How To Stop Being Selfish: Cultivating Empathy

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated April 4, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Empathy can be defined as the ability to understand someone else’s emotional state with the possibility of experiencing the person’s feelings vicariously. This understanding can offer a clearer lens through which to view other people, helping us build healthier connections and navigate social situations. However, it’s not uncommon to prioritize one’s own needs over those of others, interfering in your ability to communicate effectively. Here, we will explore selfishness and empathy, offering workable steps and strategies for becoming less selfish and improving socioemotional wellbeing.

Getty/MoMo Productions
Need help becoming more empathetic?

Understanding selfishness

Selfishness refers to a tendency to act in such a way that benefits solely oneself, even at the disadvantage of another. Sometimes, understanding someone else’s perspective can be difficult, especially with those with whom you are not emotionally connected.  However, selfishness is a different story. A selfish mindset impedes a person’s ability to relate to others, collaborate, and problem-solve, which can ultimately lead to interpersonal issues and strained relationships.

Activating the parts of the brain responsible for socialization and emotional processing can help to cultivate a greater sense of empathy. This can involve exercises aimed at shifting focus to the needs, feelings, and experiences of others, as well as mindfulness and gratitude practices.

You may already understand what it means to put others before yourself—if you’ve ever felt the pain or joy of a loved one, you probably have a sense of what it means to be empathetic. In fact, research has found that your protective instinct may be even stronger during prosocial learning than self-relevant learning, indicating that human beings may already be “wired” to consider the needs of others.

What causes selfishness?

Philosophers, scientists, and clerics have sought to understand selfishness since ancient times. Some theories suggest that selfishness may be due to evolutionary pressures, while others emphasize the role of culture and belief systems. Upbringing and parenting styles may also play a role in the development of selfishness. In some cases, lack of empathy may be a feature of sociopathy or psychopathy. 

Empathy: The antidote to selfishness

Empathy is a skill that often develops as we navigate interpersonal relationships and social interactions. Some individuals may possess a high level of empathy, inspiring them to engage in prosocial behaviors such as helping others, donating to charity, apologizing, and forgiving others. Selfish people may struggle to understand and relate to their friends and family members, which may impact social situations and relationships. However, research has found that it may be possible to learn empathy.

Types of empathy

Psychologists have identified three types of empathy, and each is associated with a different type of understanding we can offer others. 

  • Cognitive empathy refers to the ability to “put yourself in another person’s shoes” and understand their perspective.
  • Affective empathy involves showing an appropriate emotional response to another person’s mental or emotional state.
  • Compassionate empathy may prompt you to offer help or assistance to another person.

Practicing some types of empathy more than others is not uncommon. However, as you deepen your understanding and concern for others, you may begin to strengthen the part of your brain responsible for connecting you to the emotions of others. In doing so, you may find it easier to cooperate with others, mitigate conflict, and navigate interpersonal relationships. 

How and why to become more empathetic

Empathy is often a foundational element of healthy relationships and strong interpersonal skills. Cultivating empathy may allow you to enrich your understanding and respect for close loved ones, friends, colleagues, and even complete strangers. It can help you feel more patient, kind, and connected to the people around you, helping you cultivate relationships rooted in mutual respect and consideration. Becoming more empathetic may be an exercise in self-reflection, socioemotional learning, and mindfulness.

Practice self-awareness

If you have selfish tendencies, it may first help to practice becoming more self-aware. You can reflect on your own feelings and thought processes, questioning those that may be inappropriate, unhelpful, or irrational. If you are unsure, you can consider how your words and actions might positively or negatively influence other people as well as the situation at large. You may see an opportunity to interact with others that is mutually beneficial.

Cultivate curiosity

Deepening your curiosity about others may be critical to learning empathy. You could assess the speech, actions, and body language of others for clues about what they may be thinking or feeling. You could imagine yourself in their situation, considering any differences that may be impacting their thoughts or behaviors. You may also recognize that there may be circumstances that you are unaware of, which can help you extend kindness to others even when you do not understand them.

