J'accuse! Who's selfish?
July 7, 2015 7:32 AM   Subscribe

What is the best and mature way to defend oneself from unfair (in my mind) accusations of selfishness in a dysfunctional family?

My family can be a little weird sometimes and to complicate things I work in a family business with my brother and father. I’ve become pretty OK at dealing with most of our issues but there is one thing I cannot stand; accusations of selfishness. My grandparents used to let this accusation fly and my father does it occasionally. It seems to be a last resort attack when they realize they can’t get their way. IT DRIVES ME BONKERS!

A few weeks back my mother called me at work upset about a remote gate opener she had loaned me to get in her neighborhood while they were out of town. I politely told her that I didn’t have it and that I was at work. I asked if it was something that could be dealt with later after work and could she drive out of her neighborhood the long way for a day. She was not happy about it. I told my father about it later and how she often calls at work about matters that could be handled at another time and he called me selfish. I got upset but remained mostly calm.

This weekend we had a pretty big blow out. Last week at the office I was busy preparing for a meeting that I had in an hour. He asked me to help sync his IPad. I looked at it and determined it would take more time than I had at the moment and respectfully told him that I’d have to look at it later. He got a little upset but it was no big deal until this weekend. He got pissed that I didn’t play a song play a song for him. He called me selfish in a really condescending tone and brought up the IPad thing and I blew up at him.

The accusation really made me upset because I was at work (for him) and under a lot of pressure and stress. His IPad is his toy and was not a priority when I had to prepare to leave for a meeting.

I just realized that probably 80% of the time it is a conflict over something personal of theirs vs. work time. I also think that using the words “not my priority” sets my father off as if he hears me saying “you are not important” maybe. With that said I could probably head the accusations off ahead of time.

I believe that that calling another person selfish to their face is in itself a selfish act (and aggressive) and feel that he and my mother feel entitled to my time. Assuming that the accusations are unfounded, how do I properly defend myself and/or my actions when this happens?
posted by Che boludo! to Human Relations (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Say "that's ridiculous," and let them stew in their own juices. Christ, how silly.

Or alternately, say "would you rather I prepare for this meeting, or fix your iPad?" If they say "fix my iPad," then there's really no reasoning with them, but I'd say "I think if I don't prepare now, I'll regret it." "Would you rather I finish my work here in the office for Dad, or drive out to get the remote for you so you don't have to go the long way today?" I don't know, make their concern sound relatively petty compared to what you are actually, currently doing. Either they'll back off, or they'll throw a tantrum, in which case you can just state that not doing your shit is a bad idea.

Or alternately... don't work for them anymore.
posted by easter queen at 7:38 AM on July 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

*shrug* "If you say so."


[accuser's head explodes]


Seriously, you can't win, so just don't care, or give the appearance of not caring. There's not actually anything wrong with being selfish. They might as well call you focused or grown up or pragmatic. They do it because it works, so make it stop working.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:40 AM on July 7, 2015 [36 favorites]

I always look at accusations of selfishness as someone being upset that you're exhibiting good boundaries. That said, this is an accusation that is often leveled at me so OF COURSE I would think that. So it sounds like you're doing the right things and you also know that you may need to work on the wording a bit to not set these things off. You also need to find ways to walk it back and not have these things turn into situations where you blow up. People who are dysfunctional will often just go around pushing buttons until they find the one that sets you off. Vow to not have this be a topic that gets you riled in the future. No more blow ups on your side.

So, once you've given yourself a reality check (maybe with friends or other family, is your mom reasonable about this?) that it's them, not you, I'd work on the message. Instead of making it seem like a conscious choice ("I don't want to" even if you have a well thought out reason) I'd make it more a circumstance thing "I'd love to but I can't" and then stonewall, don't debate the can't stuff just MissManners the hell out of it "Because it's impossible" And then don't debate the specifics. Have a response that shuts off further arguments. "Selfish because I don't have time to do this thing? I guess that makes me selfish...." and learn to hear it in the way you think they're using it "I'm mad because I can't get my way" and not "There is something wrong with you, and I'm your dad and what I say matters"

