Which Came First: Selflessness or Narcissism?

An opinion piece by Sathi Roy about the toxicity that comes with the idea of ‘selflessness’ being a noble trait, how it promotes narcissism in others, and how we should shift our perspective and encourage others to be considerate, not selfless.

The term ‘selfless’ often carries with it highly positive connotations; someone who is selfless is seen as noble, caring, and giving.  Selflessness is a term that is celebrated, revered and treated as something we should all strive to be.


But should it be?


I don’t think being selfless is noble at all. In fact, I think it’s a toxic quality society pushes upon people to perpetuate narcissism in others. (In my opinion, Narcissism is a real epidemic.)


Let me explain.


Selflessness is defined as being ‘concerned more with the needs and wishes of others than with one's own.’ Therefore, an individual who is selfless regularly prioritizes others over themselves. Their own needs, wants, desires are relegated to the bottom of the list or dismissed entirely.


Does that sound noble?


Selflessness can be harmful because harm is being done to the individual who is continually performing selfless acts, putting the needs of others over their own. But this harm can be easily dismissed as the selfless person basks in the praise they receive from others. The more praise one receives, the more they feel they are doing what they are supposed to do. It’ll become a relentless cycle and before you know it, you don’t even know what you want anymore because you’re so used to self-sacrificing for others.


When it comes to selflessness, people always seem to pay attention to the positive being done to others, versus the negative being done to the ‘selfless’ giver. 

Selflessness creates and perpetuates narcissism in others.


How can it be healthy or in any way honorable for someone’s feelings to not matter? This type of thinking or behavior only leads to eventual misery and the loss of someone’s self-worth and sense of identity. 


Imbalance Is Never Good

When we think of the word selfless, we always think of giving. But what about taking? The imbalance of caring is where the problem lies.


By continuing to discuss selflessness in a positive way and placing selfless people on a pedestal — as something to emulate — we are actually setting the groundwork for others to be harmed.


This gets even worse when we consider that selflessness is a trait most often attributed to women.  Research from the University of Zurich revealed that male and female brains may react differently to what is called 'prosocial' (aka selfless) versus selfish behavior.


Let’s Consider ‘Considerate’

I propose that we all strive to be considerate instead of selfless going forward.


Being considerate means that we are respectful and mindful of others. It means we are acknowledging their views and experiences but we are not putting their needs over our own.


Being considerate instead of selfless calls out the elephant in the room: That the giver matters too.


Drawing Out Narcissistic Behaviors  

Another major problem with selfless behavior is that it can bring out narcissistic tendencies in others. A narcissist is defined as someone who has “an excessive interest in or admiration of themselves”.  It therefore makes sense that if someone is ‘selfless’, a narcissist will see an opportunity to take advantage of the person or situation.


Remember, everyone is capable of showcasing narcissistic behavior. I’m not only referring to those who are diagnosed with the larger personality disorder specifically.


Happy and Strong People Are Not Selfless

Rather, they consider the needs of others in their decisions. They are respectful and mindful of others, but they also think of themselves.

It is time for us to replace the term ‘selfless’ with more positive and non-destructive terms such as considerate. ‘Selfless’ essentially means the destruction of one’s self, which will never be good.