit” for that action. If that thought pops in to my head, I make sure I still do the act, but stay quiet about it. Doing for others can be about making you feel good, but it’s sometimes a challenge to keep it about the person who needs the help.
    Sherry Carr-Smith’s most recent post: Going Greener With Garnier

  4. Nanna says:

    Babe, I think it’s a process. Babies are, by necessity, self centered because they HAVE to be. They are learning. It’s like that now. You’re re-learning. You’re redefining. When you get comfortable and some mastery, you will naturally start to focus outward. That’s your nature.

  5. I make sure I give of mu heart, ear and shoulder. I give my time to listen to others. It’s all a balance. No one is perfect at it. We all slip to once side or the other
    Corey Feldman’s most recent post: July 6th today is still a 3 – Miss you mom

  6. fiwa says:

    “I always feel fraudulent when I try to focus on what you need or what you should do.”

    That’s because if you wrote that way, you would be telling me what to do, you would be trying to fix me/us. The key is in writing about yourself, your experiences, with honesty. Let me come read that and take away from it what I want and need. If you tell me what I need to do, I don’t learn and grow from it – I have to figure it out for myself to grow.

    You are a compassionate, passionate person. But like Megan said, take it slow. You aren’t really in a place right now where it would be feasible to help others on a grand scale, so start small as she suggested. Right now you are in a place of transition, once you get yourself and your family settled in your new home, then you can look around for something bigger in which to get involved. But really even then, you don’t have to. Small acts of kindness are just as meaningful to the person who receives them.

    And start with yourself. You are a wonderful person, tell yourself that.

  7. Lisa says:

    I snorted out loud when I read Megan’s comment because I was thinking the same thing. And she has awesome suggestions for small ways to give so I’m not going to expand on that.

    What I want you to do, right here and now, is to stop being so damn hard on yourself. The fact is that you *are* responsible for your own happiness, and that is kind of an inherently selfish thing. It has to be. That doesn’t make it wrong. There should be no guilt involved with making a happier life for yourself unless you’re intentionally hurting others to do it, and I know you’re not. If giving in whatever way you can makes you happy, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s when giving is a chore, obligation or source of resentment that I think there’s something wrong.

    Also? Being self-aware is not the same thing as being selfish.
    Lisa’s most recent post: That’s Not How I Want My Story to End

  8. Poppy says:

    I’ve come to the conclusion, through my own struggle with this topic, that the best way for me to not feel selfish about my selfless acts is to just perform whatever selfless act I want to perform, then not tell anyone about it.

    Telling anyone about it always turns it selfish for me.

    And I would love to give you examples of things I do selflessly, but that will magically turn them all selfish.
    Poppy’s most recent post: Happy birthday, Babe!

    • elisacanada says:

      I will add that you think too much honey and you want to force happiness. Let is go.
      If you want to think I’ll give you something to think about lol : when will you know that you are happy ?. What does that mean for you being happy ?
      Praise yourself. You are awesome, you have an awesome familly . You are awesome, cleaver, bright, beautifull and most important HEALTHY ! never underestimate this one .
      Big kisses to you .

    • Faiqa says:

      I love this comment, Poppy. Reminds me of a saying my peeps on the other side of the world have, “If you give with your right hand, do it so that even your left hand does not know.”
      Faiqa’s most recent post: On Going Home. But Not Being ‘At Home’

      • Poppy says:

        I am glad to know that your peeps half way across the world get me. I’m going to hold onto that phrase, I like it very much.
        Poppy’s most recent post: Happy birthday, Babe!

      • Momma says:

        Exactly! That’s written in the New Testament also. Do not let your left hand know what your right is doing. They then have received their reward. Timeless, borderless saying.

  9. Kerri Cushna says:

    A few people have commented and said what I’m going to say, but I feel it needs repeating :)

    My husband calls it “one small thing”: doing one small thing every day to help someone else in some way. Whether it be letting someone go ahead of you in line, giving someone directions or something else.

    We, as a rule, keep extra snacks in the car just in case we come across someone in need/homeless. We visit nursing homes and provide music and just general company. My husband is part of many ministries in our church, including visiting the sick, where he brings communion to members of our church. I’m not listing these things to say, oh look what we’ve done to help people.

    I think it’s less about doing big things to volunteer, although those things are great because there are a lot of things that people need (food, clothing, shelter, etc), and it’s more about doing little things. Someone said in another comment about doing something small everyday and incorporate it into your everyday life. Then you’re also teaching your children to do the same. Sometimes the little things mean more than the big ones because you could be touching someone’s life that you didn’t expect to.
    Kerri Cushna’s most recent post: Because this actually happened…

  10. Kathy says:

    Me too, “what Megan said.” And, along her line of thought, a long time ago, I decided that Fridays would be my “make a miracle happen for somebody else day” and I would deliberately look for one “thing” that I could do from a servant’s heart place of giving. Some of these giving to others were planned and some were spontaneous (ie: what Megan said). “It doesn’t have to be a big investment or a grand gesture,” Megan.
    Kathy’s most recent post: Every Day Ordinary Things.

  11. Allyson says:

    I was away on vacation, so I’m late getting to comment on this entry. I’m sorry. However, I feel it necessary to point out that you are one of the least selfish people I know. I understand what you (and some others) are saying about feeling like if it makes you feel good to help others then helping them is selfish… but it’s not true. This blog you write? It helps you to track your happiness, work through your short-comings, and to focus you. Putting it on the internet instead of just your hard drive – helpful – even if the feedback turns and helps you some more.

    You gave away your car, dude. Gave it away. And it was a nice car, you could have sold it and had more money for your adventures. But you gave it away to a family that had no car.

    And you know all those people you talked to during your adventures? The sand castle people, and the scientist-turned-artist, and the conservatives you visited and found common ground with? Letting them tell their story, really listening to and gleaning wisdom from them, and sharing their story with us, your readers, you may have thought you were just taking from them. Just taking their time, their stories, their lessons – but you gave to them, too. You gave them an audience, you gave them praise, you gave them your time, you made their voices, and stories heard in ways that they hadn’t previously been.

    Please don’t lose sight of what an incredibly wonderful person you are. You do more selfless things than even you are aware of, I think. And while seeking praise for good deeds may cheapen them a bit, sharing your story about how your heart swelled knowing that you had made someone else’s life easier, more enjoyable, less lonesome, etc – that doesn’t cheapen it. It spreads the warmth.

  12. Stacie says:

    I feel like this post completely took the words out of my mouth….when u figure out ways to be less selfish can u please pass it on to me?

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