Woman with a crown, looking at herself in a mirror. how to deal with selfish people


Takeaways: Dealing with selfish people is challenging for all of us. It’s hard to have a relationship with someone who doesn’t understand or respect your needs, rights, and feelings, and who is highly in tune with their own. But learning how to deal with selfish people helps you stay sane, set healthy boundaries, and advocate for what you need in imbalanced relationships. Learn how!

Do you have someone in your life who consistently makes you feel like they don’t care about you, or whatever you’re feeling is not *quite* as important as whatever is happening for them? If so, you may be in a relationship with a selfish person. This can be emotionally draining, not to mention frustrating — particularly if they’re your husband, wife, or partner. (Though selfish bosses, friends, and coworkers are challenging too).

As a professional therapist and life coach, I have plenty of experience helping selfish people — and those who care about them — forge more meaningful relationships through personal growth and understanding. 

If you’re trying to figure out how to get your needs met in a relationship with a selfish person, here are some strategies to make it work. (Or, give you the clarity and confidence to let them go).

The first step? Understanding the psychology of selfish people can help you get insight and compassion into the way they think, and why they do the infuriating things they do…

Why Are Some People So Selfish?

Emotional intelligence exists on a spectrum. Some individuals are higher in emotional intelligence than others. 

One symptom of low emotional intelligence is the tendency to be self-absorbed: Exclusively concerned about what you’re thinking, feeling, needing and wanting, rather than attuned to the thoughts, feelings, needs and desires of others.

One thing that I have found to be helpful is to conceptualize the way that people are functioning in the context of their life experiences. People who are “selfish” (have little awareness of the thoughts, feelings, or needs of others) tend to have been raised in environments in which their feelings, thoughts and needs were not recognized or valued. In contrast, highly empathetic people had — from earliest childhood — their feelings and thoughts reflected back to them, and at least respected.

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 are products of their environment. 

The good news is that everyone can learn how to become more other-focused. [Learn more about the importance of empathy] However, this work is long and slow.

People with low emotional intelligence generally have zero awareness that their relational focus is creating distress or annoyance for others…. Because they often fail to pick up or consider how others are feeling.

Can Selfish People Become Less Selfish, Over Time?

While emotional intelligence is different than cognitive abilities in that it can be strengthened and increased through deliberate learning and practice, it requires the person who is lower in emotional intelligence to:

 1) Recognize that there is an issue.

 2) Have an interest or desire in improving the situation. 

3) Learn specific skills and strategies to increase emotional intelligence.

 4) Commit to practicing these skills regularly.

Unfortunately, in this situation the question “can we ‘train’ self-absorbed people to take more of an interest and listen?” is describing the central problem which is also creating barriers for the solution.

People with low emotional intelligence generally have zero awareness that their relational focus is creating distress or annoyance for others…. Because they basically emotional vampires who often fail to pick up or consider how others are feeling. 

“Being trained” would require them to pick up on cues given by others and then respond by doing things they struggle to do: containing their inner experience to the point that they’re able to focus on the other person, listening, etc.

All of these activities, though they seem simple, actually require a complex emotional intelligence / emotional regulation / communication skill-set that is developed over time. Expecting that someone who doesn’t do these things should be able to if they only cared enough is a recipe for disappointment and resentment.

Should You Call Someone Out on Selfish Behavior?

You certainly can point out when someone is being self absorbed or inconsiderate. But, consider this: 

When you (naturally) react negatively to someone with low emotional intelligence (again, someone who may have little to no self-awareness around how they may be impacting others) they will often feel genuinely surprised, offended, and even attacked and victimized. 

For this reason, generally speaking, more often than not, attempts to directly confront self-centered behavior and ask for improvement results in defensiveness, minimization and often an unproductive conflict.

It is therefore extremely difficult for others to create change in a self-focused person. The person doing the calling out is usually just going to get dismissed by a self-centered person as being hostile, difficult, “selfish” (ironically), or a variety of other things. 

