Thoughts around what it means to be selfish, self-centered, or self-aware can be muddled and even feel contradictory at times.
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 different they are from one another.
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… so 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 and places it on themselves, without even realizing it. You’re left wondering why you even bothered to talk to them in the first place. Or you might absorb a kind of strange-feeling 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.
It’s not an admirable trait and can make creating healthy relationship almost impossible.
Yet “being selfish” has been targeted as such a huge personality or even character flaw that you may do everything you can NOT to appear selfish. So, you don’t speak your truth or your values, your wants or desires. Others around you can become so accustomed to your silence that they may either stop asking what you want or think or manipulate the reality that you don’t, whether that manipulation is conscious or unconscious.
Yet you can also label your silence – your lack of stating who you are and what you’d like – as humility, all the while growing more resentful. “Oh, I don’t care what we do,” if it’s a your generic response rather than what’s true for you in that moment, can breed that resentment, which others will sense and perhaps label as you being “passive-aggressive.”
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. You know how you feel; you recognize what would be preferable to you. Yet your needs don’t always rise to the top of the needs/wants/time available “chart fo the day” – let’s say as you plan your family’s weekend. But they do sometimes…just like you put the wants and needs of others ahead of yours.
We had a vacation mantra that we went by in my family. “It’s everybody’s vacation.” So, we’d all say what meant the most to us to experience, both as individuals and as a family, and we planned as best we could to make that happen.
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 along the lines of what you heard or absorbed.
“You need to call and tell your friends your birthday party is off. Mommy’s tired.”
“Nobody asked you for your opinion. Keep your thoughts to yourself.”
“You know your father loses his temper when you eat snacks from the pantry; he might want them later for himself.”
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 given 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 instead of doing laundry? If the answer is, “Well yes, the laundry is something that’s got to be done.” Well… you’re not wrong. But if I added the word “always” to that question, how would you feel? “You should always do the laundry instead of taking a walk.” Hopefully, you’d say no. And, if your rules are different for you than for others, you can begin to see and laugh at the irrationality of your 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 – a message that maybe you never or rarely received. 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.
It can be a small thing, like taking a few minutes to sit down and read, drive out in the country, or call a friend. You can even give a gift to yourself; it doesn’t have to be big to make a big difference.
It may feel awkward at first to do things like this for yourself, 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 January 28, 2024.