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Question: Where is the middle ground between “stop caring about what others think” & “stop being so selfish”?

photo by Leio McLaren

Answer: Both caring about what other people think and selfishness are parts of our biological makeup, as well as our upbringing. Some people are born with more empathy and social awareness, some with less. I believe that we also have an innate sense of balance between our needs and those of other people. However, unhealthy and manipulative parents can cause children to ignore, forget, and disbelieve that natural instinct.

Caring for others’ opinions—even when those opinions are quite misguided—was crucial for prospering within a human community for hundreds of thousands of years. People who cooperated with others not only ensured their own survival; it also helped the survival and well-being of their offspring. Sometimes it was a matter of life and death—through most of human history, a person who was ostracized from a community could easily die. Only a few centuries ago, just being slightly strange or stepping on the wrong person’s toe could result in being burned at the stake. That’s a pretty strong motivation for caring about what others think!

On the other hand, selfishness could also result in a person gaining an advantage over others, ensuring their own and their children’s survival and prosperity. That’s why, as a species, we never lost it, despite the pressure to cooperate. Obviously, selfishness worked best for those who were stronger and more aggressive than the rest.

But let’s focus on a practical answer: your body will usually send you signals if you are out of balance in either direction. However, it can also send you signals of fear and confusion if you were punished or manipulated as a child to deny your own needs in favor of others. Some parents can instill fear in their children by often expressing their own fear of what others think. Therefore, it’s very important to observe yourself in order to learn to distinguish between a healthy warning of lack of balance in your body and unhealthy emotions that are the result of childhood programming.

If you find this difficult early on, this question might be good guidance: Is what I’m doing bringing more trouble to others than it is important to me?

For example, if you are running to catch a plane, it’s not selfish to cause minor discomfort to other people by asking them to let you jump the queue. If you are exhausted or sick, it’s not selfish to take a seat in public transport, even if there are older people around, as long as none of them seem to be in worse condition than you.

On the other hand, if you play extra loud music in the middle of the night, you are causing significant discomfort and even possible health issues for many people, while making the music less loud or using headphones would not significantly diminish your enjoyment. If you block the sidewalk to chat with a friend, you are frustrating many people while it costs you nothing to move to the side.

There are also plenty of situations in which all people involved might have strong needs and desires, in which case finding an answer is not so straightforward. But as long as you are honestly looking for balance, you don’t have to worry that you are being selfish.

If you’re often troubled by what others think, remember that it may be the result of excessive social control over many generations. On the other hand, if others tell you that you’re selfish, it might be useful to sometimes put yourself in their shoes and see yourself from their perspective.

Read on:

Setting Boundaries

Observing Feelings

How To Teach Children To Use Their Intuition

All articles 

Online coaching 

More questions and answers

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.

Kosjenka Muk

I’m an Integrative Systemic Coaching trainer and special education teacher. I taught workshops and gave lectures in 10 countries, and helped hundreds of people in 20+ countries on 5 continents (on- and offline) find solutions for their emotional patterns. I wrote the book “Emotional Maturity In Everyday Life” and a related series of workbooks.

Some people ask me if I do bodywork such as massage too – sadly, the only type of massage I can do is rubbing salt into wounds.  😉

Just kidding. I’m actually very gentle. Most of the time.

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