Selfish Generosity


Selfish generosity. It’s a thing. It’s real.

In fact, I have successful seriously damaged a few very important relationships in my life and my own sense of self through my participation in selfish generosity. Which may be why this is a topic that I feel so strongly about creating conversations around.

I feel like the person who came so close to losing their life from a heart attack. Moments like that have a way with awakening someone to the responsibility they have to their health. I guess you could say that I had an emotional heart attack at one point in my life. And it woke me up.

It is possible to look generous, to even believe that you are being generous, and in reality it’s selfish. It looks generous, kind, and thoughtful, but it’s selfish. Not all good deeds are selfishness in disguise, but not all generosity is selfless.

And the thing that makes them selfish is the motivation driving the action. The scary thing is that often you don’t realize what’s driving your actions. It’s like those moments when you jump in your car and start driving and you take a turn and then you suddenly consciously wake up saying aloud to yourself “Where am I going?” realizing that you were just driving unaware of why you were taking the path you were taking. 

We do that with our behaviors too. We participate in many of our behaviors without fully realizing what is driving them, what the motivation is behind them. That ability to be able to honestly see what is driving your actions is what has the power to help you develop a more solid sense of self.

So selfish generosity? What is it that makes generosity selfish? 

Psychotherapist Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife  answers this question:

“The reason you do something matters. Often people are trying, through their actions, to prove that they’re good, or trying to earn a sense of legitimacy or place.”

“I had a friend who was always offering herself to everyone: “I can get you at the airport” or “I can bring you a meal”, etc. And on the surface it looked so nice, but it honestly sometimes felt like a way of pressuring people to value her or see her as important to them. It looked like giving but it felt like a kind of taking at the same time.”

“I think what we sometimes do is look to others to give us a sense of mattering, “Make me feel like I’m valuable or even essential to you”.  It’s a way of using others to legitimize our own existence or our own sense of self.”

“And it’s taking, not true giving. That’s the reality. It’s taking.”

It’s self-serving, like the child who gives you a hug so that they can have more screen time, not because they want they want to sincerely tell you how much they love you.  Selfish generosity can be driven by the desire to feel important, needed, and valued by others. It can also be driven to ease our own guilt and pain for something we have done.  Or we might be “generous” to someone after they have mistreated us just so we can fool ourselves into thinking that we are taking the higher road.  Selfish generosity can seem to “work” for a time, but it’s superficial and destructive. It’s dry soil will slowly (or quickly) suck the life out of you and your relationships.