Selfishness: how to learn to say “no”


Instagram feeds that are a mile long, physical contortions for the greatest photo of yourself: Selfishness is annoying, often embarrassing, and can even disrupt cohabitation. Result: In the era of the individual, self-centeredness rightly does not have a good image. 

But: selfless action is not a solution either. Because here, as everywhere, the guiding principle of first aid applies: Only those who think of themselves can survive – and also be there for others. Unfortunately, “taking care of yourself” without putting someone else before your head is not that easy! With our 5 tips, you can find the right dose of “I” in everyday life.

When is selfishness good?

Do you know such situations?

  • Constantly saying yes to the wrong people. “Okay, we can meet up,” you reply to your work colleague, even though you’re actually supposed to meet up with your old buddies. 
  • “All right, I’ll do it on the weekend,” you reply to your boss who saddles you with an extra project, knowing full well that you are working at full capacity.
  • “Yes, I’ll come to your parents’ Sunday brunch,” you placate your partner, all the while going to the party of the decade on Saturday night (at least, that’s the hangover-promising motto). 

Until then, your world is still in order. And then? Then the aforementioned day finally arrives, and everyone comes up short – the old buddies, the job, the in-laws, your girlfriend. And most of all: yourself. Your appointments mutate into a sea of to-dos, your own needs get lost in them. Time for a course correction – more time for you!

What is egoism?

Every human being is born egoistic. Babies get what they need. If they don’t get it, they demand it loudly. “Primary egoism” is what research says about it. A child cannot yet distinguish between its own needs and those of others. It is only with adulthood that a person understands that many people feel differently from ourselves. And begin to put aside their own needs.

Am I too selfish?

“Man, are you selfish!” The reproach even hardened guys do not find flattering. And indeed, there is not a hint of admiration in this sentence. But what exactly is it: egoistic? “Ego” comes from Latin and simply means “I” – egoism is self-centeredness. In pathologically exaggerated form one speaks of narcissism. Core characteristics are exaggeration of one’s own importance, addiction to recognition, ruthlessness, lack of empathy. Social media fuel this, often it seems as if the world is just teeming with narcissists. They photograph themselves incessantly, gamble on the stock market, become president of the U.S. The term narcissist has become a general diagnosis.

When is egoism pathological?

In fact, however, narcissism is a serious personality disorder that fortunately affects only 1 percent of the population, according to clinical studies. The other extreme, opposite to egoism, is also rather rare: Altruism – total selflessness.

Altruists help, listen to others, and are always there for them, and without asking for anything in return. More women than men usually come to mind with this description. Swiss researchers confirm: The male brain is more likely to reward selfish behavior. This is not innate, but inbred.

But here a pleasing social trend is discernible: The Red Cross has more volunteers than ever before. According to the latest figures, one in three Germans is involved in helping neighbors, one in five in clubs, and one in ten in the social sector. But the helper mentality also has its price.

Who thinks too little of himself, burns out, suffers in the end from the morbid pleasing, from the “disease to please”. Both extremes are not healthy, neither for yourself nor for your environment. They rarely occur in their pure form anyway.

Complete selflessness is just as rare as pure egoism. Rather, they complement each other. U.S. neuroscientists have shown that the same areas of the brain are activated when you donate money to charity as when someone does you a favor.

Almost every good deed is based on a trade-off: If you help your colleague move, he’ll help you move, too. But there is an ideal intersection between excessive self-worship and selfless sacrifice: necessary self-interest. This is also called healthy egoism.

Still having trouble saying no? Music makes a lot of things easier, get your boost of self-confidence now with the anthem of the self-esteem movement: “Respect”!

When is selfishness good?

Your selfishness is healthy when it doesn’t get out of hand, doesn’t harm others, and may even have a general benefit at the same time. For a long time, biologists assumed that humans were only interested in their own personal advantage.

Eat or be eaten, rich or poor, power or morality.

But brain researcher Professor Joachim Bauer from Tübingen disagrees: “The assumption that only the strongest prevail on earth is an oversimplified view. The decisive factor is whether there is cooperation so that everyone can live well together.”Thus the team player beats the egomaniac.

Take the ego test

Here’s a test: Imagine you are given 100 euros as a gift. However, you have to share the money with someone. How much you give is up to you. The catch: If your counterpart rejects your offer, neither of you gets anything. How much you give away? Tests show: If your offer is between 40 and 50 euros, it is usually accepted, both benefit.

The so-called ultimatum game was already used in 1978 by the German economist Werner Güth at the Max Planck Institute for the study of altruism and egoism respectively. In all industrialized countries, the player gives up half the amount on average.

Less your counterpart would probably refuse – and most people feel this. Keyword: Empathy. This proves that fairness is more important to most people than disgusting profit. But you can – and should – also think of yourself with a clear conscience. Because a certain amount of selfishness benefits everyone: Charge your own batteries regularly, and you’ll have more energy for others – a win-win situation. So how do you divide your sea of to-dos?

Psychologist and author Eva Wlodarek advises: “Have the courage to stand up for your needs, draw boundaries and say no sometimes.”Make yourself aware that you are no longer the little child of yesteryear, but an established man. Good so!

You can’t do anything with money? You live more according to the motto “What does the oak tree care if a wild boar rubs against it?”. Then take the detailed ego test at Palverlag: “Am I selfish?” 

5 Tips on how a “no” will roll off your tongue more easily

  1. Take stock: We’re all allowed to say no. However, we often find it difficult to do this in certain circumstances, with certain people and on certain topics. Think about which situations these are in your case. Also note when you can already say no quite well. This motivates.
  2. Ask for time to think: If you find it hard to say no, buy yourself some time with phrases like, “I’ll sleep on it and let you know tomorrow.” This way you can collect your thoughts. Why is it hard for you to say no? Why do you want to? If you can answer these questions for yourself, you can answer them for others as well.
  3. Straight talk: Words like “maybe” or “possibly” leave the impression that your no is not the final word. It’s better to say “thank you” and “no”: “It’s great that you thought of me. But unfortunately I don’t have time.”Counter-questions also help: “I still have projects X and Y on the table – how would you prioritize them?”
  4. Follow yes-no-yes pattern: Formulate in a first-person sentence why you are refusing and what you are offering as an alternative instead. This structure is helpful: “Our friendship is important to me (Yes), but I can’t come to the party tomorrow (No). We’re welcome to go out together next week (Yes).” This comes across as less harsh. 
  5. Stay consistent: Don’t be dissuaded if your counterpart won’t take no for an answer. You do not have to have a guilty conscience. If the resistance grows, communicate more sparingly: repeat your reasons like a melody on hold.

Conclusion: Find the right balance

Do you often feel like a loser and burnt out because you are too kind-hearted? If you say yes although you think no, you sabotage yourself. Find the right balance for yourself and your life: Learn when selfishness is good with our 5 tips. 

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