A character known for noble deeds, selfless sacrifices and a lifetime of service is normally The Ace, The Hero or The Messiah. They seem to have an extra quality that makes them give of themselves without a second thought. However, occasionally a nasty spanner is thrown in the works, and the hero is forced to question their fundamental motives: are his/her good deeds really performed for the benefit of others... or, deep down, are they doing these things for themselves, without even realising it?
This challenge usually comes from a third party — often someone with a grudge against the hero, if not an outright villain. They argue that if the hero is going about their life without being miserable, or giving up absolutely everything, then they aren't really being good: they're just giving what they can afford to give and reaping the benefits of being "a good person". This antagonist may have a point... or could just be trying to undermine the do-gooder's confidence.
The usual "selfish" motive offered is usually one of reputation or identity: doing these altruistic or self-sacrificing things fills a void for the person doing them. If someone or something comes along that would remove that burden from their shoulders, they panic - because who are they if not the Love Martyr or The Caretaker? Alternatively, being good may reap social rewards, making their good deeds a transaction rather than a gift.
The other common argument is that Good Feels Good: the person accusing them of being Secretly Selfish will point out that since good feels good, it has a built-in reward system. Therefore, you're no different from the villain, who gets the same high from committing crimes. This is a common argument against someone who is preachy and self-righteous characters, who are only pretending just to make themselves look good, rather than genuine belief.
Even if the hero reluctantly admits that they get something out of the deal, being Secretly Selfish does not make a character "bad", just plausibly flawed, and it's possible for Character Development to make a character become more genuinely selfless. However, there is definitely a truly selfish variation. In these cases, the character is usually outright lying to themselves about their motives, and in need of a calling out.
Cynical works will agree that yes, there is no such thing as a completely altruistic person and all people are selfish in one way or another — in fact, the belief that everyone is motivated purely by self-interest is the very definition of cynicism. An idealistic work will admonish such a way of thinking as bad people trying to drag good ones down to their level. Characters who definitely have, and know about, their unscrupulous ulterior motives are not Secretly Selfish - they're the Wolf in Sheep's Clothing. On the other hand, a more pragmatically good hero is more comfortable with the idea of Enlightened Self-Interest, and less inclined to have a moral meltdown. The Selfless Wish and Secretly Selfish tropes usually serve to deconstruct each other: the existence of one in a fictional universe usually "weakens" the concept of the other. The Straw Hypocrite is the cousin trope, where the hypocrite is selfishly not practicing on what they are preaching.
- Puella Magi Madoka Magica:
- Sayaka Miki sacrificed her peaceful life to heal her crush - who was verging on suicidal after damage to his hands looked set to end his career as a violinist. Given that his attitude towards her swung from polite indifference, to ingratitude, to downright violent at his lowest points, Sayaka seems to be (and considers herself) a selfless Love Martyr. She also takes pride in her desire to help those in need. Before she makes her wish, her Cool Big Sis Mami actually questions how truly selfless she is, and Sayaka's reaction is Visible Silence. Then, she makes the wish and is hit with the Awful Truth: she did want something for herself: she wanted Kyosuke's gratitude -- and subsequently his love -- and she wanted to be the heroine of her own story.
- It's hinted that many if not all magical girl wishes are made by girls who don't want to admit to themselves what they really want...making them just the right kind of wishes Kyubey needs to drive them into despair and make them witch out, as they decide that wanting something for themselves makes them terrible people. It's easy to see if one examines the wishes made by the other main magical girls: Kyouko wished for her dad to be succesful in his preaching because the family was starving and she thought she'd save herself and them; Mami wished to save her life after a car accident but in her despair she didn't extend it to her parents and deeply regrets it; Homura wished to save Madoka after she died for her, but she also can be seen as her wanting to be the one to do something so important for her... Madoka's Selfless Wish escapes this solely because she has gathered enough power and experience to not let Kyubey prey on her insecurities any longer, so she's completely honest in her intentions.
- Yuuri (and, to a lesser extent, Kurumi) of School-Live!. She believes that letting Yuki live out her delusions is the only way to keep her calm and happy. Incomer Miki, however, is quick to realise the real reason why the club haven't called out Yuki's behaviour: Yuki's cheerfulness keeps everyone else going. In fact, when Yuki regains clarity, Yuuri falls into delusion almost immediately afterwards. Miki notes that not addressing Yuki's behaviour is actually dangerous for Yuki herself. Admittedly, Yuuri seems to have grudgingly realised her own real motivation as well, but she is incredibly reluctant to change it.
