In DBT we talk about Mindfulness and Interpersonal Effectiveness, and somehow my head got caught up in the following conversation with a patient the other day:
Is there a difference between selfishness and self-centeredness? The patient was struggling to say “No” to a friend for fear of being considered ‘selfish’. The patient said, “I really struggle with people who are selfish! I never want to be perceived as a selfish person.” Somehow, the conversation turned to a discussion about selfishness versus self-centeredness. I asked the patient if the two concepts meant the same to them. The patient paused for a while and responded, “It feels as if there is a difference but I’m not quite sure about it.”
C.S. Lewis contrasts selfishness with self-centeredness. It seems that we have very little self-compassion for ourselves when it comes to standing up for our needs in the face of not wanting to be viewed as a selfish and self-centered person. We tend to link these words together. However, I think there is extreme polarity in the meaning of these words.
Self: Consciousness of one’s own being or identity; the ego
Centeredness: Self-Confident, stable, well-balanced
Selfish: Extreme and excessive concern for welfare of self, with little or no regard for others.
Self-centeredness offers a strong core of Mindful self-care and self-love and leaves space for others. The simple concept of being grounded within your center fills one with a strong sense of presence, peacefulness, and equanimity. It is about being “centered” within the self; building a foundation of self-care that includes having the ability to say “NO!” without feeling guilty, shameful, or selfish. Self-centeredness sets boundaries for yourself and others. Self-centeredness offers protection from engaging in chaos and maintaining unhealthy relationships.
Selfishness is not mindful. The selfish individual does not care about letting others down because they put their own desires and needs first and foremost without mindful compassion for themselves or others.
Self-centeredness, from my perspective, posits that if you are good to yourself, you can be good to others. It comes from a more mindful, loving and gentle place. If you treat yourself with contempt and judgment, you do not embrace the “self” – that beautiful core deserving of validation and compassion. Self-centeredness is the highest form of self-love.