Selfishness has a negative connotation in our culture; but it’s not selfishness, it’s a lack of empathy that hurts others. While I am no Ayn Rand acolyte, I do agree with her argument in “The Virtue of Selfishness.” Taking care of oneself is not only reasonable; it is necessary – necessary for survival. But our culture has placed a judgment on taking care of oneself – as if taking care of yourself, precludes caring or doing anything for others. Why would that be the case? That type of assumption usually falls into the category of faulty, black and white thinking.
The rejoinder to this is that the actual dictionary definition of selfishness is “taking care of oneself to the exclusion of others”. But that again, is disingenuous and leads to dualistic reasoning. Why are these two actions Rand refers to them as a “package deal” - joined together as if one leads to the other or one is the consequence of the other? It is probably more accurate to say that one cannot take care of others unless they take care of themselves first. Furthermore, the definition arises from historical religious beliefs that a moral life is a life led in sacrifice to others and to God – Altruism vs. Egoism. I see these two “isms” as separate, subjective concepts that we do not have to choose between.
Why do I feel that this distinction is so important? Because I am constantly reminded how “selfishness” is used by abusers to further victimize their victims – especially Narcissistic abusers. If the traditional definition of selfishness were to be relevant for anyone, it would be Narcissists. Narcissists not only focus on themselves to the exclusion of all others, but more importantly, they can’t feel for others. They lack empathy. And it’s a lack of empathy that allows people to hurt others – not selfishness.
Yet the Narcissist complains that others are selfish because they don’t focus on and treat him/her properly. The Narcissist needs to constantly be fed emotionally. His/her sense of self is so bloviated and at the same time so fragile, that unending tending to their egos is almost the equivalent of oxygen. For Narcissists, their children, wives, husbands, even friends are simply an extension of themselves. And children in particular, because they have no power of their own, pay a terrible price if they fail to reflect what the Narcissist needs.
Working as extensively with adult survivors of childhood abuse as I do, I understand that these people have been brainwashed into believing that they are bad when they try and take care of themselves. To be the recipient of long term abuse, the abuser must convince their subjects that up is down and black is white. Standing up for ones self, recognizing that what is happening is wrong, telling others is to be prevented at all cost. So these young people are brainwashed – and in a perverse way, the brainwashing helps them keep their sanity – for the time being. Because if a child were to actually understand the danger they were in and the craziness of the world and the people around them, their little hearts would burst. Children need a safe environment to flourish. If they don’t automatically have that they have to mentally create an environment that at least doesn’t emotionally kill them. The mind protects itself, best as it can.
Do I think that all abusers are Narcissists? No. But I do think that Narcissistic traits are very often present – primarily low self-esteem and a lack of empathy towards others. If an abuser had the ability to really put themselves in another’s shoes, especially their own child’s, they couldn’t possibly continue to behave the way that they do while never holding themselves accountable for their actions. Taking responsibility is what the abuser cannot do; falsely taking responsibility is what keeps the victim down.
Psychotherapy is about taking responsibility for your own part in every situation and a readiness to change yourself. The work I do with abuse survivors is to help them understand their lack of responsibility in what happened to them. Because it is their own shame, no longer the abuser, that is holding them captive as adults. And it is selfishness that will help them navigate a more fulfilling future.