Here's a quote by George Bernard Shaw:
"Self-sacrifice enables us to sacrifice other people without blushing."
Now, think about that. Very interesting. Pretty radical? Blasphemous, even, especially to all the martyrs of the world. The great Irish playwright is saying in most simple terms that those who sacrifice themselves feel justified in sacrificing others. If this is so, can we not conversely conclude that self-love and healthy self-centeredness must lead us to do what benefits all others, as well?
If you're up for it, below is an extensive excerpt from a Pathwork Guide lecture on the "MISCONCEPTION ABOUT SELFISHNESS."
"People very frequently think -- and if they do not do so consciously, they feel it unconsciously -- that whatever brings them happiness must be damaging to someone else. Hence, it is inevitable that your conscience bothers you every time you are happy, whether you were actually selfish or not. This guilt is bound to afflict your inner will for happiness.
Your unconscious concept is that if you enjoy something, your pleasure will automatically be at the expense of somebody else. Since you were taught that it is wrong to be selfish, you feel you must suppress your 'selfish' desire. You fail to distinguish whether your desires are actually selfish or not, and you indiscriminately suppress all desires. In the belief that all desires for happiness are selfish, you do not dare to desire at all. In the process of suppression, unable to distinguish one from the other, you lump together the really selfish with the really healthy desires which have nothing whatever to do with selfishness. Thus, you have no way of sorting them out, of judging, of coming to terms with them. Only then would you be in a position to freely decide for some desires and against some others.
In short, this is the unconscious concept: since desires aim for happiness and wanting happiness is selfish, I must suppress all desires. You do not realize that as they are driven out they continue their existence underground. The really selfish desires in your unconscious make you feel guilty, but so also do the rightful desires. Both continue to claim and clamor inside of you, often without your awareness. On top of all this, the prohibition you inflict on them makes you resentful. You resent the world for not allowing you to be happy, while in reality it is your wrong conclusion about happiness that is the cause. In the process of suppression of all desires and impulses, the childish and therefore actually selfish ones cannot mature and refine themselves. This can happen only if they are faced and dealt with in awareness. As a consequence, your legitimate and healthy desires and impulses, which are not selfish in the least, cannot find fulfillment.
You are all weighed down by the unconscious conclusion that something is selfish merely because it makes you happy. This is very tragic, my friends. It is a needless cost you pay in happiness and joy. You dare not wish for happiness simply because you fail to discriminate between actual and imagined selfishness. Every time a rightful and healthy impulse for self-expression manifests, you feel and think of it as if it were your really immature and crude selfishness.
The question now is how to treat the real selfishness that exists in the immature part of every human being. The usual and wrong way to handle this is to suppress it and superimpose a compulsive unselfishness that is not genuine. Out of the superimposition stems the unconscious concept that it would actually be very pleasant to be allowed to be selfish. This notion gets a foothold within you, and you unconsciously believe that to be selfish would bring you happiness, but alas, you are not allowed to be happy. You wrongly think that should you give in to your desire for happiness, you would not be loved or approved of. Since love and approval are so necessary for you, you would rather forsake 'happiness.' The inner conflict can be stated in this way: 'If I could be selfish, I could do anything I wanted. That would mean happiness. On the other hand, I cannot be happy if I am not loved and approved of. Therefore, I must become unhappy, in order to be happy.' This sounds completely illogical, but the immature unconscious is this illogical and this contradictory. You can now see what utter confusion exists in the human soul. I am sure, you will not have too much trouble confirming similar feelings in yourself. I venture to say that this conflict exists to some extent in all human beings.
