I really like to get to the bottom of things. My favorite game growing up was “library.” My second favorite game was “make unhappy people happy,” except I didn’t exactly call it that at the time. As it turns out, I never got to the bottom of how to do that, though I did find that unhappy people seemed to need me more than others. And as it will, my fixation on other people’s darkness, made me blind to my own. It also made me a nice, albeit pathetic snack for selfish people.
I wish I could say I grew out of this or that I got smarter about it, but I didn’t. In fact, I grew up to be quite the meal.
Yes, everyone acts in selfish ways and has selfish moments, but some types of chronically unhappy, toxic people exhibit a PATTERN of behavior that communicates to others that their ego and needs are more important than your anyone else’s. Like being hangry or having to pee on a road trip with no exit in sight, selfish people have one track, immediate, pressing needs, all the time. Trying to make a selfish person happy is like chaperoning a bus of fourth-graders on a never-ending road trip with no snacks and no destination. No offense to fourth graders.
I have found that most advice that I have ever encountered on “how to deal with selfish people” kept me on a hamster wheel of patiently trying to understand people, explaining my feelings, believing that one day unconditional love will magically ignite, and becoming a full-time empathy tutor for people who never asked to learn.
I’m not a saint though, and all this didn’t make me a better person. What it made me was a doormat that was so dirty, it would roll itself up and away at any suggestion of getting clean. In fact, the more I invested in a certain kind of selfish person, the more I tied my self worth to providing the BEST fuel to meet their needs. Worse yet, I started believing that with the best fuel, the most attention, and the most love, I could unselfish a selfish person.
A pattern of habitual selfishness is a very specific and insidious red flag. Toxic, narcissistic, and emotionally unavailable people become that much more detrimental when you get caught up in the MOMENTUM of their never-ending needs, instead of doing work on your own.
When I didn’t feel nourished and loved, I tried harder. And there was always a way to try harder.
Selfish people trigger you into believing your old stories: if you’re better, more understanding, smarter, if you say it in the right way, if you give it enough time, things will be better.
I lived in a world in which MY RESPONSE to selfish people never made them happy for long and only made me feel used, confused, needy, and resentful.
And impossible, annoying, but true: THAT (come on, universe) WAS the plot twist. I found the only way to “deal with selfish people” is to learn how to deal with yourself around selfish people.
Here is a short list of what doesn’t work:
Reminding them the world doesn’t revolve around them.
Reminding them that you have needs in the relationship.
Explaining how their behavior affects you.
And the most heartbreaking one: showing empathy until the selfish person learns to love you.
Why? Because all this diplomatic advice fails to understand that selfishness is the mechanism that toxic people use to SURVIVE. Selfish people can behave in ghastly ways, make tone-deaf demands, and seek control, even during the most dire circumstances of others, because their image, their very existence, every day, feels like a matter of life or death.
A selfish person drives the best, most luxurious car that is somehow always dangerously low on gas. We’re talking way past E, turn off the AC to save fuel, frantically exit the highway, eyes peeled for the next gas station. A selfish person is on high alert, desperate, and no matter what their outward demeanor or how well they drive the car, on the verge of emergency.
In their minds, selfish people are either the image of the perfect person in the perfect car or the loser in a cloud of dust on the side of the road. There is no in between. Selfish people live in fear. Life is a game of limited resources & short term solutions to never-ending crises of confidence. Selfish people don’t have time for you and are not listening to you when you explain how their behavior affects you.
They are too busy trying to save themselves.
Sometimes they need your help, but when they don’t, they are the first and the fastest to drive away.
But why? And why do some people get to be this way while others get to be their emergency contact? What’s more — why do some selfish people make us want, at times even beg, to be the emergency contact/favor giver/booty call/forever friend/tireless co-worker/always-there-for-you hero?
Selfishness is a defense against intolerable feelings.
For some people, almost all feelings are intolerable feelings, especially feelings like insecurity, fear, shame, and disappointment. Selfish people have exacting standards and demands, even when they are not deserved because they believe that perfection is the absence of pain.
Instead of feeling through these feelings, selfish people manufacture the separate identity of a person who simply does not have to feel those feelings because that person is more deserving and made of different stardust than the rest. The maintenance of this identity, however, is beastly, all-consuming, and never-ending.
Yes, this sounds something like narcissism. I’m not saying that all selfish people are narcissists. Take it from someone who has spent too long diagnosing other people instead of focusing on their actions, what you call it, doesn’t matter.
What I’m referring to here are the ACTIONS a person takes to constantly address their discomfort with reality. They are constantly on SURVEILLANCE for things in their world which will shake their core belief that they never have to feel insecure, fearful, ashamed, or disappointed. When such things are detected, they have to be managed, and right away, regardless of who is run over in the process.