It usually takes a self-centered person to experience consequences in multiple relationships as well as in the occupational domain in order for them to entertain the possibility that they themselves are the common denominator.

Now, what CAN work is to “assist” the other person in experiencing natural consequences for their relational patterns. 

For example, it’s normal and natural to not want to spend as much time with someone who is self-centered and a poor listener. Over time, they may notice that they don’t have that many friends, or have short-lived relationships, aren’t advancing in their careers, or often feel lonely and disconnected. They may start to feel badly about that and wonder why. 

This type of self-reflection can lead them to enter into a personal growth process, ideally with the assistance of a therapist or coach who can help shine a light on the relational blind-spots that have been causing others — and ultimately themselves — so much pain. This can lead to a transformational new level of self-awareness and personal responsibility, particularly when it’s coupled with effective direction around how to learn emotional intelligence skills.

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How To Help a Selfish Person 

People who commit to the process of increasing their emotional intelligence can begin learning how to understand their own feelings, and use that as a starting point to develop empathy for others

Often, learning how to name and manage their own feelings feels like new territory for them. They can shift away from the “mind-blindness” that may have characterized their relationships in the past, and begin deliberately focusing on what others are thinking, feeling, or wanting. 

Often, learning how to actively and empathetically listen, ask open-ended questions, and slow their process down to incorporate the perspectives of others are central to developing stronger relationships going forward.

However — and this is key — no one can do this work for them. The selfish person has to be motivated to do this work for themselves. 

If you try to “help” a person grow in this area by confronting them, nagging them, or pushing them towards personal growth work it’s just going to make YOU angry, and THEM defensive. 

(And less likely to do the work). (If this is resonating with you, check out “Is Your Relationship Codependent?

Should You Stay In a Relationship With a Selfish Person?

[M]anage your expectations so that you don’t find yourself getting hurt, disappointed, or resentful when they don’t behave differently.

The answer to this question depends on what type of relationship you’re hoping to have with a self-focused person, and how committed you are to supporting them through their growth process.

How to Deal With a Selfish Person in a Relationship

If you’re dating, it may be wise to let this person go sooner rather than later so that they have time and space to continue to develop themselves personally. 

You’ll be saved from the frustration, hurt and resentment that you’re certain to experience if you continue attempting to get your needs met by them before they are able to do so.

Being Friends With a Selfish Person

Likewise, casual friendships with people who relate to others this way are rarely satisfying. You’d do better to invest your time and energy into friendships with people with whom you can have a more balanced and mutually generous relationship.

When You’re Married to a Selfish Person

Now, if you’re neck-deep in a marriage / kids / mortgage situation with someone who you’ve come to realize is self-centered and lacking in emotional intelligence skills, it may be worth working on things with them.

In these situations “working on things” tends to look like one person getting really angry with the other person for doing what they usually do — being thoughtless and self-absorbed — which leads to defensiveness and withdrawal. (Read, “How to communicate with a withdrawn partner”)

A better solution is to bring this party to a good marriage counselor who can help you both understand what is happening in the relationship in a neutral and productive way that’s more likely to generate real and lasting change. 

The person who struggles with emotional intelligence skills needs guidance around how to be a more emotionally present partner. However, the person on the other side of the dynamic may also need to work on having acceptance, compassion and appreciation for their partner as well.

Dealing With a Selfish Parent(s)

A particularly difficult relationship to manage is when you have a parent or a close family member who is very self-centered. The best strategy here may be to 

 1) Lower your expectations dramatically.

 2) Limit your time together.

 3) Look to other people to meet your emotional and relational needs, because      you’re not going to get them met here. 

Early Warning Signs That Someone Is Selfish

You can save yourself a lot of frustration and heartache by avoiding getting entangled in relationships with selfish, self-absorbed people from the get-go. 

When you’re getting to know someone new, observe how they relate to you, and other people too.

