Just last week, I was called selfish by a stranger on the internet. An article that I'd written about not having children was re-posted online and I received an onslaught of Facebook messages. Most of them were insightful and kind-but a handful were calling me selfish.

It was not the first time I had heard my selfish person. But this time it struck me in a new way. I'm not sorry for my decision, and I believe it is the right one for me, but does that absolve me?

I wrote about myself. I write this column, along with other lifestyle and travel stories, and talk about myself a lot. This is how I make a living. It can often feel narcissistic and self-absorbed, especially when I post these articles on social media channels. Those online commenters may have a point. Am I a selfish person after all?

Before judging myself, I talked to a psychologist about what "selfish" really means.

Selfish is defined as being concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others. Simply put, Art Markman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Texas and author of Brain Briefs, tells SELF, selfish individuals are more likely to prioritize themselves over others. "When we call someone selfish (as a trait), we mean that they consistently put their own goals ahead of those of other people."

Markman says that in "an extreme version" the Dark Triad-narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. "People high on these traits tend to be quite selfish and manipulative," he explains.

But even in the absence of these extreme traits, most people do have what he refers to as an egocentric bias. We’re not all selfish by default, but it’s normal to lean toward the self-centered side of the spectrum. “We tend to evaluate the world related to our own goals,” he says. “We overestimate the contribution that we have made to group activities compared to other people. As a result, we tend to think we deserve more credit (and more share of the reward) for outcomes than we actually deserve.”

A truly selfish person may upset the balance of reciprocity. For example, we expect that when we do things for our friends and neighbors, they will do things for us. "A selfish person in that context is someone who does not contribute their share," Markman says. "Over time, they do not keep the score" as much as closely, but we still know when there is an imbalance in which one person is consistently giving and another is consistently taking .

Hearing Markman's definition of what makes a selfish person, I was pretty sure I'm not alone. But then, is not that exactly what a selfish person would say? Sigh.

I have some friends who are so completely unselfish. My friend Sarissa works full-time, has two young boys, takes care of her mother, and always makes time for me and others. She's not the only person I know like that.

And then there's me: I am not that friend who talks only about themself on, say, a group text chain. (Cough, cough.) And I try to practice empathy and kindness. But does that make me not selfish? I have only myself, my husband, a dog and a cat to take care of. I care for my family, but I am not their caretaker. I've put my needs before others'. I've written thousands of words on the internet about my own life and experiences-and doubled down by promoting those stories on social media.

I started down the rabbit hole with Markman, wondering if I'm just another member of the "me" generation, dressing up selfishness as self-care and self-expression. He set me straight right away: "Adults have been decrying the 'me' generation forever. The children growing up in the '70s were labeled the' me 'generation, but there is no evidence that they are any more or less selfish than Boomers or Gen Y or Millennials. "

To really determine whether I'm selfish, Markman tells me, I need to stop looking in and start reaching out: "With your close friends, you can ask yourself whether you come across as selfish. Then, be willing to listen to the answer without getting defensive. "

So what's what I did.

I asked my husband, two best (and very honest) friends, and my mom if they thought I was selfish.

I texted some and emailed others, and I asked if they thought I tended to act selfishly. I encouraged them to be honest. This was research, after all! And I could take it, I swear.

My husband, Nate, replied first, telling me that my concern for others always comes before my own and it’s one of the things he loves most about me—and then calling me out for always taking the booth side at a restaurant.

My mom told me that it was touch-and-go when I was a teen but I’m the “least selfish person she’s ever met.” I take this with an enormous grain of salt, because my mom never says a bad word about anyone and is—well—my mom.

My West coast bestie said that she's sure the time I recently felt guilty making Nate dog-sit while I took a girls' trip. My East Coast bestie simply replied, "Um, no. Total opposite. "She has two toddlers, so I'm chalking that up as lack of time to reply with my faults.

At the end of my journey inward, I felt pretty confident that the haters online who called me selfish are just being "mean behind the screen." 71

Maybe they’re right. Maybe deciding not to have children was a selfish choice. But is being selfish always a bad thing? We’re constantly forcefed self-care articles and the gospel of “me time.” How do we distinguish between taking care of our mental health and being stingy? Why does a woman choosing a fulfilling career and marriage over childbearing make her selfish—not self-aware?

Markman says that it's not always bad to prioritize yourself over others and that there are times when your own goals should take precedence . An example: Someone who is working towards an advanced degree will have to prioritize their studies. He adds that they are fine for the sake of others, but for the period in which they are studying, it's fine for people to focus on their own needs.

And he says the choice to have children is to choose the best of things for you. Deciding not to put your needs first. "That is a self-centered decision, but to call it selfish means that someone is imposing their value structure on the choices you have made."

family-think of me as giving and willing to put their needs ahead of my own when necessary, I'm more comfortable rejecting the value of judgments of strangers. I'm confident that making a self-centered decision for how to live (or write or tweet about) my life, is not inherently selfish.

That said, I'm not Mother Teresa, and I'm sure there are plenty of times I could do better. So I'm going to take Markman's advice to pay attention to what other people are doing and try to help them achieve their own goals. "Ask them whether you can help with anything they need," he says me. Will do.

I’m also going to look out for people in my life who aren’t giving me what I need. Markman says that with friends (and neighbors and colleagues), it’s important to hold out for reciprocity because relationships are based on there being some mutual benefit. He suggests having a discussion with those friends who take but don't give and ask them to be more considerate of your (and other people's) needs. “If they will not contribute to the friendship, it might be time to let them go.”

I know for sure that the people shouting at me on Facebook are not contributing to some mutual benefit, so I 'm ready to let them-and their judgment-go, too.


Anne Roderique-Jones is a freelance writer and editor who has appeared in the work of 80 Vogue, Marie Claire, Southern Living, Town & Country, and Condé Nast Traveler. Twitter: @AnnieMarie_ Instagram: @AnnieMarie_