- In Revolutionary Girl Utena, it turns out a character was invoking this trope all along, in regards to another. Rather than wanting to help and protect Anthy in the Duels, what Utena truly wanted was to be Anthy's Knight in Shining Armor so she could bolster her own ego and making Anthy relay on her, without taking Anthy's actual desires and thoughts into consideration. She only realizes this truth after finding out that Anthy was Akio's Decoy Damsel and, understandably, she's devastated. This grim revelation gives Utena the determination to truly free Anthy from both Akio and herself, rather than just White Knighting for her so she could feel good. It works since Anthy sees her sincerity, realizes Utena is truly fighting for her rather than for her own ego... so in the end she decides "I Will Not Be A Victim" and leaves Ohtori with Chuchu to find the missing Utena, finally liberating herself from Akio and her own demons.
- Played very darkly in Neon Genesis Evangelion.
- The heroes of the story are trying to protect humanity from the Third Impact, which would cause mass extinction. In spite of this, and in spite of their presenting themselves as grand, heroic figures, every single member of the cast (including Shinji, but that's for later) is doing this for entirely selfish and ultimately very tragic reasons: Asuka is in it for the glory since she was neglected as a child and lost her mother horribly, Misato is in it for revenge because she was at the center of the Impact itself and was traumatized, Rei has been raised specifically for this purpose and was cloned from a woman involved in this, Ritsuko is being manipulated into it by her lover Gendo and is struggling with her own self-image, and Gendo himself is only interested in using the crisis to resurrect his wife/Shinji's mother, the woman that Rei was cloned from.
- The show's protagonist, Ikari Shinji, is only of the few characters to not be secretly selfish... but only because he's up-front about his own selfishness: he knows and straight up says that he's more interested in pleasing his father than he is about saving the world. The rest of the cast tend to look down on him and scold him for having such self-centered motivations, but at the end of the series, when all of their consciousnesses merge, Shinji is able to see that they're no better than he is.
- Ironically, one of the only members of the cast to genuinely care about the future of humanity is Kaworu, one of the Angels that the humans are trying to save humanity from.
- A common theme in Pet Shop of Horrors, as it's a series based around rather nasty moral tests along with a helping of Armor Piercing Questions. You claim to want your wife resurrected? Is that for her sake or just to absolve your own sins? You wish you'd died in your friend's place? Sounds noble, but are you just running from your own guilt? Do you really want to protect your son from your abusive ex-husband, or are you ashamed to admit that you'd rather save your own skin instead of your child if you had to make that choice? Of particular note is that characters who admit their selfishness (such as the Senator's assistant who admits that, to him, the happiness of the woman he loves is more important than the fate of the nation) fare rather well in the Count's tests, since the Count admires their honesty.
- Reki from Haibane Renmei seems to be a kind Team Mom however it turns out she's this way for selfish reasons. She wants to break out of her Circle of Sin and be able to have her Day of Flight. Despite this, she does end up truthfully becoming nice (even if she's in denial).
- Zekkyou Gakkyuu has the Do-Gooders club, who goes around the school doing good deeds, ranging from simple acts such as picking up the trash, to saving others from bullying. As the chapter goes on, it becomes apparent that the club members are only doing these nice things to be praised by others. In fact, they deliberately cause problems that they would later "help" fix, to further advance their accomplishments.
- My Hero Academia This trope pops up a couple of times with Iida Tenya. Though he's not a bad person, while he tries to be an upright person, particularly after he's made into Class Rep, there have been several incidents where Iida puts himself and his own goals above others:
- When Uraraka was stuck under a robot during the Entrance Exam, Iida noticed that she'd gotten her leg trapped but chose to continue fighting robots anyway and leaving her behind, whereas Midoriya immediately tried to help her even though he was way behind everybody else and hadn't earned any points for destroying the enemy robots. Later, Iida commends Midoriya for this and berates himself for his selfishness.
- During the Sports Tournament Arc, after Midoriya manages to come in first during the obstacle course, he then finds out that was actually a bad idea, as with all the points he earned made him a huge target for the other contestants. When he looks for teammates for the Cavalry Battle, Uraraka immediately says she'll support Midoriya, but Iida doesn't, saying that at the moment, Midoriya is his rival first, friend second, and joins Todoroki's team instead.
