The self is what we commonly refer to as the collection of our experiences, knowledge, values and personality. When we say someone is selfish, we are usually referring to a negative attribute, in which a person places their own interests above the interests of another.
In Gestalt therapy we pay attention to the ways in which a person makes contact with herself (or himself) and the world. Does she avoid or interrupt contact with others? Prolong it? Or have trouble withdrawing from contact? These ways of managing contact are called creative adjustments. Using my own experience as example, I tend to avoid contact when I think conflict might ensue. My creative adjustment to this situation is to avoid contact with the person with whom I have conflict. Perhaps I don’t answer their phone calls or text messages, or maybe I avoid the topic of potential conflict in my conversations with them. It may not always be healthy or productive for me, but in a deep sense my avoidance is my way of taking care of self.
In this way, we understand that each person acts in her (or his) own best interests by creatively adjusting to different situations. People are more likely to make creative adjustments when situations are challenging or difficult. And this adjustment rarely, if ever, makes sense to someone witnessing it. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing the exact nature of someone else’s experience, so we tend to dismiss their behavior (adjustments) as illogical, crazy, stupid, etc. Each of us makes creative adjustments, all the time, throughout the day. When we are on the receiving end of someone else’s creative adjustment, it is tempting to label the other person’s behavior as “selfish”.
Creative adjustment is how each person takes care of the self. In this sense, they are self-ish. I invite you to think about what it would be like if, next time you hurry to label someone “selfish,” you instead reframe it “self-ish,” with the understanding that he or she is doing their best to creatively adjust to their current situation.