Thoughts around what it means to be selfish, self-centered, or self-aware can be muddled and even feel contradictory.
Do you believe if you ask for something you want, you’re being selfish?
Or if you say no to a request, you’re being self-centered? Do you know what it means to be self-aware?
Perhaps you’re not familiar with these terms, or how they are different from each other.
First let’s take self-centeredness. A self-centered person might say, ”Oh, I’m so sorry your mom has cancer. I’m sure you’ll be taking her for treatments, but does that mean that you won’t be able to keep carpooling?“ Or it might sound like this, “Wow, congratulations! I’m so happy you’re going to have a baby. It took us four years and so much money for infertility treatment. I wouldn’t know what it feels like to do it all naturally.”
A self-centered person grabs the focus without thinking, and without concern for others. You’re left wondering why you even bothered to talk to them in the first place. Or you might absorb a kind of shame for sharing, as if your struggles or your joys don’t matter.
The difference between being self-centered and being selfish…
Then there’s pure selfishness. Selfishness is putting your own needs or desires in front of someone else’s, most or or all the time. If there’s pie, a selfish person grabs the last piece.
You may struggle so hard not to be or appear selfish that you don’t speak your truth or your values. Others become accustomed to you not having a voice or vote. Over time, your silence can either be manipulated or taken for granted. And that can lead to a heavy loneliness.
How is self-awareness different?
Being self-aware is a very different choice. My definition is simple: You keep in mind your own needs or wants, and treat them with as much consideration as you treat the wants and needs of others. Your needs don’t always rise to the top of the needs/wants/time available chart, but they do sometimes…just like sometimes you put the wants and needs of others ahead of yours.
The important word there is “enough.” Sometimes, that’s not a lot, because someone else’s needs take priority, and for good reason. Yet there are other times that you find yourself in a more painful, frightening, or confusing place and frankly, your needs (and you) need attention and support.
Is this confusion a part of perfectly hidden depression?
If you struggle with perfectly hidden depression, you may not know the difference between selfishness and self-awareness. You might not have been taught or treated as if your childhood needs and wants were even significant.
The following might be what you heard from people who were supposed to be taking care of you.
“Nobody asked you.”
“You need to call and tell your friends your birthday party is off. Mommy’s tired.”
“You know your father loses his temper when you’re late.”
This often occurs in families where there’s abuse or neglect, where parents have a rigid, authoritarian style of parenting, or where secret addictions were present. You were consistently told subtle (and not-so-subtle) messages that if you wanted or needed something, it didn’t matter. You learned that your needs came after others.
And you continue that belief into adulthood.
Yet… you’re just as important as everyone else.
Three things you can do to try self-awareness on for size…
So what can you do if you struggle with these distinctions?
1) Confront your own “selfish” label.
Ask yourself this: Would you tell someone else that they were being selfish if they took a walk for an hour instead of doing laundry? No. You wouldn’t. Usually when you apply to yourself what you would say to someone else, you have to laugh at the irrationality of what you’re thinking.
2) Understand that being self-aware can increase the likelihood of vulnerability.
When you turn your attention on yourself, either through calm thought and meditation, or through paying attention and even nurturing yourself, pain can emerge. You’re giving yourself the message that you’re important — one that maybe you never received before or didn’t receive appropriately. And you might not be accustomed to feeling vulnerable. Or sad. Or angry.
3) Risk doing something, at least once a week, that’s just for you.
Even it it’s a small thing, like taking thirty minutes to sit down and read, driving out in the country, or calling a friend.
Gifts to yourself don’t have to be big to make a big difference. It may feel awkward at first, but it’s so worth it.
Because you’re worth it.
You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
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Originally published on May 7, 2016; updated and republished June 19, 2022.