- During the Stain Arc, Stain nearly kills Iida's older brother Tensei, crippling him and forcing him to retire as a Pro. Iida is so enraged that he goes after Stain by himself, and during their confrontation, he totally ignores the wounded hero that Stain was about to kill. Stain, of all people, calls him out on this.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer: During the Season 9 comics, Willow becomes obsessed with finding a way to restore magic to Earth, convinced that the world is dying without magic and needs it to survive. Over the course of the Willow: Wonderland miniseries, she eventually realizes and confesses that she actually just wanted magic back so she could feel powerful again.
Willow: ...Maybe just a couple of sads. My friends need me. At least, I keep telling myself they need me. The truth is... when I think about now, they seemed to be doing fine. I'm the one who was falling apart. Without magic, I'm back to being part hacker, part hostage, while my superpeeps kick evil's butt. I was so convinced the world needed magic. That life on Earth is fundamentally missing something. But maybe... maybe it was just me.
- The Plutonian from Irredeemable is this combined with Love Hungry. He ultimately became a superhero to fulfill his deep-seated desire for love and acceptance (resulting from a Dark and Troubled Past) coupled with an intense martyr complex imposed on him by his foster parents.
- Any mother written by Jodi Picoult, to the point of straight-up demonization of motherhood as a whole. They will go to their graves maintaining that they are the Only Sane Man, and the only one in family willing to do something and make sacrifices and why does the rest of her (badly neglected) family have to make things so difficult?!! Anyone else will point out that said mother has a boatload of issues and either a serious case of narcissism, or a messiah/martyr complex.
- Sarah in My Sister's Keeper sees herself as a martyr who only wants what's best for Kate — even if that means making everyone else's lives miserable. She keeps the spotlight on her own suffering and sacrifices, and conveniently glosses over the fact that the actual person being dragged through unnecessary medical procedures and who is being pressured to give up an organ is Anna, her younger daughter. Sarah's husband and sister both realize that her whole identity centers around being Kate's Crusading Mother — and while part of her motivation is indeed a deep love for her child, part of it is that she'll lose that identity if Kate dies.
- Charlotte O'Keefe in Handle with Care eventually admits that the court case she sets in motion (ruining the lives of everyone involved with it in the process) was really a case of It's All About Me, not, as she initially claimed, all about Willow, her daughter with osteogenesis imperfecta.
- Emma in House Rules centres her whole life, and that of her younger son Theo, around the needs and demands of her autistic son, Jacob. She prides herself on "managing" Jacob, to the point that she's sabotaged any coping skills he might have been able to develop, because teaching him to be independent would mean that she would lose The Caretaker role she's built her life around.
- At some point, the protagonist of Tales of MU laments that she must be evil, because she only helped another to avoid feeling bad for not helping her. Her interlocutor answers that it's how everyone works, and what proves her a good person is the fact not helping would have caused her to feel bad in the first place. An evil person would feel nothing for not helping.
- Ciaphas Cain, HERO OF THE IMPERIUM!!!, admits in his memoirs that everything he did during his Imperial Guard service was with the ulterior motive of keeping himself alive. Cain has a massive case of Heroic Self-Deprecation, considering himself a Dirty Coward and nothing else. Cain doesn't seem personally conflicted about this, but the setting is one in which human culture has a martyrdom complex, and where the concept of Enlightened Self-Interest provably fails when applied on any significant scale, so it has to be a secret. In the teaching part of his career, he tries to teach his students to behave rationally on the grounds that while surviving can't be too high a priority, until they get some experience they won't recognize when a situation actually merits sacrificing themselves.
- In Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic, Sandry, a noble and a thread-mage, is regularly accused of this. For the most part, she genuinely is just a good person, but her friends point out that, while she's gone to great lengths to protect people on her estates in Namorn, they wouldn't need protecting if she'd just sign the land over to someone who actually lives in the country — her possessiveness (and dogged determination to hang on to one of the last reminders she has of her parents) puts the people living there at risk. Before that, her beloved Uncle accuses her of hiding from her responsibilities in Namorn by taking on other responsibilities in Emelan — which seems rather unfair, as the extra responsibilities she takes on are HIS responsibilities, and she's been covering for him after he had a heart attack.
- Vishna in Counselors and Kings is a wise and benevolent Old Master, but secretly he's aligned with one of the trilogy's main villains, Kiva, and has been her accomplice for decades, if not longer. He says it's because he made a vow to help her when she was young, but his actions indicate he's actually afraid to back out when he's in so deep and acknowledge his responsibility for his actions. However, when his favorite pupil (and son), Matteo, calls him out in it, Vishna is sufficiently shamed that he finally manages to pull himself out of Kiva's influence - for the cost of his life.