Develop active listening skills

Getty

Active listening can help you communicate more effectively while demonstrating that you understand what others may be experiencing. You might listen intently, rephrasing their points and asking clarifying questions as needed. You might try to avoid interrupting or talking over them, instead inviting them to voice their input or perspective. It may also be necessary to pay attention to any nonverbal cues or body language you may be using to communicate.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness refers to the habit of critically evaluating your own thought processes, observing the contents of your conscious mind without judgment. Mindfulness can be a valuable lens through which to understand oneself, and in turn, may be helpful for deciding how to interact with others. You can learn mindfulness through journaling, meditation and mindfulness exercises, and therapy.

Communicate understanding and compassion

Others often appreciate knowing that you understand them, so consider incorporating empathetic language into your communications. In addition to active listening, you can communicate compassion through small gestures such as remembering something another person said or did, recognizing when someone may need help, or apologizing for a mistake you might have made. 

Strategies for moving beyond self-centeredness

Overcoming self-centered thinking may involve a high degree of self-awareness and emotional intelligence. While it may take time to begin to reframe selfish thoughts as opportunities for empathy, there are some actionable strategies that may be helpful for laying the foundations of selflessness.

Gratitude

Gratitude can be a powerful tool for recognizing the inherent worth of others. Practicing gratitude may be as simple as saying thank you, though you may also consider a more structured approach such as keeping a gratitude journal or engaging in a gratitude meditation or prayer at the beginning or end of each day. This process can help you tune your attention to the goodness of others, helping mitigate moments of self-absorption. 

Acts of kindness

If you would like to overcome selfish behavior, engaging in selfless acts aimed at helping you understand the value of altruism and kindness can be beneficial. This might involve volunteering, donating to an important cause, or doing something kind for someone important to you. Altruism is known to promote health and wellbeing, and the positive feelings associated with kind acts may create a positive feedback loop as you deepen your sense of empathy.

Loving-kindness meditation

Loving-kindness meditation, also known as metta meditation, involves focusing your attention on feelings of genuine love and empathy, visualizing the joy and wellbeing of others, and attempting to cultivate those feelings within yourself. For example, you may picture a loved one succeeding or direct positive thoughts towards someone who may be struggling. This type of meditation is often used in prayer and can be a powerful way to deepen your connection to and understanding of others.

Seeking professional help

If you are concerned that self-centered thoughts may be interfering with your ability to cultivate healthy relationships or engage meaningfully with others, consider seeking the help of a mental health professional. A therapist can help you understand and challenge these beliefs and may offer helpful strategies for cultivating more empathy in your life. 

Therapy for cultivating empathy

Getty
Need help becoming more empathetic?

Therapy may be especially helpful if social issues co-occur with other mental health concerns. Interpersonal therapy, for example, has been found effective for those with anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is another type of therapy that focuses on changing your thought processes, which may be crucial to deepening empathy. 

For those who find it challenging to connect with others, finding a suitable therapist may feel difficult. Online therapy offers the ability to get matched with a therapist based on your needs. And if at any point you would like to switch providers, getting matched with a new one is a simple process. Additionally, treatment can be done through methods including video chat, phone call, or in-app messaging, making it easier to form a connection in a way that works for you.

Virtual therapy has been found to be just as effective as in-person therapy, though many prefer it for its convenience and affordability. In a review of 17 studies on the efficacy of online therapy, it was found to be just as effective – or more effective in some cases – as face-to-face therapy. Online therapy was found to be more cost effective as well.

Takeaway

Empathy is a skill that may be learned and deepened throughout one’s life. Developing empathy involves cultivating a curiosity about others as well as an awareness of oneself. Active listening and other communication skills can help you establish healthier connections with others, while mindfulness, gratitude, and altruism can move you towards a rich inner life. Therapy, including online therapy, can also help you identify why you may be struggling with empathy and learn how to change your mindset towards others.
Learn to strengthen your mental health
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started