Avoiding Selfishness: A Practical Guide

I recently wrote about how a focused reconnection with our human selves can be a correlating factor specifically in relation to positive individual and societal change. However, what does this mean practically, and what does this mean on an individual level. In other words, what kind of thoughts and actions do we need to practice and what could the outcomes be. Let’s explore this in more detail.

Firstly, know that we live in an accelerating world where it is possible to exist in exaggerated states of both loneliness and over-connectedness via multiple social media platforms. This back-stepping from actual human contact and a move towards a constant validation of our digital lives facilitates an easy place for negativity to breed. It must be considered that the transmission of negative emotion through these channels, through comparison, the expectations created, and the anonymity and freedom to abuse without consequence, has snowballed. Its impact cannot be underestimated.

Not only that but the world hasn’t stopped being a bad place. Wars, Political Corruption, Poverty, Prejudice, Natural Disasters, Alienation, Hate Crimes, to name but a few examples have existed for a long time, yet are now amplified into a debilitating sludge saturating our every pore. All of these things feed into each other making it very easy for selfishness to be the default operating model. And it’s understandable to a degree. When the world is such a crushingly difficult place to exist in, why wouldn’t you just look after number one. With this in mind, we have to address the balance. But what practical, actionable steps can we put in place to avoid this. Here are some suggestions.

Know you are going to die and focus on it

As morbid as this sounds it’s true. You’re going to die. I’m going to die. Your family and friends are going to die. I don’t say this to be deliberately uncomfortable, but it’s true and yes, you should think about it daily. The reason I say this is that knowing that the passing of time is irreversible, that you cannot undo the past, and that every one of your interactions write a history not easily erased prompts meaningful thought and more often than not, positive action. Knowing all of this, that this applies to everyone on the planet, why wouldn’t you want to be anything but kind and your actions reflective of how you would want to be remembered as a human being. In one sense it might make you more selfish in terms of individual accomplishment, but these accomplishments may include more selfless acts, and be implemented in a much more selfless manner.

Understand that we all suffer

Sharing experience in this way connects us as humans, and actually results in happier moments for all of us. Equally, knowing that human suffering exists for all means that we can operate without judgment. Don’t mistake this for weakness. In fact, the ability to listen and understand is true strength. We only attribute weakness to it because we are scared that it might compromise us in some way. Don’t be scared to talk to people about the emotions they carry. They can help you carry yours.

In the relatively short time I’ve been coaching, one thing is true. We have all hurt and we’re all fighting for survival. Privilege and money offer no protection from this. Whether it be mental health issues, lack of fulfilment from our values not being met, relationship breakups, financial pressures, the weight of unfulfilled dreams, whatever it is, we all feel suffering. Knowing this gives us all a distinct and relatable commonality. Now, why wouldn’t we want to be more open with each other, to help each other, empathise with each other. Don’t just think about what you are going through, scale it up and think about just how many other people are bruised. With this heightened awareness, it becomes to easier to want to support others too. Practically, this can be as simple asa conscious asking your friends, family, even strangers when appropriate, how they are. You’ll know the moments within which to ask. Knowing your own struggles makes it easier to spot the signals in others. Be on the lookout for it. And listen. And share.

Help people without wanting return

This is huge. It’s easy to be self-obsessed and we are often blind to the happiness that can be created by acting altruistically. It’s again very easy to understand our self-obsession considering the fact that it’s almost forced upon us, where we often think about what kind of social media posts we’re going to create based on the ‘thing’ we’ve bought or the ‘place’ we’ve been. We like to think that this is an expression of ourselves, and to a degree, it is. But these popularity contests can be somewhat narcissistic and never produce true happy moments. In comparison, these are fleeting and synthetic when compared to the glow gained through genuine selfless human interaction.