It's tough to grow up and realize your parents can be petty and unreasonable about things and they you may have better coping strategies than they do, but this is how it works sometimes.
posted by jessamyn at 7:41 AM on July 7, 2015 [40 favorites]

If by "defend yourself and your actions" you mean "justify or explain yourself" to your family in the moment, I'm not really sure that's possible. They know you're at work and that they're asking you to do something non-work-related; do you think saying so in the heat of the moment will make any sort of light go on? Unfortunately, I doubt it - all you'd be doing is confirming their belief that their accusation is valid and worthy of discussion - which it isn't! In the moment, I'd treat this like a difference of opinion over - I dunno - whether or not cilantro tastes good. There's really no response that's going to change their mind, all you're doing is inviting pointless squabbling, and it's truly not even worth discussing then and there.

In a calmer period, MAAAYBE you can have a discussion about this, but that would really depend on your family dynamics - do they generally treat you with respect? Would they listen to you and reflect on their own behavior if you brought it up in a neutral moment? I'm ... guessing probably not, but you would know better than we would. If you think there is a chance that they'd be open to an adult discussion, maybe sit down with them in a calm moment, tell them you'd like to talk about situations where they feel you're being selfish, discuss the fact that it's frustrating you because you feel like these situations arise when you're at work and need your focus to be on work stuff, and ask what they'd like to do to address the matter.

Again, that's really assuming that you can have those kinds of conversations with your family; if you can't, then ignoring it is really your best recourse. They can think whatever the hell they want, it doesn't change the fact that you're doing what you need to do.
posted by DingoMutt at 7:44 AM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you do want to help them out with their various things, give them an exact time that you can help them.

"Fix mah ipad!"
"Um, let me see it...ok I'll have to look at this later, right now I need to prep for this meeting."


"Fix mah ipad!"
"Right now I need to prepare for this meeting, but I can help you with the ipad when I'm home from work tonight at 6."

The former can be read (not saying this is right, just saying possible) as you deciding their problems aren't important enough so you just dismiss it entirely.

The latter sets a clear boundary between YOUR time and THEIR time, but also shows clear, scheduled intent to help. Only someone behaving very irrationally would take that as dismissive or selfish.
posted by phunniemee at 7:44 AM on July 7, 2015 [5 favorites]

Here is the thing about families: they know where all your buttons are, and will push them. So if you cannot stand being called selfish, then that's a button and they'll push it.

Your defense is to stop letting that be a button. You know it's nonsensical and that they're not being fair. You know they're going to keep doing it, most likely. So stop letting it get to you. Come up with a standard response; I like the one where you say "I'll get to that at x time, I have a meeting I have to prepare for," and just use that, consistently.
posted by emjaybee at 7:51 AM on July 7, 2015 [13 favorites]

Obviously the accusation of selfishness is something you are sensitive to and your family knows that. The only way to maintain your boundaries and priorities is to own it. Just firmly say that your work issue is your priority right now. I like "if you say so" as a response to accusations of selfishness.
posted by deanc at 7:58 AM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

If this is mostly about their tasks vs. your work tasks, and your work is for a family business, then you could try placing the blame on the objective fact of the work tasks themselves (leaving you the Good Cop who'd really love to fix that iphone or drive the keys across town, but darn it, those work responsibilities are intervening).
"Sorry, dad, but these reports really need to be filled out right now, or we'll miss the deadline."

Or "Sorry, sis, but that meeting powerpoint needs to be finished in the next half-hour."

If the part where you choose to prioritize work stuff over them is what annoys them, then leave that out of your framing altogether and they'll have less opportunity to respond to it. If they still cry "Selfish!," then your line is, "What? I can't help that the powerpoint needs to get done."
posted by Bardolph at 8:00 AM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

I just realized that probably 80% of the time it is a conflict over something personal of theirs vs. work time.

Maintaining a functional family business is really, really tough for exactly this reason: there's so much crossover between personal and business priorities and relationships. It's not the right work environment for...probably most people, and I think maybe it's not the right work environment for you, because I can see it here too:

I told my father about it later and how she often calls at work about matters that could be handled at another time and he called me selfish.

