Individualism is not Selfishness

By | 11/07/2016

Individualism is a word that can generate controversy and misunderstandings.

When it happens, I believe it is because the word has several meanings and evokes different emotions for different people, according to their understanding of it.

Individualism has a negative connotation when used as a synonym for selfishness and also when it’s used to describe a person who is unable to commit to a romantic relationship or to relate to other people in society. It is important to give deeper thought to this subject, especially in this day and age, in which people are becoming increasingly individualistic.

Individualism has grown basically due to technological advances that made us spend more and more time in solitary activities, such as using computers, cell phones, playing video games, etc., from early stages of human development.

Most mothers work outside the home nowadays and therefore spend less time with their children. Besides, it’s becoming harder for children to spend time together, since it’s no longer as safe to play in the street.

We can define individualism as the ability to exercise one’s individuality. It’s interesting to see how individuality has a positive connotation, as an assertion of one’s autonomy.

We are born without an identity and unable to understand our own self as separate from our mothers’. It takes more than twenty years to develop a sense of self that will define our individuality, which is, perhaps, one of our biggest accomplishments: we finally recognize ourselves as autonomous beings, with our own thought process and opinions based on our life experience – which are, of course, influenced by our environment.

Individuality also highlights our solitude, the precariousness of our ways of communicating with “others” and the fact that we are not always as well understood as we’d wish, because each brain has its own way of functioning, and communication is not always achieved.

For years, we fight the loneliness that comes with the construction of our individuality. As a species, I believe we are still fighting this condition and are only adjusting to it due to the technology advances that have “forced” us to proceed with the liberation process we continually interrupt.

Our defenses against our own individuality are part of the structure of love, of the tendency we have to find comfort initially in our mothers and then in adult substitutes – romantic relationships, patriotism, etc.

When we defend love and the resulting togetherness, we are standing against, sometimes not consciously, our individuality’s growth. We start seeing individuality as damaging to the common good, as something that would prevent us to think of others, as well.

To safeguard the word “individuality,” the focus of criticism is shifted to another word with a similar meaning. Those who fight for the common good are against individualism – which, however, solely means exercising one’s individuality, something they do consider to be good.

I understand apprehension in face of a new concept, apparently in contradiction to what they are used to which, in this case, is that individualism means selfishness and disregard for others. In my opinion, however, there is no contradiction between fully exercising our individuality and developing morals and social consciousness.  Actually, I have noticed that people who are still developing emotionally – that is, people who have not yet built their individuality – are the ones tend to act in a morally dubious way.

Therefore, I not only think individualism is not a synonym for, nor it implies, selfishness, but I also strongly believe the opposite: selfishness comes from emotional immaturity characteristic of those who have not developed their own individuality.

A selfish person can’t be an individualist, because they prefer to live in a social circle, as they are not able to provide everything they need for themselves. They need a group – or some people from this social group – to mooch from.

A selfish person needs to receive more than they can give. They are weak, not cunning.  Better yet, they become cunning because they are weak and they need to use their brains to fool other people and get what they need and are unable to create for themselves. A selfish person has to be nice and extroverted, but they are not like this because they like people and their company. They are like this because they need other people and must seduce them as a means to an end.

Another type of emotional immaturity, although less damaging than selfishness, is generosity. A generous person needs to feel loved and appreciated, so they will do anything to achieve that purpose. Selfish people realize that – they are cunning enough to notice any possible chance to take advantage of someone – and will put themselves in a position to receive the favors generous people are willing to give to feel comfort and closeness.

A solid and toxic alliance is made between these two types of immature and codependent people: the selfish one needs it for their survival, and the generous one, for the emotional comfort and to not feel lonely.

This kind of connection is a very common type of romantic relationships that Erich Fromm called sadomasochistic: the selfish one is the sadist and the generous one, the masochist. It’s a codependency in which the masochist or generous one – that is to say, the least immature one – holds the power. Yes, because even in sexual sadomasochism, the masochist is the one setting the limits!

For the past forty years, I have been trying to uncover and unravel this scenario, which I believe is very problematic, established between the “good” – the generous ones – and the “evil” people – the selfish ones. I’ve been fighting against this duality that has taken us nowhere and is passed down by example from generation to generation.

For decades, I have been trying to see what exists beyond good and evil. I have tried, tenaciously and persistently, to discover a truly moral way of being, away from this standard that sees generosity as a virtue, because it means the very same number of selfish people shall exist. Generosity is not a virtue, because it is exercised by perpetuating the selfish behavior of those who benefit from it.

It must be said that generosity and altruism are not the same. Anonymously helping others one does not know well, or at all, does not reinforce selfish behavior, as it does not imply an intimate exchange within a relationship.

Selfishness and generosity interact and reinforce each other in a negative way in relationships between couples, parents and their children, business partners, and several other kinds of social interactions.

I have been saying this for decades: selfishness will only be eradicated once there is no more generosity. That is, the parasite will only go away once there is no host to harbor them. Therefore, everyone who believes generosity is a virtue is indirectly contributing to the existence of selfish people.

Overcoming the selfish-generous duality requires a way of being I call fair, in which you don’t receive more than you give, but you don’t give more than you receive, either.

The fair person is independent, both on a practical and emotional level. They don’t need anyone to support their survival in a practical sense, as selfish people do, neither do they need someone to give them comfort, as generous people do. That does not mean, however, that fair relationships won’t create a connection in which there are all kinds of exchanges. Fair exchanges.

There is also an important difference between need and desire. Pleasure is the main ingredient for desire, not need, so we tend to be much more careful in “accounting” for all exchanges we make with others.

Emotionally mature people enjoy social and romantic relationships, but because they do not need other people, they are not compelled to be with them at all times, as do selfish people, more immature and codependent.

Mature people also enjoy being on their own, with their thoughts, dreams, music, books, etc.; they have a strongly developed individuality, and became the kind of person they like being; therefore, spending time alone is also pleasurable!

More mature people are, therefore, more individualistic; they are the ones who enjoy their individuality. They have a more restricted social circle, because they are more selective in choosing friends and acquaintances. Others, especially those who are more accepting of our unique condition, might not enjoy human interaction as much and might prefer to lead a more solitary life.

Yes, probably this is one of the reasons we take so long to reach this stage that can be called emotional birth, which means accepting our condition as unique and solitary beings.

Although born physically through our delivery into the world, only a few months later do we understand ourselves a being separate from our mother, which is our psychological birth. It seems we need another twenty years to reach our emotional birth – that is, to those who manage to get to this point!

I reaffirm my belief that individualism means a person achieved emotional maturity, which is an essential condition to establish solid romantic relationships and also take a clear moral step forward.

This is the good news that comes from the dramatic and not always appropriate changes we’ve seen in the past fifty years. I hope we have time to see it flourish, which will only happen if the world does not end in another war between “good” and “evil!”

Tradução: Amanda Morris