How to Deal with Selfish Friends, Family and Partners
Every relationship has some give and take—but what do you do when you've realized someone in your life is mostly take, and no give? Perhaps it's been one-sided for awhile, or maybe things have gradually evolved into a toxic dynamic: You meet a friend for catch-up drinks, and they unload for thirty solid minutes (and "forget" to ask how you are). A family member constantly asks for favors, yet they're conveniently busy when you're in a jam. Or you've planned thoughtful dates a dozen times over, while your significant other hasn't done the same in...well, ever.
So how do you break the cycle with someone who seems terminally self-absorbed? Here's what two experts say about dealing with selfish people—and how to improve your relationships with them.
What causes someone to be selfish?
"Emotional intelligence exists on a spectrum, and some individuals are higher in emotional intelligence than others," says Lisa Marie Bobby, PhD, a Colorado-based marriage counselor, therapist, and life coach. "One symptom of low emotional intelligence is the tendency to be self-absorbed, or exclusively concerned about what you're thinking, feeling, needing and wanting, instead of the thoughts, feelings, needs and desires of others."
Exhausting as a loved one's pattern of selfish behavior may be, Bobby suggests taking a compassionate view of why they may act this way. "One thing that I've found to be helpful is to conceptualize the way that people are functioning in the context of their life experiences," she says. "People who are 'selfish' tend to have been raised in environments in which their feelings, thoughts, and needs weren't recognized or valued."
"In contrast, from earliest childhood, highly empathetic people have had their feelings and thoughts reflected back to them, and at least respected," Bobby continues. "In this way, thoughtful and compassionate people are not born, they're made. Likewise, people who have arrived in adulthood without the easy ability to understand or value the emotions of others tend to be products of their environment."
Calling out selfish behavior may backfire.
The friend or family member who turns every conversation into a monologue probably doesn't realize that they're annoying you at all, since they're not great at picking up others' social cues. That lack of self-awareness means that any talking-to about their perceived misbehavior may be poorly received—particularly if this is the first they're hearing of it.
"When people react badly to the people with low emotional intelligence, the latter will often feel genuinely surprised, offended, and even victimized," Bobby explains. While you can certainly try to have a thoughtful conversation, "generally speaking, more often than not, attempts to directly confront self-centered behavior and ask for improvement results in defensiveness, minimization and often, unproductive conflict," says Bobby.
Setting boundaries is crucial.
You can only control your own actions, not anybody else's. "This is really less about managing another person, and more about setting a boundary around what you're available for and how you react," says Nancy Levin, life coach and author of the upcoming book Setting Boundaries Will Set You Free. "If someone in our lives isn’t showing up for us, we can make a direct request around balance. But we also have to be prepared for the other person to not be able to meet us there."
"There’s a saying, 'don't go to the hardware store for milk,'" she continues. "We have to check ourselves to see if we're trying to get our needs met by someone who isn't willing or able to."
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