If this were only a working relationship, then yes, it would be appropriate to go to your manager and say, "hey boss, I've been having an issue where this other person you supervise keeps interrupting me with personal requests while I am trying to work and has been reacting really badly when I tell her I need to finish a work task first. Do you think you could talk to her about this and/or do you have an expectation that I help her out with this stuff?" But this is also a family relationship, so your dad hears: "dad, mom's making me do stuff I don't want to do and it's not fair!" There's too much tangled up here. If I were you, I'd start job hunting.
posted by capricorn at 8:02 AM on July 7, 2015 [7 favorites]

I'd also say refocus away from "defending yourself from accusations of selfishness" and think about redefining it in your mind, i.e. "whenever mom and dad say I'm selfish, what they're really saying is that I don't always prioritize their immediate wants and needs over my own, which is actually OK for me to do", take a deep breath and focus on the facts instead of the name calling, emotions, etc.
posted by capricorn at 8:07 AM on July 7, 2015 [12 favorites]

Since it seems like a lot of the conflicts deal with work, can you (at a calmer moment) have a sit-down about work vs. personal time and what expectations each of you have? Since it's a family business, they may not be differentiating between work and personal time, so (as you suggested) being put off for a work thing just feels like being told they're unimportant. Whereas you (at least seem) to be better at establishing boundaries. A discussion may illuminate both your motivations (you're not actually saying they're unimportant) and cue you to different language to use that helps them understand that in the moment.

But... it sounds like this is an established family dynamic dating back to your grandparents, so it may just be easier to treat the outbursts like the tantrums they are: ignore and don't engage beyond a mild response of your choosing. They're just acting out and (consciously or unconsciously) pushing the red button. There is no way to get then not to push the button, except (maybe) to not react. So either don't react, or rephrase it in your head to them (inarticulately saying) they're feeling unwanted or whatever and calmly address that issue (as you being selfish isn't the actual issue).
posted by ghost phoneme at 8:16 AM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oof, I've been on the receiving end of this kind of behavior and it's incredibly frustrating. One thing that's helped me during my family's tantrums is thinking of Ambrose Bierce's definition of selfish from The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary:

"Selfish, adj. Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others."

You might also try this if you feel up to it:

Family: "You're so selfish and horrible rabble rabble rabble!"
You: "I can live with that."

If you're used to trying to defend yourself, this can feel very strange and maybe cruel at first. It gets easier with time, and can even feel empowering to watch them react like a deflating balloon going "thbbbbbbtttt" into the distance.
posted by Chkalovskaya at 8:55 AM on July 7, 2015 [16 favorites]

I like the "I can live with that" response Chkalovskaya suggests; it is a minimal response and pretty much shuts down further discussion. It's also easy to remember because it's short and sweet.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 9:05 AM on July 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

Part of working for your family business is that family stuff can and in this case must be done during work time. You might not like this, it might be foolish, but it is obviously the case. "I have a meeting to prep for, I can't finish your iPad now" is one thing, "I'm at work and can't help you out all day" is another. I suspect your father is reacting based on your history and not this one specific incident.
posted by jeather at 9:58 AM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I told my father about it later and how she often calls at work about matters that could be handled at another time and he called me selfish. I got upset but remained mostly calm.

In addition to good advice given above, don't engage in third party discussions. Deal with people directly. Do not respond to gossip. In this instance, your father is calling you selfish in response to something you didn't have to mention at all. Some of this stuff will inevitably go on but don't add extra.
posted by BibiRose at 10:13 AM on July 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Having a toddler taught me so much about conflict prevention and resolution. The "inversion of control" technique is especially gangbusters in situations like these: instead of saying "I have a meeting right now so I'll do it later", you say "I have a meeting right now but I can do it at [OPTION ONE] or [OPTION TWO], which do you prefer/works better for you/fits better with your schedule, mom/dad"? They key is to let THEM choose so they feel in control. And if mom and dad persist in calling your selfish - or if you simply wanted to have a little bit of fun - you could even step it up and offer to cancel the meeting in order to run their Super Important Errand as one of the choices!

