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Am I Being Selfish, Self-Centered or Simply Self-Aware?

If you're a perfectionist, you can get these three quite mixed up...

 Photo by Isabella Jusková on Unsplash
All for one or one for all...
Source: Photo by Isabella Jusková on Unsplash

Do you believe, “If I ask for something I want, I’m being selfish?"

Or does it make sense to you that there's a huge difference between being selfish, self-centered and self-aware?

Let's talk about those differences.

First let's take self-centeredness. Here's an example: A self-centered person might say, ”Oh, I’m so sorry your mom has cancer. That’s horrible. 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 me 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 you're left wondering why you even bothered to talk to them in the first place. Or somehow you absorb a weird kind of shame for sharing, as if your struggles or your joys don't matter.

The difference between being self-centered and selfish

Selfishness is putting yourself, your own needs, in front of someone else's, most or all the time. If there's pie, a selfish person grabs the last piece. If a child needs to be picked up, they have an appointment they can't miss, and it's left up to you.

Sometimes, not being able to be available or to put someone else's needs first can't be helped. But if it happens all the time, then it's beginning to sound like selfishness. And it's very hard to be in a relationship with someone who knows only how to take, and rarely to give.

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 as sometimes you put the wants and needs of others ahead of yours. But your needs are in consideration enough of the time.

The important word there is "enough." Sometimes, that's not a lot, because someone else's needs take priority, and for good reason. And we all get really, really...really busy. Yet there are other times when you find yourself in a more painful or frightening or confusing place and frankly, your needs — and you — need attention and support.

You could call it good self-care. You ask for help, and hopefully, receive it.

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.

So this is what you heard from people who were supposed to be taking care of you:

  • “Nobody asked you.”
  • “You shouldn’t be hungry, we just ate.”
  • “You need to call and tell your friends your birthday party is off. Mommy’s tired.”

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 handed out 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 that you needed to stifle your desires.

They weren't important.

You weren't important. And you continue that belief into adulthood.

But the fact is, you’re as important as anyone else.

3 things you can do to try self-awareness on for size

So what can you do if you struggle with knowing the difference between self-centeredness, selfishness, and being self-aware?

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.

You have to be ready for that. 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 30 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.

More from Margaret R Rutherford Ph.D.
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