Sometimes, I find myself thinking about how to be less selfish. When I say sometimes, what I actually mean is seldom. See, I was raised in a society with a very unique stance on altruism, as I assume you were too. The modern world, it keeps teaching us, is a never-ending race to the top.
And, I’m not just talking about hunting for success. My generation is way less superficial than that, yet it still tends to see virtually all aspects of life as a win-or-lose game. A topical Game of Thrones, if you will. The one we all have to play as individuals, and occasionally step on others in order to take what’s ours.
Even our modern obsession with self-improvement is a bit narcissistic, don’t you think?
I’m happy and proud of how better at getting to know myself I am, but isn’t that just another of many things that keep us looking inwards? To be at peace with ourselves. To reach fulfillment within. To find one’s true self.
So, I’m trying to live a little differently. When I’m blue and lonesome, I no longer seek comfort in things that usually make me happy; I do something for somebody else’s joy.
I call my aunt in Cambodia for a nice and soulful chat or bake cupcakes for my hubby. In my little experiment with selflessness, I learn as I go.
These are the notes I’ve taken along my way when discovering how to be less selfish. Hopefully, they will help you too.
1. Be a Good Listener
Yes! Shhhh and just listen for once.
Now, this is something that I’ve always been proud of being good at.
My friends, family members, and colleagues frequently tell me that I’m delightfully easy to confide to (their words, not mine), and even people I don’t know that well often ask me for advice. The fact that I can help them when they’re feeling low, I used to think, is pretty cool.
But after some time and plenty of research, I’ve found out that giving advice has nothing to do with listening. All those years, my good listening skills have been boosting my self-esteem, while in fact, I haven’t had them at all. However, disturbing that late discovery was, it made me a better confidant.
What I’ve learned after is that while we may think it’s helpful to say “Trust me, I know how you feel”, or “Been there, seen that, done that”, it’s not really what a person sitting in front of us needs to hear.
As it turns out, our ranting friends don’t need to hear anything at all. What they need is to be heard.
If you’re wondering how to be less selfish, the most compassionate thing you can do is to sit down and listen.
But, don’t listen to reply, listen to understand.
To empathize without words. Whatever you say won’t matter because people who need active listeners are, for the moment, people who don’t care.
2. Don’t Be a Fair-Weather Friend
As a huge logophile, I must say that a “fair-weather friend” is one of the loveliest and most accurately coined words I’ve ever heard. It means “someone who is a good friend when it is easy to be one and who stops being one when you are having problems”.
You know, the-moment-you’re-down-they’re-gone type. Yes! Sadly, I wasted my time and energy helping them when they were facing a difficult time in their lives. Live and learn!
But, it’s also a good word to start your selflessness experiment with. Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and look deep inside (again with the inward), and ask yourself have you ever been a fair-weather friend to anyone you know. If you’re being completely honest, the answer might surprise you.
Friendships are not exactly what they used to be. We have less time to commit and less patience to empathize, so we often hog conversations and keep the attention to ourselves.
Think about it for a second. Can you honestly say that you’ve never neglected a moody friend because he used to bring you down?
Being a fair-weather friend doesn’t only mean running away when times are too hard to cope with. It also means not being supportive, accepting, and nurturing enough when our friends are having a cloudy day. They might have it for a totally irrational and frustratingly childish reason, but that doesn’t matter.
3. Make Time for Those Who Are There for You When You Need Them the Most
If you are a kind of person who always tries to be better and kinder, I have no doubts that you’re big on reciprocation. When a neighbor helps you change a tire, you give him a ride to work. If a friend skips the gym to talk to you, you ditch the movie night to talk to her.
We’re usually pretty good in making time for people who are loving when we need that the most, but what about those who are always there? What about your high school friend? Or your sister? I’m asking you because I now understand how terribly guilty I was of taking these priceless relationships for granted.
Take my sister, for example. At one point when we used to live together, I looked at her and realized that she needed a better haircut. She spent all of her time in my apartment while I was depressed, but I haven’t really acknowledged her presence. I failed to notice her hair, and I knew nothing about her life or her feelings.
Selflessness is making time for kind people even when you feel like your time is running out. Always go an extra mile in overcoming your emotions when those who are always there for you need somebody to be there for them.
Believe it or not, making them smile will make you happy.
4. Learn How to Make Others Feel Important
Self-proclaimed experts on success often insist on the importance of knowing how to make others feel special. Compliment your colleague every day, they say, and he’ll feel good and generous enough to recommend you for the next promotion. But, that’s manipulation, and we’re talking about another skill.
First of all, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t give a kind word to your teammate whenever you can because you most certainly should. What I’m saying is that you shouldn’t make him feel important for your own gain. It’s an odd thought, I admit, but how about brightening their day for the sheer sake of it?
You can exercise this in numerous ways. During the family dinner, ask your dad to tell his favorite story. When your friend from sales closes a deal (it doesn’t have to a big one), throw her a party. Ask your neighbor about his family. Ask your sister about her dreams. It may be little, but it shows that you care.
