Are Good Choices Selfish Choices?


This week we are discussing an issue with Dr. Jane Rubin that many clients face: whether the “good choices” they make for themselves are “selfish choices?” It turns out that, for many, the distinction is not always so clear and this is the cause of considerable anguish.

How Would You Define Good vs. Bad Choices?

I don’t have a one-size-fits-all definition of good and bad choices.  My role is to help people come to their own decisions about the choices that are best for them. One stumbling block that arises regularly for many people I work with is their belief that it’s selfish to make choices that feel right for them.

How So?

It begins with their choice to come to therapy. Almost every day, at least one person tells me that it’s selfish to come to therapy. Just yesterday, someone told me that it’s selfish to come to therapy when people are starving in Africa. People often tell me that it’s selfish to come to therapy because their problems aren’t important compared to the problems of people who have been traumatized by poverty or war.         

Generally, people who believe that it’s selfish to come to therapy also have other beliefs about their choices, such as

  • I shouldn’t have good things in my life.
  • I should always put other people’s needs ahead of my own.
  • I don’t deserve to be happy.

Do You Notice any Trends with these People?

One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed is that the people who worry most about being selfish are usually some of the least selfish people I’ve ever met. There are plenty of people in the world who do make consistently selfish choices. They only think of their own interests and don’t consider the needs or interests of other people.

The people who worry that coming to therapy makes them selfish are not those people. They tend to be people who grew up being extremely attuned to the needs of their parents or other caregivers. They were often accused of being selfish if they asked for something for themselves or made choices their parents didn’t like. As a result, these people are very anxious that making choices that are satisfying to them will hurt other people or cause other people to accuse them of being selfish. This makes it very difficult for them to make important choices in without feeling like they’re bad people.

Do You Have Any Examples of People Who Fit This Description?

I have many. A few of them are

  • People who follow a career path that isn’t personally satisfying but that satisfies their parent, their partner, or some other important person in their life.
  • People who feel that they have to be available to their partner 24/7.
  • People who have difficulty setting boundaries in their work or intimate relationships.
  • People who have difficulty doing the things they most enjoy in life.

How Do You Help Them Process This?

It really depends on the person. Usually, I try to help people understand why they experience themselves as being selfish and I encourage them to question that belief when it’s not true. In order to get to the point where they can question it, people often have to recognize how much the belief that they’re a selfish person is causing them suffering by preventing them from living the life they want to live. Of course, if the person I’m working with really is insensitive to other people’s needs, we’re in a different ball game. Then my job is to help them recognize how their insensitivity is causing their suffering.

Have You Seen This Occur in Marriages?

Unfortunately, yes. I’ve had many clients who have been in troubled marriages for years. Their partners have often been physically or emotionally abusive. Often, by the time these people come to see me, they’ve decided to divorce.  However, they’re not able to act on this decision because they believe that they’re being selfish—that they should be willing to put up with the abuse, that they’re not being sympathetic enough to their partner, etc. It can often take a long time before they feel able to make the decision they know is best for them.

If you are considering therapy, know that it’s not selfish to ask for help. Although it can be difficult, therapy will allow you to better understand why you feel the way you do. Then you can create positive changes so you can make good choices. Remember, usually, the people who worry most about being selfish are precisely the people who don’t have that problem.

Click here to learn more about making good choices with Dr. Jane Rubin.

Jane Rubin, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Berkeley, California.  She works with individuals in Berkeley, Oakland, the East Bay and the greater San Francisco Bay Area who are struggling with depression and anxiety.  She also specializes in working with people who are trying to find meaning and direction in their lives.