When you’re dating, take self-centered behavior extremely seriously, and do not make the mistake that too many people do (especially women) which is to “date optimistically.”

Optimistic dating is thinking that behavior / personality / values / life goals will change in response to how much someone cares about you or how committed they are to the relationship. 

A lot of women take selfish behavior on their new boyfriend’s part to indicate that they should work harder to be more loveable because then their boyfriend would treat them better. This is not true: The guy is being self-centered because that’s actually who he is. If you want better, cut them loose. 

Furthermore, remember that the way people do small things is generally a microcosm of the way they do big things

Not taking five seconds to text you back all day “because they were busy” implies that your needs are actually secondary to theirs, in their mind. Pay attention to that, especially early on.

A great way to test someone’s generosity vs. tendency towards selfishness is to say no to them when they ask you for something. A generous and empathetic person will understand and respect your boundaries. A selfish person will likely get upset, “hurt” or even angry with you, and they may try to step over your boundaries.

A fantastic and very reliable way to prune self-centered people from your life is to get good at saying no. Expect that they’ll get mad at you, and stay the course. 

If you set a new expectation for the relationship — that this is a two-way street — they’ll either have to do some important growth work, or the relationship will self-destruct. Win – win, either way.

How can someone break a cycle in which the selfish person in their life frequently asks them for favors or time, without reciprocation?

Having Compassion For Selfish People

If you’re navigating a challenging relationship with a self-centered person, it can help you to hold on to empathy and compassion for them.

Keep in mind that the self-centered person really has no idea how off-putting their way of relating is, and that the origins of their selfish behavior are in their own unmet needs for emotional support. These ideas can help you stay in a compassionate place when dealing with these types of people. 

Remember that they just want to be loved too, and they are also doing the best they can with what they have. They got dealt a crappy hand in the supportive family department (OR they are on the autism spectrum, which we have not touched upon, but which is also very real).

All of the above can help you be patient, but also manage your expectations so that you don’t find yourself getting hurt, disappointed, or resentful when they don’t behave differently. 

[Find out more about dealing with disappointment here about how to cope with disappointment.]

Until they discover that the way they’re relating to other people is pushing them away, and decide to get help for this, they’re unlikely to change. 

That’s not your fault, but it’s also not your problem. You can be kind to self-centered people, but knowing who and what they are will also help you set healthy boundaries for yourself and invest your energy and attention in people who can love you back. And if you’d like support with setting healthy boundaries and creating more balanced relationships, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.

Wishing you all the best,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

PS: You, clearly, are already on a path of growth and likely have a lot of self-awareness. (People who read articles like this usually are!)

One low-key way to help someone you love start thinking about the way they are and what their growth opportunities are, is by inviting them to do a “self discovery” type activity with you.

Consider taking our “What’s Holding You Back” self-discovery quiz, and inviting them to do the same. (You can email an invite from within the quiz). I also have a “how healthy is your relationship” quiz if you’re partnered with someone who seems selfish. Even just taking the quiz and thinking about the questions may lead them to — if not an “aha!” moment — a “hmm” moment. Just a thought! Here’s the link. xoxo, LMB


  1. Dambrun M. Self-centeredness and selflessness: happiness correlates and mediating psychological processes. PeerJ. 2017 May 11;5:e3306. doi: 10.7717/peerj.3306. PMID: 28507820; PMCID: PMC5429736. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5429736/
  2. Social Expectations are Primarily Rooted in Reciprocity: An Investigation of Fairness, Cooperation, and Trustworthiness. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/cogs.13326

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  1. This is such an intelligent article. It’s the first good, affirming advice I’ve found. And very true. You can’t tell a truly selfish person anything where EQ would be needed, it’s like talking to a wall.