Selfish people are fundamentally uncomfortable in the world and only become more so in close personal relationships.
We’ve all felt how gut-wrenching intolerable feelings can be. For me, some of Natasha’s most influential posts have been about feeling your way through pain. The simple truth is that some people breathe through this as it comes, acutely aware of their own pain and flaws, and in doing so, become more empathetic to the pain of others. Selfish people develop defenses to this pain and demand that other people manage it.
So how is this fair? And how does this help you to not feel hurt, used, and resentful of the people in your life that take what you give, run away, come back whenever they feel like it, with even less, just to ask for more?
Yeah, I get it. It’s not fair, in the common-sense, golden rule, we’re all the same but a little different way that we were taught in school.
The golden rule doesn’t apply. None of the rules apply. People who are focused on avoiding their own feelings will definitely not prioritize yours.
Selfish people don’t become better people because times get tough. They don’t listen more attentively or with greater compassion because you’re opening up to them or telling them something personal, painful, or important. In fact, they may come off as even more unbelievable in your time of need.
We’ve all been selfish at some point. We know what it feels like to have a “selfish hangover.” A shame associated with something said, something done, or something neglected. This is normal. People who don’t have a habitual pattern of selfish behavior, are able to snap out of selfish spells when the situation calls for it.
People who are extremely poor at managing their own emotions often panic when forced to face the emotional needs of others. People who have a pattern of selfish behavior don’t “step up” or “snap” out of it even when it’s clear, to everyone else that now is not the time. Or because you have been kind, loyal, or giving. They don’t snap out of it because they were particularly selfish yesterday, so today they have to be better. Or because you would obviously snap out of it in this situation, in their shoes. They are bottom line, end of story, not capable of understanding, much less living by the golden rule.
Some of the most hurtful things have been said in the most critical moments because selfish people simply don’t have the capacity to empathize or respond. If they do respond, what they say or do will be a triggered, defensive response that will ring in the ears of normal, empathetic people for a long time.
Selfish people just can’t handle feeling awful.
You don’t have to buy it, and it certainly doesn’t excuse anything, or cover everyone, but studies have shown that some humans who are exposed to evidence of another human in pain have a significantly higher spike in heart rate than others. Those people were also less likely to respond to the pain of another person with an empathetic action. They were too busy managing their own physiological response.
Being selfish requires 24-hour surveillance.
I’m an attorney, and in a previous job, I represented disabled people, some of who lived with chronic pain. My job was to present evidence in court to show that my client, who felt consistent, debilitating pain could not do any job in the United States. Not one job. Not even the lowest paid, easiest job ever.
There were some days when this initially seemed like a pretty tough task. My client would walk in the courtroom, make eye contact, and look completely normal. But then I would ask them to describe a typical day.
How the pain they feel occurs sporadically, but with great frequency. How they wince waiting for it. How they have an inability to concentrate and maintain a stable mood because they are on constant alert for what will come next. Then there’s the pain itself. Pervasive, radiating, sometimes pounding, sometimes in the background. The monster or the specter of the monster, always there.
I’m not saying that all people with chronic pain can’t get anything done. I’m also not saying that selfish people feel exactly this kind of pain. Or that we should feel sorry for people who have a pattern of selfish behavior.
What I’m saying is that thinking of selfishness as an automatic visceral response may help you to detach your worth from someone who has neglected you or tirelessly used you. Selfish people are terribly unhappy. They are on 24-hour surveillance for whatever uncomfortable feeling they must strike, detonate, and cover up next.
People who are habitually selfish hear a metaphorical ringing in their ears, pounding in their chest which operates to constantly remind them they need, whatever it is they need, RIGHT NOW, to drown out whatever feeling they cannot deny on their own.
If they need space, they will disappear without a word. If they need a favor, they won’t care if you’re sick. If they need money, they will take whatever little you have. They are too consumed with the noise of their own chaos to see how it affects you.
I’ve known selfish people without patterns of selfish behavior. I’ve been selfish myself. Understand that those selfish people who said something unthinkable to you, those who you can’t forgive even if you are a forgiving person are NOT normal, empathetic people in a selfish phase. They are extremely limited people, who experience a cacophony of feelings they cannot stand and have no idea how to manage. It’s too loud in there. They do not have the capacity to hear you, see you, or be affected by you.
This doesn’t mean you should pity them. Or that you should be less outraged. It means that there is a lot going on under the surface that has nothing to do with you. Selfish people literally have a decreased awareness of the outside world. A habitually selfish person is a child in a fetal position, inside the body of a starving animal, with the head of a beeping fire alarm to which no replacement batteries exist.
As with all toxic or emotionally unavailable people, tying your worth to whether a habitually selfish person will stop being selfish for you is pointless.
