The term “selfish” shares a similar connotation to words like “tarantula,” “burpees,” and “Monday.” No one wants it to happen, but—let’s be real here—every once in a while, we all have the tendency to promote self-interest. Am I selfish for putting myself first? The answer is probably yes, but psychologists say that it doesn’t always mean it’s wrong. Like Neapolitan ice cream, selfishness has three specific flavors—and only two of them are good.
According to Psychology Today, there are three distinct types of selfish actions: the good, the bad, and the neutral. John Johnson, PhD, a former professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, says that whenever you’re not sure if your actions veer too far toward greediness, the question to ask yourself is this: “Who’s benefiting from my ‘selfish’ behavior?” If your answer is more of an overlapping Venn diagram of mutual reward than a pie that’s all for you, then your actions might not be so self-absorbed after all. Scrutinize your motivation a bit more with the three buckets of selfishness.
Good selfishness: This flavor is illustrated in the aforementioned Venn diagram. Dr. Johnson says that this type is a mutually-beneficial, win-win situations for both parties involved.
Let’s say, for example, that you and your friend’s favorite purveyor of athleisure is having a buy one, get one deal on leggings. Just split the cost of the first pair right down the middle—and bam—you both walk away with fresh yoga attire. It’s selfish, but hey—it’s selfish rocking a new pair of tights.
Neutral selfishness: “Neutral selfishness includes looking after your own well-being in ways that do not directly and substantially involve other people,” says the psychologist. If you’re a living, breathing, yearning human being, you’ve been neutrally selfish at least a couple times today. Simply brushing your teeth, making yourself dinner, or participating in any self-care activity falls under this category.
Bad selfishness: If you’ve ever done something that only benefits one person on the planet (i.e., yourself) then you’ve been bad selfish. “Ultimately this behavior is bad for both the selfish person and the people victimized and exploited by the selfish person,” Dr. Johnson explains. Research suggests that acts of kindness pay off manyfold, so when we act (bad) selfishly, we’re a casualty of our own actions, too.
Even though selfishness gets a pretty bad rep, it’s not always a social no-no. Just check in with who’s on the receiving end of your action. If it’s not just you, then no harm, no foul.