  2. Thank you, I’m so glad you liked it! And then there are situations when someone seems selfish when really they haven’t learned EQ skills! Thank you for reaching out and being a part of the discussion! Best, Dr. Lisa

  3. Thanks for sharing your insights. The suggestions for coping with a selfish person were helpful.

    There was one part I do wish you were more nuanced with, where you said that empathetic people had their needs met as a child. I rarely had my needs met as a child, and had to parent my parents from a young age, because my parents were caught up in their own traumas and projected their frustrations and anger onto me. But I have always been very empathetic, to a fault, where I too often put others’ needs before my own, even when it compromises me.

    I have always been very aware of others’ emotions and needs, and considered them and done the emotional work to cater to them often enough. I think it’s very possible for a child who had the same upbringing and resources as a selfish person, to choose to be empathetic. This was not fostered by another figure who loved me deeply; I cultivated it within myself, because I felt human connection to others, simply by recognizing their vulnerability.

    1. Bea, you bring up a really good point: Just because someone grows up in an emotionally challenging environment it doesn’t mean that they will be selfish. In fact, growing up in a emotionally difficult environments typically produces people who swing one of two ways: either they lack the ability to have empathy or insight into others OR they are actually highly attuned to the thoughts, feelings, and needs of others. (Sometimes to spooky levels).

      An adult who, as a child, needed to be hyper-aware of what was happening with their parents in order to maintain their safety will often be next-level perceptive about what’s going on inside of others, and has deep “script” around meeting whatever need that is, perfectly and quickly. So yes, tons of empathy, which is a strength. But also often paired with sometimes unhealthy people pleasing or self sacrificing tendencies. Not saying that’s you, but something to be aware of.

      Additionally, there are people who had totally loving and devoted parents who can operate in extremely selfish ways, often because their loving parents were so accommodating their children were never challenged enough to grow in their ability to have reciprocal relationships. (If it’s all about you all the time, how could you?) An important parenting skill is to consider what kids need in order to develop into competent, emotionally intelligent adults.

      However, in this article about how to deal with selfish people, the main message is this: People who operate in selfish ways do so for reasons that are often quite understandable, once you know the whole story. It’s really easy to see someone behaving badly, and reflexively judge or reject them. (And it’s also completely appropriate to make decisions about who you want to get close to vs who’s best to keep at a distance).

      However, if you are in a committed relationship with someone who operates in selfish ways, the path forward is to get curious about why that is. What happened to them, that they didn’t develop into adults with the ability to have empathy, or understanding, for the needs, rights, or feelings of others? Or do they have ADHD, or are they somewhere on the Autism Spectrum? Are they depressed, or so riddled with anxiety that they’re either numb, or self absorbed by their own tortured inner experience? People with anxious attachment styles, or people who need others to behave in certain ways in order to manage their own feelings can often show up as being extremely controlling and selfish. And… there’s a reason why.

      If you care enough about this person to invest the time and energy into figuring some of this out, it will help you have compassion for them and insight into why they do what they do. This will take the sting out of their actions, because you’ll realize it’s not about you at all. If you are committed enough to this relationship, understanding what’s happening and why will also provide direction about how, potentially, to support their growth and evolution into less self-centered people if they wish to do that work. (That last part is important.)

      Sometimes the best way to begin doing this work, particularly in the context of a committed relationship, is to get involved with a really good couples counselor who can help you talk about how you’re experiencing your partner (in effective ways that they can hear), and then use couples therapy as the vehicle for personal growth for both of you. Yours might be learning how to set boundaries, and develop mindsets that allow you to feel more secure and empowered. Theirs might be to work on emotional intelligence. Both would be for the purpose of developing the kind of healthy, reciprocal relationship you want.

      Here’s an article I put together on how to find a (good) marriage counselor. Before you make an appointment please read it: Not all counselors are the same, and 95% of therapists aren’t going to have the training or expertise to help you work through these kinds of relational dynamics effectively. You really need a good MFT — getting involved with the wrong kind of helper in this situation will be a waste of your time and money, ad might make things worse instead of better. You deserve the best!

      With love,
      Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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