If you have a relationship with a selfish person, practicing healthy communication and setting boundaries can help you protect your own well-being.
Do you have a selfish person in your life? People who exhibit selfishness tend to have a pattern of acting in their own self-interests with no regard for who they may hurt along the way.
It can be exhausting and painful to have a relationship with a selfish person who doesn’t seem to care about you or your needs.
Many different factors may lead people to behave in selfish ways. If you’re impacted by someone’s selfish behavior, there are certain ways you can approach the relationship to protect yourself.
Selfishness can be defined as the trait that leads people to frequently act in their own interests without any regard for how their actions could impact others.
In the American Psychological Association (APA) dictionary, the definition of “selfishness” is listed as:
the tendency to act excessively or solely in a manner that benefits oneself, even if others are disadvantaged.
Some signs of a selfish person include:
- having no regard for how their behavior impacts others
- consistently acting in their own self-interests instead of meeting the needs of others
- having no empathy for the suffering of other people
- showing no remorse when they’ve hurt other people
- using manipulation tactics to get what they want
- always asking for favors but never repaying them
- being unkind, or their kindness comes with a price
- using others to get what they want
- not giving back to others
- feeling entitled to always getting what they want, even if it means that others will be pushed down
Self-centered vs. selfish
Self-centeredness is similar to selfishness, but the two concepts might differ slightly in important ways.
People who are selfish often knowingly behave in ways that hurt other people so that they, themselves, can benefit.
Self-centered people are overly focused on themselves; the Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines “self-centered” as preoccupied with oneself and one’s affairs.
Someone who is self-centered could be too absorbed in thoughts about themselves to even give a second thought to how their behaviors impact others. But self-centered people could be able to feel more remorse when they realize that they’ve hurt someone else.
Both selfish and self-centered people can be difficult to deal with for those around them.
If you have a selfish person in your life, you might feel overwhelmed or frustrated about not knowing how to communicate with them. It could feel like no matter what you say or do, this person continues to hurt you (either intentionally or unintentionally) to act in their own interests.
If you have a selfish person in your life, it’s likely that they’ve hurt you at some point — whether they realize it or not. Here are some tips you can use to deal with the selfish people you have in your life.
1. Don’t take it personally
Understand that selfish people behave in their own self-interest, regardless of how you behave. Their selfishness isn’t your fault. Try not to take their behavior personally or blame yourself.
2. Set clear boundaries
Setting, and sticking to, personal boundaries may help you be less affected by the selfish person’s behavior.
For example, you might have a selfish person in your life who manipulates you into loaning them money, but have no intention of paying it back even when you need it.
In this scenario, you might consider drawing a boundary that you will no longer support this person financially.
Setting boundaries can sometimes be more drastic — like leaving the relationship.
Only you know what’s right for your life. But many people find that they need to make the difficult decision to cut selfish people out of their lives for the sake of their own well-being.
3. Practice acceptance
Understand that, especially if they live with a mental health condition, there may not be anything you can do to change this person’s behavior.
The only person whose behavior you can control is yourself. It’s up to you to decide whether or not you want to confront the person about their selfish behavior.
But you might find that a confrontation doesn’t change the person’s behavior as you’d hoped. It’s difficult to practice acceptance in situations like this, but it may be necessary.
4. Get educated
Especially if the person behaves selfishly because of a mental health condition, it may be helpful to learn more about their condition.
Being educated on the root causes behind selfish behavior can help you to have empathy for the person as well as a deeper understanding that their behavior is not your fault.
Assertive communication is a skill that may take time to develop. Practicing assertive communication allows you to set clear boundaries and state how you feel to an individual.
When you’re able to communicate in a way that allows you to advocate for yourself this may help effectively communicate with a selfish person.
All of us behave in selfish or self-centered ways sometimes. And behaving in “selfish” ways could even be a form of self-care, as long as it doesn’t become a tendency to continuously act in these ways.
For example, you might decide not to go to a friend’s birthday party because you’re feeling sick. In this instance, you’re putting your own health needs first, even though it could hurt your friend.
But most people wouldn’t call you a generally selfish person for doing so.
Experts say that most humans fall somewhere on a spectrum between pathological selfishness and extreme altruism. You could act in your own interests sometimes, but also show pro-social or altruistic behaviors at other times.
But some people are on the more extreme end of this spectrum. Research shows that people could end up on the selfish end of the spectrum due to a few different factors.
Research has found that the culture you grow up in also plays a role in selfishness.
According to a large 2021 study, there’s a positive correlation between national culture and people who believe that selfishness is a source of inequality.
Research suggests people who believe rich people are richer due to selfishness are more likely to consider inequality as unfair and agree government should aim to reduce inequality in their country.
The study also indicates that people in countries with extensive corruption and weak political institutions are more likely to carry the same beliefs about those who are rich.
Beyond the national culture that you grew up in, family culture can also influence selfish behaviors.
Genetics and neurobiology
Some philosophers have theorized that all humans are inherently selfish due to our desire to preserve our genetic lineage.
For example, people are
Certain gene variations could also contribute to prosocial vs. selfish behavior. The 2018 research mentioned above suggests that people with genetic variants of OXTR and AVPR1a genes are more likely to exhibit altruistic and compassionate behavior. But we need more research to be able to say for sure.
That same research also suggests that differences in people’s brains could also contribute to the likelihood that someone acts in a selfish way (as opposed to altruistically).
Parts of the brain that seem to be involved include the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex.
Personality disorders are a category of mental health conditions that impact someone’s long-term functioning (rather than symptoms coming on in episodes, like major depressive disorder).
Personality disorders impact the person’s entire worldview, including how they perceive and relate to both others and themselves.
Antisocial personality disorder, also called psychopathy, is one personality disorder that could cause people to be selfish.
People with antisocial personality disorder have a diminished capacity for empathy. Since they don’t feel remorse for hurting other people, they could be more likely to hurt or violate others. For example, serial killers usually have antisocial personality disorder.
Other personality disorders could also contribute to self-centeredness and selfishness, albeit to a lesser degree. For example, people with narcissistic personality disorder often behave in ways that are self-centered and feel more important than others.
People with histrionic personality disorder have a need to call attention to themselves and exaggerate their emotional responses.
People can behave selfishly for different reasons, including but not limited to, having a personality disorder that affects their patterns of behavior.
If you’re affected by a selfish person in your life, then it’s important to remember that it isn’t your fault.
Setting strong personal boundaries can help you maintain a healthy relationship with this person while protecting your own well-being.