Now this is actually a relatively easy thing to do. For example, it could be buying someone living homeless a meal, it could be knocking on your elderly neighbours door to see if they need anything, it could be picking up litter in your local park, it could be looking after your friends kids if they need a break, it could be embracing your work colleague whose had a terrible time suffering from anxiety, it could be doing something for a charity you believe in. The key here is that the action has to be free from the want of return. The moment you do something with the want of return, it is no longer selfless and will feel different. But do it properly, and I guarantee you that you’ll receive a feeling that cannot easily be described. Maybe the essence of humanity itself. Make time to think not just about yourself, but about other’s needs. Genuinely, this is what changes the world.

Practice living compassionately

How often do we hold this in our hearts and heads. Kindness often ties into helping others, but it can also mean being kind to yourself, and also the environment that you live in. Practically speaking and let me make this relevant to our online world, but there are lots of ways you can manifest this. For example, when you feel yourself drawn to comment with negative intent on social media, take a moment to think about what it is that you’re satisfying. Are you achieving anything good? Are you going to achieve anything at all by doing it? Is it just a process of self-gratification? Think about the feelings and impacts you might create. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t argue or debate, even strongly so, but do it when possible, and it isn’t always possible, with respect and kindness. The world progresses when you do this. When you act with deliberate negativity it goes backwards.

Kindness and compassion can also be achieved through your consumption. The things you choose to buy and consume are formed by or have been made within the lives of others. Consuming positively can make you feel like you are making an immediate difference, and you are. Another example of this, for anyone who truly believes in kindness as well as understanding suffering is to consume less animals. If you’ve ever owned a pet, you’ll know the companionship and personality they exude. You know that they feel. You know that they feel fear and pain, and particularly when they are killed. Creating less demand for this directly and positively impacts on your own values as a compassionate human. The choice itself unequivocally changes the world both inside and around you. It encourages compassion towards not just animals but to other people. You feel a refreshed sense of satisfaction that you have reduced suffering and have embodied kindness through choice. Be open to trying more of this. I’d like to think that the increase in plant-based diets across the world is actually a measure of the kindness that exists in our world. Consume less animals, less plastic. Recycle more. Be conscious of the climate. Buy responsibly. Feel the contribution you are making and allow yourself to feel good about this. It will feed into your overall improving consciousness and that of the world around you

Understand our differences

A lot of what holds us back is fear. Fear of looking weak, fear of not being masculine, fear of emotion, just as examples. Fear of other people is probably the main driver behind why we limit ourselves so much. Politics of difference drives us to fear immigrants. Fear of our sexuality drives people to act negatively towards sexualities that they don’t understand. Fear of other cultures makes us feel like we will lose some sense of self or identity. But we miss a fundamental truth in that our differences are intrinsic to the existence of the world. We simply cannot exist as humans with any kind of uniformity.

Our differences are absolutely necessary to drive change and to unlock new perspectives. They give colour and depth to our very being. Now, to turn this into tangible action, the next time you are faced with difference, whether it be an opinion, something visible, something physical, something political, something cultural, then firstly, acknowledge your fears if they exist. Secondly, know that fear can drive negative reaction, and before doing anything, stop and seek to understand. This doesn’t mean you have to have unrelenting acceptance of things that violate human moral codes, but by taking the time to understand may impact on your own perspective, may alleviate your fear, and actually may give rise to a more measured response. As questions, empathise, and in doing so you are avoiding selfishness and entertaining an altogether different position instead. Think about differences humanly. Know difference, know suffering, know kindness, know altruism, know mortality, and allow this to absorb together. That in itself is fantastic and enriches us all, if we can grasp it.

In summary, there are countless actions that can make us less selfish. As with any action, they require thought, and more than ever we need to meditate on the right thoughts to prompt the right actions. By allowing the thought processes outlined here to wash over us, then we can start to internalise some of these things which then gives birth to intention. At a very simple level, this is about effort. Make the effort to action something small but selfless. Add up all of these changes and the DNA of your internal and external environments become positively different strands of a much bigger fabric. Selfishness can be avoided. It just requires practice.

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