5 Traits of Secretly Selfish People Psychologists Say to Watch Out For

Zulie Rane


The funny thing about selfish people is that you can go your whole life being friends, coworkers, or lovers with them and you’d never know it, especially if you’re the kind of person who gives with no limit.

Selfish people know how to cover their tracks. It’s in their best interest to keep you around and happy. They’re experts at knowing how much they can get from you without going too far.

However, using science and psychology, it is possible to spot these traits before you wind up wrapped up around this person’s little finger. These five traits are dead giveaways for people who will always put themselves before you.

1. They have a lot of acquaintances, but not many friends.

Selfish people cultivate a network of “friends” who can help them when they need it. To form a long-lasting, healthy friendship, you need to have a give and a take. Selfish people prefer instead to rely on a loose group of discardable contacts who are easily cultivated and won’t hurt their reputation, this 2019 study shows.

When I was in college, I was “friends” with this girl who was the life of the party — fun, elegant, beautiful, and subtly selfish. She frequently had people bending over backward to give her whatever she wanted. I pursued my friendship with her because I always felt like she really liked me. I only realized, too late, that she kept me at arm’s length and only called me when she needed something, whether it was a wing woman on a night out or to bring her a tea from the local cafe.

How can you tell when this is a sign of someone who’s truly selfish? After all, some people are just shy. Others (like me) really believe they are best friends with selfish people. Don’t assume that every single person without close friends is actually selfish. The giveaway is the rotating group of acquaintances.

2. They never ask for anything directly.

Selfish people are masters of subtle manipulation. You’ll know you’re in the company of someone deeply selfish if you find that you, or other people, often are doing things that benefit that person without them having ever explicitly asked you. “Manipulation is an emotionally unhealthy psychological strategy used by people who are incapable of asking for what they want and need in a direct way. People who are trying to manipulate others are trying to control others,” Dr. Sharie Stines told TIME magazine.

For instance, if you’re with your friends and one of them says a few times how chilly they are, and how much they wish they’d remembered a jacket, notice what happens next. Frequently, they end up with someone else’s coat, or maybe the group relocates to a warmer spot, no matter what the whole bunch wanted to do in the first place.

If selfish people always asked for exactly what they wanted, they’d be immediately outed as the egomaniacs that they are. Instead, they make subtle comments and queries that accomplish the same thing, but without giving their behavior away. The pattern to watch out for is when this happens often.

3. Other people get hurt around them.

Selfish people, at their core, prioritize themselves above all others. One of the symptoms of this mindset is that the people around them are usually the casualties. Good leaders know when to prioritize cooperation for the greater good, this 2019 study reports. Selfish people never do.

One of the boys in my sister’s social circle was deeply self-centered. He was charming, so he was able to avoid detection for the most part. My sister only began suspecting when she noticed that especially female friends in that circle found that they were hurt. Casual, cruel comments that could be written off as jokes; forgetting dates; reneging on promises. People are fragile. We’re easily hurt. Selfish individuals don’t take time to care.

We all hurt each other sometimes, but selfish people have a pattern of consistently hurting those around them — not intentionally, but because they just don’t care enough to take the steps normal people take to avoid harming the feelings of our friends and family.

4. They seem to lead a charmed life.

Most of us live with compromises. We get this, we give up that. We do this to live companionably with other people. Being in a friendly society just means there’s give and take. Selfish people often seem to have opportunities fall into their laps and dreams come true with startling frequency because compromises are foreign to them. “Very self-absorbed people are clear in their minds as to what they want or need whether this occurs in the moment or longer term,” writes Dr. Nina Brown, professor and eminent scholar of counseling, in Psychology Today.

If there’s someone in your life who enjoys an extraordinarily high rate of success, it’s possible that’s all due to them and their talents. But it’s also possible that they stepped on others to get there. Self-absorbed people view their relationships as either tools or obstacles on their climb to the top.

To differentiate between random luck and consistent selfish behavior, try to identify the byproducts of success. If people are being asked to give up things that matter to them, or if they get hurt on someone else’s journey, it could be because that person is selfish.

5. They never give back.

Selfish people are on a road to their own victory and everything they do is geared to help them achieve that. If someone is truly self-absorbed, you’ll notice that n othing that they do is free.

Some of us show this behavior on occasion: I’m always reluctant to help my partner with chores, for example. Maybe you don’t like to give up your things when your friends ask to borrow them. This isn’t that, though — selfish people never do anything for others unless it benefits them in some way.

To find out if someone is selfish, try asking them for a big favor. If they make an excuse, or only do it with strings attached, it could be because they’re actually not generous or giving at all — they’re selfish. “The difference between selfishness and self-care lies in the intention. When we are selfish, we do only for ourselves despite the cost it may incur on others around us,” writes Dorida Burnham in the Changing Perspectives Counseling Group blog. That difference is the crucial distinguishing feature that can help you identify selfish people.

Most of us are a little selfish. It’s part of human nature, and there’s nothing we can do about it. And for the most part, it pays to forgive others — and ourselves! — for our occasional self-absorption.

But truly selfish people are a deadly combination of draining, hard to be around, and weirdly difficult to spot. You’ll find yourself giving up your time, energy, and priorities for them time and time again and always wondering what could be enough. I’ll spare you the trouble — nothing will be enough for them, and finding that out the hard way could cost you your friendship.

Deeply selfish people are often charming. They often make us feel like we’re friends. It can be tough to acknowledge when you’ve been manipulated by someone like that. But the sooner you identify the signs, the sooner you’ll get back to living life on your own terms, with true friends who support you no matter what, not only when it fits their agenda.

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