This wrong conclusion accounts for the utter hopelessness you so often feel -- a hopelessness that finds an outlet in occasional moods for which you sometimes find outer reasons and rationalizations. This very conflict is the underlying reality of your hopelessness. Were your misconception true, happiness would indeed be an impossibility. You would be justified in being hopeless if you couldn't be happy without being loved, and you cannot be loved when you are happy, for happiness is selfish according to this erroneous concept. There is unhappiness either way. You may fluctuate between the two alternatives, but whichever way you turn you find yourself unhappy and frustrated. You often rebel inwardly and try to force the people around you to break this law, or what seems to you a law. But your conviction that you are in an insoluble situation causes you to try to get out of it in the wrong way. The irony is that you try to come out of it by sometimes actually acting out your most childish and selfish impulses rather than your legitimate and healthy ones. This must offend others and provoke them to react negatively toward you. And this, in turn, convinces you anew that your predicament is indeed hopeless. Since the cause of your rebellion is unconscious, it does not occur to you to choose to act upon your healthy impulses; instead, you pick the most drastic examples for your experiment. The drastic examples are the selfish impulses. Only by a growing awareness and conscious discrimination can you be in a position to make the proper choices and so receive the proof that your conclusion was wrong. It becomes self-evident that this conflict frustrates your inner will and prohibits the deserved fulfillment of your desire.
The idea that selfishness, if allowed, would be a happier state, may be only in your unconscious mind, while consciously you know all the right answers. In that case, questioning yourself in the proper way will bring you closer to the inner contradiction. By going deeply enough, your answers will be less and less convincing, even to yourself. When this happens, you are approaching the afflicted area. Some of you, if you but took the trouble to think about it, might even find a consciously-held belief that you would be happier if you were allowed to be selfish.
Whether this misconception exists in your conscious or in your unconscious mind, how can you be freely unselfish in your actions day in and day out? Not doing the unselfish act makes you feel guilty, doing it seems to be a violation of your will and conviction. It cannot be a free act, independently chosen. Whenever you do something out of compulsion and not because you say yes to it, you cannot be at one with yourself. You must be divided, in conflict, you must lose your inner peace and your sense of rightness. How can you be happy either in doing something that makes you feel guilty, or in doing something that appears to be against your personal interests? Either alternative brings dissatisfaction.
Let us now examine why this concept is wrong. I am addressing that part of your personality where you hold the misconception. First, not everything that makes you happy is automatically selfish and damaging to another merely because it makes you happy. Quite the contrary. As a happy person, you are better able to bring happiness and joy to others. You are entitled to the same consideration for yourself as another person. Only as a free, strong, and happy person can you have fulfillment in life and be constructive in your environment. In order to accomplish this, you have to give yourself consideration, you have to respect your own rights, and they will not conflict with the interests and rights of others. If sometimes it appears that way, ascertain the truth with absolute self-honesty. There are no fixed rules to determine whether actions are right or wrong when they appear to be against the interests of another person. However, it is essential to become completely aware of all your wishes, impulses, and motives. Only in that way can you discriminate and judge which one is selfish and which one is not.
As to the actual selfishness that seems, consciously or unconsciously, so advantageous and desirable: In reality selfishness cannot offer any advantage to you, even if it seems so at the moment. The higher your consciousness is, the more absolute will this conviction be in you. At the moment it may be difficult for you to understand this truth, and then you should just strive toward this fuller vision as a goal. But the true concept cannot become part of you as long as you try to force it upon yourself; as long as you act in the right way because you think you should; as long as the decision is not wholly your own and therefore free. In the meantime, all you can and should do is to be honest with yourself.
When it still seems to you that the selfish act would be more desirable, contemplate the following: An isolated event, with all its causes and effects, will have a different aspect than the same event would in its larger context. In other words, a particular incident may actually seem to warrant the view that selfishness is advantageous. But if you follow through the chain reactions, you are bound to gain a different perspective. The different view will give you the desire and activate the free will to decide for the unselfish act rather than be driven to it as before. This in itself will make a tremendous difference. It will automatically open a new vista, showing you that selfishness is not advantageous, either now or in the long run. It is divorced from reality. As long as you see only the first effects of an action, you do not possess a view of the whole picture. It is only a segment, and the segment cannot convey the whole.