5. Always Put Yourself in Other People’s Shoes
Being able to always put yourself in another person’s shoes is not only a great lesson in how to be less selfish. Psychologists call this “empathic intelligence”, and consider it a vital part of social intelligence and self-growth. It’s selflessness 101, one of the first things you have to learn about being a better person.
Until I’ve discovered shoe-shifting, my relationship was a mess. I’ve actually kept accusing my boyfriend at the time for being selfish when the only thing he was trying to do is to communicate his emotions.
But, I was so preoccupied with mine that I actually never understood that. I never even tried.
We now have a 180 improvement compared to what we used to have. I have to give all the credit to my hubby for being so patient with me until I finally saw what type of person I was.
6. Show Empathy Towards Others
Empathy lies at the very root of shoe-shifting and other similar techniques, but then again, it also lies at the root of every genuine relationship.
By definition, empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. It’s both a character trait and a mindset. You’re either empathetic, or you’re not.
Consequently, no one can teach you how to emphasize with other people’s emotions and experiences.
But, if you are an empathetic person, you can always work on how to express your compassion. The way I understand it, empathy is about two things – putting yourself aside, and appreciating another person.
If you feel like you could have been better at either of them, try using reflection. This method is very close to active listening and implies reflecting (not parroting) back what a person is thinking or feeling.
The next time your mom or your loved one complains about how lonely he or she is, say “So, you’re feeling left aside? What can I do to accommodate you better?”.
Not only will this encourage them to keep talking, but it will also clarify what they’re trying to convey. If you make a real effort to listen to them, you’ll eventually understand the place their emotions are coming from. Then, and only then, you’ll be able to share their feelings and fully empathize with them.
7. Find Common Ground in Every Situation
You know what’s so awesome about empathic intelligence? It’s a powerful way to learn how to be less selfish, sure, but it’s also a step forward into assertiveness. Once I’ve started to understand people in my life better, I’ve unlocked a whole new ability – I’ve learned what was mine to ask for.
We’ve been taught to compromise with people that we care about, but only theoretically. Having heard how important the art of compromise is a functional relationship, I’ve started to have a much healthier argument.
In reality, that’s very far from what we call “finding the common ground”. F. Scott Fitzgerald defined it well: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It’s exactly why empathy is key to constructive compromise.
When you understand another person and empathize with them, you see your own needs more clearly. You realize that needs are subjective and that yours are just as big, urgent and important as everyone else’s.
Meeting the other person halfway is a selfless act that doesn’t require self-denial or self-sacrifice.
8. Put Your Needs Last
But, I’ve gotten a little ahead of myself. We’re yet to talk about our needs, because “putting our needs aside” is a common trope in stories about self-sacrifice and its effect on personal happiness. It’s why being selfless is so damn hard in the first place. It may be nearly impossible, in fact, but it is certainly worth it.
There is a Chinese saying that goes: “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.” First sayings and folk tales, now scientific studies claim this is as well.
According to Canadian psychologists, doing good deeds helps socially anxious people. Similar findings come from Great Britain, with yet another study confirming that acts of kindness affect life satisfaction.
9. Understand that You’re Not Always the Centre of Attention
Let me ask you a couple of questions. Do you have trouble working as a part of a team without being in a position of authority? And Do you often catch yourself interrupting the people you’re having a conversation with?
If your answers are yes to both then you may suffer from attention-seeking behavior without even knowing it, so be honest if you do.
Our childish cries for attention are exactly that – childish. They come from our long lists of self-esteem issues, in which some of our insecurities aren’t entirely our fault. The media-dictated lifestyle that we all more or less strive towards has made us crippled with frustration, and driven by public recognition.
Whoever is to blame, being a show stealer is a step backward for your attempts to figure out how to be less selfish. Always be ready to give the scene to the person who needs it more, or at least is willing to share it.
Everyone’s going through something important – every now and then, let them act it out.
10. Take Care of Your Parents
I’m afraid we cannot conclude our little self-improvement chitchat without devoting at least a couple of sentences to our moms and dads. Flawed as they might be, our folks are still only human beings and they know a thing or two about living a meaningful and purposeful life. I mean, you turn out to be a great person, right?
Show them some support, and their smiles will make you a happier kid I promise.
Our parents have really made us the people we are today, some through love and sacrifice, others through horrible mistakes.
Now that you’ve learned how to be more empathic, give your best to understand their reasons, and to forgive them for their wrongdoings. I promise it will cure not two, but three hearts.
How to be Less Selfish Begins with a Small Step Toward Helping Others
Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”. I’m happy to finally understand what he meant.
Though it’s ok to be selfish sometimes BUT as long it doesn’t cause anyone any heartache, putting yourself doesn’t do any harm.
My final word to you is your loving side awaits to be discovered and shared with everyone around, so hurry on and find it. It will bring you peace and excitement, and stem pleasure and gratification to live happily and healthy as you allow yourself to be.