On a separate note, I am a recovering goody-two-shoes and it would make me glow with pleasure if someone called me "selfish" because I didn't place their needs before my own.
posted by rada at 10:13 AM on July 7, 2015 [8 favorites]

"You may be right" is one of my favorite turns of phrase for boundary-setting. Gives them the validation they're seeking while ultimately defusing the situation.
posted by juniperesque at 10:52 AM on July 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Since it is not a real accusation of wrongdoing, when they call you selfish you should just agree with them. "Yeah, so?" If they do more than sputter at their inability to cripple you with one word now, add, "I guess I am. I'm an adult. I'm not going to act like a fool."
posted by cmiller at 11:40 AM on July 7, 2015

What is the best and mature way to defend oneself from unfair (in my mind) accusations of selfishness in a dysfunctional family?

Remind yourself often that unfair accusations flung within the context of a dysfunctional family are mere reflections of the dysfunction, rather than actual issues calling for an actual defense.

If it helps with this particular accusation, convince yourself to believe that the word you're actually hearing is "shellfish".

"You're really shellfish" or "now you're just being shellfish" are obviously silly accusations. If your family members are trying to make you believe you're shellfish, then clearly they have more problems than you could reasonably be expected to solve.

Ah, you say, but "selfish" isn't really "shellfish". Which is perfectly true; but the point is that in this context it might as well be. Treat the accusation as attention-getting squeaks rather than words intended to make sense, and you'll be better off.
posted by flabdablet at 12:35 PM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

What is the culture you and your family come from like? Is it one where elders are prioritized, or supposed to be prioritized? Where there are expectations of service? Because if so, then it's completely normal for parents to feel that you are being selfish when you are bucking that trend, because it's like that within their culture - and also totally normal for you, outside of it, to resent that.
posted by corb at 3:35 PM on July 7, 2015

The problem with defending yourself in the face of such accusations is that by trying to justify yourself you legitimize what they've said, and when you're caught in a dysfunctional dynamic like this, the last thing you want to do is engage with their crazy. This is much easier said than done, but you have to practice the art of disengaging. You need to do what you need to do to manage your life, and then let them react how they will.

Here's the thing: When they call you selfish, this doesn't really say anything about you. What is actually going on is that they are acting selfishly, and they're irritated that you're not playing along. They may or may not be conscious of what they're doing in these instances, but it doesn't really matter. You aren't guilty of what they're accusing you of, so why should you have to defend yourself? And since you weren't in the wrong to start with, what could you possibly say to change their minds?

I know it can be really hard not to engage, so I would recommend completely removing yourself from the situation whenever possible (go for a walk, to the bathroom, anything). It's often really helpful if you can vent to someone who is not at all involved with your family. Rather than trying to defend yourself against their accusations, call and friend and tell them about this crazy, unjustified thing your father (or mother) just said. This is how you take away the power they have to drive you crazy. (If you don't have anyone to vent to, even just writing in a journal can help.)

For what it's worth, I have a family with similarly dysfunctional dynamics, and I would rather walk over hot coals than work for/with them. Maybe you should consider a career change.
posted by litera scripta manet at 3:46 PM on July 7, 2015

You could try taking a few seconds to empathize and go all "oh no, this is a terrible problem! I wish I could help you right away [and give them a really concerned look]. As soon as I'm done here I'll take care of that first!"

These teeny tiny little things you can't prioritize over your job seem to be really important to them - every single one of them! So you can try to share the sentiment - "oh Mom this is soo important!", and next step tell her "I'll do it ASAP! Damn, this work has me completely bogged down. Love you!" If they insist and go all "but it has to be NOW!" you can just double down with sorrys. And then disengage.

Maybe some parents feel that time = love, which is also a convienient, if silly, way to quantify love. I'd bombard them with love whenever they come with a request, but draw limits. And then complain some more about how little time you have to help them out, because damn, this job. It doesn't mean this is hypocrisy or fake - I think you probably do love them and wish them to be happy and trouble-free.

It won't solve the problem of them respecting your boundaries, but I have resigned myself to working around my parents' limitations - god knows my hypothetical kids will have to do it as well!
posted by ipsative at 7:42 PM on July 7, 2015

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