Let us say, you are shown a little stone from a big house. You can tell certain facts by looking at the stone: the quality and material, as well as the color. But you cannot tell what the house looks like from seeing the stone. You can judge neither its beauty, its architecture, nor the proportions and furnishings of the rooms.
It is the same with the inner and outer actions, attitudes, and reactions of the human being. By considering only the immediate effect, you take it upon yourself to pronounce judgment upon the whole picture with only a segment available. You need to extend your view, so that you are in a position to have a truer vision. This does not mean to accept something on faith; nor does it mean that by being good, you will be rewarded in the hereafter. The effect of right action can be seen here and now, while you are still on this earth plane.
When you think or feel that selfishness would be to your advantage, you are leaving out the obvious. You fail to connect cause and effect, and therefore your view is blurred. But you do not need supernatural vision or metaphysical knowledge to put two and two together. You need only to think, reach a little further, and see what is right in front of your eyes.
Let us suppose you have to make a choice between a selfish and an unselfish act. The unselfish act does not seem to bring you benefit, at least not directly. However, if you are objectively convinced that it is beneficial as such, be it for the world at large or for a small group, or for one other person, it is bound to benefit you too in some way, perhaps not always immediately, but often much sooner than you think. This conviction will grow in you. It will become an inner fact, but only if you have made a full and wholehearted decision for the unselfish act. Decide for it only because you are convinced it is right, and not compulsively, because you want to receive a reward, whether in the form of affection, love, approval, or to obligate others, or because you believe that God will reward you for having been a good child. Your action must be self-chosen for its own sake, regardless who seems to benefit from it immediately. When you do so, you will be at one with yourself. This will widen your horizon and raise your consciousness to the necessary maturity. The truth will then dawn on you that selfishness is not advantageous and is definitely not in your interest. Or, to put it differently, unselfishness is healthily "selfish."
I said before that performing an unselfish act for a reward turns the act into a selfish one. However, if you do the right thing in the right and mature way without ulterior motives and out of free choice, you will reap a reward of another sort, namely the good feeling of being at one with yourself, the security that only self-respect can offer. To do something wholeheartedly gives added self-respect that is a decided advantage manifesting in many ways. It will give you, among other things, the strength to overcome many a weakness for which you may despise yourself. It will reduce certain fears and anxieties, especially when dealing with other people. Your fear of others is always based on your feeling weak and inadequate. By coming to terms with your confusions, by making independent decisions for carrying out unselfish acts, thus being at one with yourself, you gain the self-respect which reduces the very inadequacy and self-contempt that make you weak and fearful toward others.
I cannot emphasize strongly enough that it is all-important whether or not you act unselfishly because you truly want to or because you think you have to. As long as the conviction that makes you want to is lacking, you have to continue the work of self-search, of examining your motives and concepts in comparison with objective truth, until you arrive at the point of conviction. Only then are you capable of making a free choice that is not driven by compulsion. This, in turn, will show you that unselfishness is not a yoke that you have to take on against your inner conviction. Instead, you will see without a doubt that unselfishness is really "selfish" in a healthy sense, and that it is to your advantage, provided your motives are right, your decision free, your reactions mature.
This will free you of the misconception that selfishness could make you happy if you were allowed to indulge in it. The other misconception, that happiness is selfish and is therefore forbidden, exists because of this misconception. Because of these wrong conclusions, your inner will cannot function, cannot flow out of you. Each time the desire for happiness manifests, a little inner voice prohibits it so that the inner will is broken. The desire may be reborn on an outer level, but, as I said before, the outer will cannot suffice in bringing you to any goal: it will only tear you apart; it will destroy your inner strength, serenity, and peace.
Try, all of you, to recognize your will; where it comes from, how it feels. If and when you find the inner will blocked, examine where and why you have doubts about the rightfulness of your desire. At times this suspicion may be justified because your desire may actually be harmful to others or to yourself. At times, your desire may be justified, but many unconscious, unhealthy motives may exist together with the healthy ones. At times, a wish may be wholly right and good, but your misconceptions -- about selfishness as well as in other areas -- may prohibit the inner will to function."