- Inverted with Earl from My Name Is Earl. He starts his to-do list of good deeds to catalogue every bad thing he's done. He plans to make up for each one to earn positive karma so good things will happen to him — a basically selfish motive. However, his actions cause him to become a genuinely better person anyway.
- In one episode of Friends, Joey and Phoebe's subplot revolves around an argument they have - Joey posits that there is no such thing as a truly selfless good deed, because the good deed doer always wants or expects something in return - even if it's nothing more than feeling good about doing good.
- House, M.D. is constantly accusing Wilson of this; only being so caring for his patients because it's the only thing that makes him feel good about himself. House, being House, seems to believe this to be true of all altruistic actions.
- It's revealed in The Good Place that good actions and deeds can be negated if they're performed for these reasons. Hence why Tahani is actually in the Bad Place - she did a lot of charitable things, but only because she wanted the attention it would bring her (as well as to compete against her Always Someone Better sister).
- A big part of Persona 4, as the characters' shadows will be happy to tell you. The characters work on addressing these issues over the course of their Social Links.
- Yosuke sees himself as investigating Saki's death out of a sense of justice and because of his affection for her. His shadow responds that he was trying to be a hero — and trying to relieve his desperate small-town boredom. His Social Link involves coming to terms with Saki's death and his own insecurities about not being "special."
- Chie is Yukiko's protector and confidante. Her shadow sneers that this is only to feed a sense of superiority, because she's jealous of Yukiko (who she sees as superior in every way), and having the other girl depend on her boosts Chie's ego. That said, Chie points out that while her jealousy was true, she does genuinely want to help Yukiko.
- Yukiko is an incredibly dutiful daughter, who's a model student on top of putting in long hours at her family's inn. Her shadow informs her that this is all just an act she puts on, hoping that being so virtuous will attract a "prince" who will reward her by whisking her away to somewhere nicer, where she doesn't have to make as much effort. Her Social Link begins with her deciding to take the initiative to decide her own future, and ends with her deciding to inherit the inn for the sake of her hometown and the inn's employees, who've been like family to her.
- Persona 5 also has these sorts of issues.
- When the Thieves target Kunikazu Okumura, a fast food CEO accused of unethical business practices, they find out that the man's daughter is cooperating with Morgana (who'd left the group due to an argument with Ryuji), but Haru refuses to join them, saying that it's her responsibility to deal with her father. Some time later, though, the group finds Haru being confronted by a man who happens to be her fiance, and shortly afterward, Haru admits the real reason she's opposing her father- by stealing his heart, she won't have to go through with her Arranged Marriage to the man, whom her father had arranged for her to marry in order to gain political power.
- Yuuki Mishima, in an attempt to make amends for spreading rumors about the protagonist, starts a website for people to make requests to the Phantom Thieves, but it turns out that he's partly motivated by a desire to become popular and get back at those who bullied him. A good part of his Confidant involves dealing with Mishima's Shadow and helping him change as a person.
- Despite how much Yusuke loves art and wants to paint purely for the pursuit of beauty, it's obvious that he also desperate for his work and art to be acknowledged and is in dire need for financial assistance, even considering selling his art for money. Yusuke began to worry that his heart is "tainted" now that he had other motives to create art. Both Ann and Ryuji reassure him that these motives don't make him a bad person, as long as he doesn't lose his altruistic reasons for painting.
- A big part of Persona 4, as the characters' shadows will be happy to tell you. The characters work on addressing these issues over the course of their Social Links.
- Ultimately this plays a big part on BlazBlue: Central Fiction where the world is trapped in a depressing time loop, and everyone feels like they want to change it to make progress... Except for every one chosen man who wanted change for everyone, there is a selfish reason, and they all contrast to each other so much, that it's impossible for the world to change. On learning this, Ragna ends up deciding to embrace the 'villain of the world' status to devour the selfish desires of the cast and force them to just accept things and move on with their life.
- Previously this is also invoked on one of the cast, the resident Anime Chinese Girl Hospital Hottie Litchi Faye-Ling. On the first impression, she seemed to be this nice and compassionate lady who's dedicated to protect the Orient Town from the monster Arakune, even as she's trying to save him, but has stated that once the 'saving' is done, she would go back to being the town protector as everyone has idolized her. As the game went further, her own deteriorating condition forced her to take selfish actions, including one FaceHeel Turn and eventually being on board with the plan of an Obviously Evil villain to blow the world up for her one wish to have a world where Arakune is not a mutated being, turning her back against her other friends, who called her stupid for pursuing it. What makes her this trope is that as much as she disliked the notion, she decided that she shouldn't be so picky for her one goal, so she pushed on, even after in Central Fiction, she learned that the world refused to even entertain her one wish because she's simply not The Chosen One compared to the rest, much to her own grief.
