Thinking about yourself: Why it is so important

You keep saying “yes” to the wrong people. “Okay, let’s meet,” you answer girlfriend A, even though you already have a date with girlfriend B. “All right, I’ll do it this weekend”, you promise your boss, who gives you an extra project even though you are more than busy. “Yes, yes, I’ll come for Sunday brunch”, you placate your parents, while going to the party of the decade on Saturday night (at least that’s the hangover-promising motto).

Finally, the day in question arrives, and everyone gets a raw deal, the girlfriends, the job, the parents. And most of all, yourself. Your dates mutate into a sea of to-dos, your needs get lost in it. Time for a course correction! Time for more you!

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What is selfishness?

The word “ego” comes from Latin and simply means “I”. Egoism is therefore ego-related, that is: literally to think only of oneself, to see only one’s own needs.

Every person is born selfish. Babies get what they need. If they don’t get it, they cry out for it. “Primary selfishness” is what researchers call it. A child cannot yet distinguish between his own needs and those of others. It’s just pure ego.

Only when we grow up do we understand that many people feel differently from ourselves. In this process, women in particular learn to put themselves first. How does this happen?

Wichtig ist die Balance von Ich und Wir What is important is the balance between me and us: everyone benefits more if everyone also gives up something at times. © Jacob Lund /

Why is selfishness sometimes harder for women?

The problem begins in the acquired reward system in the brain, as Swiss researchers found out. “Give to others,” is something a girl often hears. “Don’t let anyone take anything from you,” is more common with boys. It leaves a mark.

“Girls learn to be adapted, helpful and perfect,” says psychologist and author Dr. Eva Wlodarek (“More Self-Confidence”, Herder, by 12 euros). Good social acts activate the same inner circuits as a piece of chocolate or good sex. So whether you are selfish is created in childhood – and is later attached to you as a label. Being “selfish” is considered an insult that nobody wants to hear.

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When is selfishness pathological?

In the case of an extremely exaggerated form of egoism, one speaks rather of narcissism. Core characteristics: exaggerated self-importance, addiction to recognition, ruthlessness and lack of empathy.

Social media fuel this, often it seems as if the world is teeming with narcissists. They are constantly photographing themselves, gambling on the stock exchange and becoming president of the USA . “Narcissist” has become a general diagnosis. In fact, however, narcissism is a serious personality disorder which, according to clinical studies, fortunately affects only 1 percent of the population.

An sich denken heißt nicht, immer nur an sich denken. Thinking of oneself does not mean always thinking of oneself. Or just celebrating yourself. © Jacob Lund /

Can one also be too little selfish?

It might. The other extreme, that of selfishness, is also rather rare: Altruism, total selflessness. Altruists help, listen to others and are always there for them without asking for anything in return. This is a nice thing to do at first. Here is a pleasing social trend: The Red Cross has more volunteers than ever before. One in three Germans is involved in neighbourhood help, one in five in clubs, one in ten in the social sector.

But the helper mentality also has its price. Those who think too little of themselves burn out and ultimately suffer from the “disease to please”. So both extremes are not healthy, neither for yourself nor for those around you. In its pure form, however, both of them rarely occur, as already mentioned. Complete selflessness is just as unlikely as pure egoism. They rather complement each other.

US -Neuroscientists have proven that when you donate money to charity, the same brain areas are activated as when someone does you a favor. Almost every good deed is based on a barter deal: if you help your girlfriend move, she helps yours. There is an ideal intersection between exaggerated self-worship and selfless sacrifice: the necessary self-interest – or even healthy selfishness.

Ihr Ego ist das, was Freunde an dir schätzen. Their ego is what friends appreciate about you – so they’ll understand if you fondle them. © Jacob Lund /

When does selfishness hurt?

Not to yourself at first – but to others, and thus indirectly to you, too, if nobody wants to have anything to do with you. Conversely, you could say: Your attachment is healthy if it doesn’t take over, doesn’t harm others and perhaps even has a general benefit at the same time.

For a long time, biologists assumed that humans were only interested in their personal advantage. Eat or be eaten, rich or poor, power or morality. Brain researcher Prof. Joachim Bauer from Tübingen disagrees: “The assumption that only the strongest prevail on earth is a completely simplified view. The decisive factor is whether there is cooperation so that everyone can live well together.” In short: team player first!

How can I test how selfish I am?

There is an exciting attempt to do this: Imagine you get 100 euros as a gift. But you have to share the money with someone. How much you give away is up to you. The catch: If your counterpart rejects your offer, neither of you gets anything. How much do you give away? Try to show: If your offer is between 40 and 50 euros, it’s usually accepted, both are a bit richer.

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This 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 or egoism. In all industrialized countries, the player gives up on average half the amount. Your opponent would probably reject less – and most people feel that. Keyword: empathy.

This proves that for most people, fairness is more important than disdainful profit. You can use that to your advantage. Women are actually often better at keeping an eye on the common good, they are more approachable and empathetic. But you can – and should – think of yourself with a clear conscience.

5 tips on how to learn to say no

How do I learn to be more selfish?

It takes getting used to, because: A yes to yourself is often a no to others. If you want to think more about yourself, you have to learn to say no more often when others want something from you.

Eva Wlodarek: “You have to dare to stand up for your own needs, to draw boundaries and to say no sometimes. Because a certain amount of selfishness benefits everyone: If you recharge your own batteries regularly, you have more energy for others.

The art is to take yourself seriously without offending anyone. It’s not so easy. Here are 5 tips on how to say “no” more easily in the future and how to hit the right note:

1. taking stock

We all get to say no. Often we only do so under certain circumstances, with certain people and topics. Think about what those situations are for you. But also make a note of when you can already say no to whom quite well. That motivates.

2. ask for time to think it over

If you have trouble canceling, buy some time with sentences like, “I’ll sleep on it tonight and let you know tomorrow.” So you can gather your thoughts. Why is it so hard for you to say no? Why do you want it? Whoever answers these questions for himself can answer them for others.

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3. Avoid unclear statements

Phrases like “maybe” or “possibly” are well meant, but give the impression that your “no” is not the last word. It is better to say thank you and clearly deny: “Great that you thought of me. But I don’t have time.” Counter-questions can also help, for example “I also have projects X and Y on the table – how would you prioritise them?”

4. apply the yes-no-yes strategy

Formulate in an ego-sentence why you refuse and what you offer as an alternative instead. You’ll find this structure helpful: “I value our friendship.” But I can’t come to the party tomorrow. We can go out together next week. (Yes.) That seems less harsh.

5. remain consistent

Don’t be put off, even if the other person doesn’t want to take no for an answer. You don’t have to feel guilty. Communicate more and more sparingly as the resistance grows. Repeat your reasoning like a holding tune until everyone finally understands.

Nobody likes pure egoists. They think only of themselves, they strive ruthlessly for recognition and personal advantage. But too much sacrifice and altruism also have their price. Those who think too little of themselves burn out. So find a healthy balance between ego and the others. Then, in the end, everyone will be truly taken care of.