People who instinctually deflect responsibility for the emotions of themselves and others don’t do it selectively. People who have a pattern of being selfish, don’t become less selfish when they see your value or worth. They simply are who they are, and who they are is limited in a crucial way.
So how do you deal with yourself around selfish people?
Start focusing on your reaction. It will tell you everything.
Reaction: You get it.
Sometimes people are selfish. Sometimes you are selfish. People are temporarily selfish for good or good enough reasons. They are dealing with a family issue. It’s exam time. They just met a guy they really like. A coworker went on vacation so you get stuck with their work.
How to deal: This one is easy. You don’t feel used, hurt, or confused because you understand their behavior. You deal by being sincere in your communication if something bothers you and believing apologies when they come.
Reaction: You don’t get it, and you can’t get over it.
You got caught up in the momentum of someone else’s needs, to the detriment of your own. Maybe once. Maybe every day for years.
You feel used. A sibling who expects you to respond to their every whim. A partner who, to borrow Natasha’s phrase, uses you as an emotional & sexual ATM. Anyone who makes you feel like their love for you is conditional on you being, doing, supporting their needs, while ignoring or scoffing at yours. All while you have tried to be understanding, kind, open, and giving. You cannot understand how someone could behave that way toward you and be able to look anyone else in the eye.
How to deal: Your gut can gauge the level of toxicity in the relationship. Too much is soul murder. Once you reintroduce yourself to resonating with your own needs, rather than the needs of others, you will have a much easier time emotionally detaching from people who you once thought you could never forgive.
Understand selfish people need you more than you need them. Become critically aware of the exact moment when you feel the need to abandon yourself in order to cater to the other. And in that moment, STOP. It will feel like this thing they need is more important than that last thing. Understand you have cultivated a pattern of responding to someone else’s need just because they have convinced you it is more important or urgent than your own. This is why selfish people love calling other people selfish when there is any indication they won’t get their way. Don’t get caught up in the momentum of that need just once. Do this enough and you will develop an acute awareness for the situations in which you are triggered. When triggered, stop reacting. Start responding.
Move. Empathetic people find themselves living in a land of constant, burning forest fires. You have developed a reaction to selfish people that makes you believe that if you stop putting fires out, all will be lost. LET IT BURN. If you can’t let go of how selfish people in your life treat you, then your surroundings suck anyway. All will not be lost. Read all of Natasha’s self-esteem posts. You will find your own momentum. You will not need another person’s emergency to jump start you. You will love your new home.
Get off the WTF merry-go-round. I get it. When you have been consistently taken advantage of, it comes flooding back as WTF memories. Fixating on how unfairly you were treated and rehashing the scenario will retrigger you and suspend you in some of the worst moments of your life. Shaking your head at how awful some people can be is another way to put off attending to your needs. It’s, of course, healing to discuss what happened to you, and I say this with great love: don’t waste any more of your time as the victim of someone who mistreated you. Feel disgusted and use that disgust as fuel for implementing boundaries and never allowing yourself to be treated that way again.
You don’t get it, you can’t get over it. You’re fixated on resolving it and getting a return on your investment.
You are bereft. Despite how much you try, you cannot get a family member to accept something fundamental about you. You need an ex who used you and then discarded you like a piece of garbage back. You cannot bear to cut off a friend who always makes you feel worthless because then you really will feel worthless.
How to deal: Get away. In my opinion, this is the most psychologically detrimental relationship of all. You are likely in a relationship with a person who, in addition to their other needs, specifically needs you to pedestal them, acquiesce to them, and be controlled by them. Some part of your circuitry continues to want to fulfill those needs, despite how much it hurts. This dynamic serves as an addictive false confirmation to some underlying ancient belief that you are the one who is less than, defective, and don’t deserve to be loved.
Getting away is the only option.
This is the most harmful scenario of all. You have tied your self worth to unselfishing a selfish person.
If you can’t cut out the person physically, do everything you can to cut them out emotionally.
Understand that in this scenario, you need time and space away. This situation will not get better over time or once the selfish person realizes your worth. They are not slow. They have an insatiable need to be the aggressor, the superior, the wanted, or the needed. This desire will never subside, and it will always look for different sources of fulfillment. If you don’t get away, you will only affirm an underlying belief that you are not enough because, for this kind of person, there is no such thing.
If you feel desperate, not outraged, when you realize that you have become a feast for a habitually selfish person, this is your alarm bell. It’s soft, but if you listen to it, it will become louder and louder. Listen to it even though every molecule in your body doesn’t want to. Turn up the volume and GET OUT even though you don’t feel ready. It’s the only way.
This post was written by Natasha Adamo team member, Irena.
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