- Undertale: On a Neutral or Pacifist route, Alphys'll offer to guide you through Hotland and protect you from her out of control robot, Metatton, but the truth is that Alphys actually reactivated the puzzles and told Mettaton to pretend to threaten you so that she could "save" you and feel better about herself.
- Mikan Tsumiki in Super Danganronpa 2. She's known as the Ultimate Nurse due to her incredible wealth of knowledge and skill in health care. However, during one of her free time events, she reveals the reason she became a nurse because she realized that sick and injured people are weaker than her. She helps not so much out of kindness, but because she enjoys the power that comes from their complete dependence upon her. Given her history of being bullied and abused since childhood, this isn't all that surprising. In fact, she got so good at treating wounds because of how often she had to treat her own, since no one else would help her.
- Kei Sakurai from Dies Irae. She wants to use the Golden Alchemy offered by Reinhard to resurrect her parental figures, Beatrice, as well as her own brother, Kai. Of course, doing so involves the slaughter of an endless number of innocent and not so innocent people, yet Kei has driven herself to believe that, since she thinks she is doing it for someone else, her cause is just and that she is some sort of tragic anti hero/villain driven to extremism due to factors outside of her control. Several characters call her out on this, yet the words of Trifa are those that end up cutting the deepest as he gets right to the root of it all, correctly claiming that she is not doing it for them, but rather for herself in order to regain the family she lost, everyone else be damned.
- Steven Universe:
- Pearl and Garnet at various points. (Interestingly, Amethyst very rarely falls into being Secretly Selfish because she's so up front about what she wants). In this case, they're mostly aware of their own motives and try to address their issues, but occasionally they don't pick up on it until after the damage is done.
- On a general level, all of the gems dote on and care for Steven, and are perfectly willing to risk their lives for him...but that's partly because Steven is their Living Emotional Crutch, and their behaviour often forces Steven to handle issues that, as a child, he shouldn't really have to cope with. Something that Amethyst directly admits to Steven as being wrong of them in the latter half of the show's run, especially considering that the Guilt Complex Steven had developed by that time means if they don't actively seek him out to serve as their emotional crutch, he will. However, that does not mean that they're bad caretakers, even if they think this is the case.
- Pearl, the most maternal Gem, wouldn't let so much as a cold wind blow on Steven if she could help it...but a big part of that is the psychological hangover from being his mother, Rose's, self-proclaimed protector. She's been utterly bereft after losing that part of her identity, and really wants it back.
- Garnet falls foul of this in Future Vision. Letting Steven know how her power works initially seems to be her usual humoring of Steven's curiosity, but at the end of the episode she admits that really, she wanted Steven to understand her better so that she could be closer to him.
- Many episodes of South Park have one of the adults or the kids performing something they see as good for the community only for everybody else to try (to comically very little avail) to tell the character in question that what they are doing is simply shoving their beliefs on everybody's faces and ruining people's lives. Which makes one episode where Eric Cartman (who is one of the biggest examples of The Sociopath) takes in all the cats of South Park out of an actual, unselfish love of them a very surprising inversion, In-Universe and out.
- Family Guy:
- Brian often conveys himself as a firm liberal against corrupt or fascist dictations. A lot of the time however, he is revealed to be a pretentious Attention Whore who only has a barebones idea what he's preaching about so he can look smart. One episode had him switch completely to conservatism on the grounds he could get in more people's faces.
- In "Ocean's Three and a Half", Peter and his friends decide to rob from Carter's mansion when he refuses to help them pay back a loan shark. While discussing their plan, Peter mentions that they're going to rob the vault clean, only for Cleveland to remind him that all they need is $20,000. Peter then reveals that he's actually taking this opportunity to get back at his father-in-law for treating him like crap for so many years.
- Hayley of American Dad! was portrayed very similarly to Brian in early episodes, though despite her hypocrisies, she still stood for far saner views than her right-wing extremist father Stan.
- Schools of thought that see humans (and life forms in general) as fundamentally selfish will maintain that altruistic or "pro-social" behaviour is strictly for the benefit of the performer, not the receiver. In fact, the very definition of cynicism is the belief that people are motivated purely by self-interest.