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The Great Reframe: Selfish vs Self-Centric

Okay, so you’ve all figured out by now that, me being a writer, WORDS and their nuanced meanings are very important to me, and central to the work I do as a “talk therapist”. Once in a while, I get what my mother used to call “a bee in my bonnet” about certain words or concepts, and while I may be a one-woman wave in a tide of slow sea change, I do like to advocate for reclaiming words and concepts when I think there’s good purpose in doing so.

A common conversation that comes up, most often with female clients, is the idea of differentiating between what they know as “being selfish”, and being (in common parlance) “self-centred.” My first line of question almost always goes like this:

What on earth will ever be wrong with being centred in the Self??

self·ish, adjective
(of a person, action, or motive) lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.
“I joined them for selfish reasons”
synonyms: egocentric, egotistic, egotistical, egomaniacal, self-centered, self-absorbed, self-obsessed, self-seeking, self-serving, wrapped up in oneself

self-cen·tered, adjective
preoccupied with oneself and one’s affairs.
“he’s far too self-centered to care what you do”
synonyms: egocentric, egotistic, egotistical, egomaniacal, self-absorbed, self-obsessed, self-seeking, self-interested, self-serving

In common usage, these concepts are largely interchangeable; the implication is that a concern chiefly focused on oneself and one’s experiences is an inherently negative thing. In a culture that is very much fixated on community and herd mentalities, individuation is often observed with suspicion and wariness, or treated with a weird mix of appreciation and resentment. One of the fundamental principles of Bowenian family systems psychotherapy that initially hooked me in, is the focus on a process of individuation within a system, meaning there is space to become both self-observant and centred-in-self in ways that can dramatically shift how one defines one’s own place within that system.

Culturally, women especially are (still) taught that our role is to set aside our own needs and wants in favour of caretaking others. This is as much a gendered dynamic as it is a structural one. Men are also taught to suppress their own experiences in favour of presenting an image or occupying a rigidly-defined role, so this suppressive expectation as an invisible value affects everyone across the gender spectrum to one degree or another. Part of the problem with this expectation is that we become disconnected from our Selves, in every sense from not understanding or trusting our own emotional experiences are real and valid, to feeling potentially tremendous anxiety when we contemplate stepping outside those rigid roles.

One of the core principles of my work lies in challenging clients to consider, “What are my Needs? What are my Wants? How clearly do I express them? How do I ask partners and others to meet them with me?” After years in practice, it never fails to surprise me, however, how many people can NOT identify their own Needs and Wants. They’ve been conditioned to not look at them, or to not value them, largely because to ask for what we want is culturally embedded in us as “being selfish”. Therefore it’s easier to trick ourselves into believing we don’t HAVE wants and needs, than it is to believe and invest in our Selves, and be told repeatedly that we’re being selfish in doing so.

Indoctrinating values for being selfish start in babyhood/toddlerhood. We’re taught that not sharing our toys, our space, is “bad”. We’re taught to value “good” socialization skills long before we’re taught anything useful and healthy about establishing boundaries and consent. We’re implicitly (if not explicitly) taught that appeasing others to keep the peace is more important than defending those boundaries. In short, we’re taught that our personal Self is unimportant, not valued, yet others’ Self very much is to be valued and respected. Roll this forward into intimate adult relationships, and you’ve got the underpinnings of some bona fide emotional or physical disasters in the making.

So what, exactly do I mean when I talk about reclaiming and reframing “self-centred” to mean something different than being selfish?

In Buddhism, as in most of western psychology, there is a long-standing struggle to understand “self” as a concept. In Buddhism, the sense of “no-self,” egolessness (in Freudian terms) or anatta (in Sanskrit), factors heavily:

“Very basically, anatta (or anatman in Sanskrit) is the teaching that there is no permanent, eternal, unchanging, or autonomous “self” inhabiting “our” bodies or living “our” lives. Anatman is contrasted with the Vedic teachings of the Buddha’s day, which taught that there is within each of us an atman, or an unchanging, eternal soul or identity.

Anatta or anatman is one of the Three Marks of Existence. The other two are dukkha (roughly, unsatisfying) and anicca (impermanent). In this context, anatta often is translated as “egolessness.”

Of critical importance is the teaching of the Second Noble Truth, which tells us that because we believe we are a permanent and unchanging self, we fall into clinging and craving, jealousy and hate, and all the other poisons that cause unhappiness.”

O’Brien, Barbara. “Self, No Self, What’s a Self?” ThoughtCo, Feb. 8, 2017, thoughtco.com/self-no-self-whats-a-self-450190

Most people, I expect, have a very understandable struggle with the concept of “no-self” from a psychological perspective. It seems like a notion that feeds traditional patriarchal structures, from a woman’s point of view. So I like to approach the idea of “Self” from a perspective of valuing and validating our perceptions and experiences, but with the non-attachment twist that challenges us to not invest heavily in the narratives we will inevitably construct around those perceptions and experiences. Our Self then becomes a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts vessel that contains all of that good stuff, but it is, in and of itself, not a fixed and rigid Thing. This gives us a flexible framework in which to explore as many aspects of our own experiences, those we observe and reflect on internally or those that arise from external observation, as we can grasp.

It’s been my observation over the years, starting from my own experiences as a therapeutic client, that we all move to get our needs met, but when we don’t have an effective practice for looking inwards to our core Self, we find, like many of my clients discover, that we don’t actually have a freaking clue what those needs might actually be. We barely know the difference much of the time between “moving toward something I want” and “moving away from something I don’t want”, because we can’t actually articulate what it is triggering the movement, desire or aversion. We are disconnected from Self in ways that block us from understanding our most basic of motivations, presumably beyond Maslow’s basic hierarchy of needs.

To be centred in the Self, in my view, is to avoid the presumably-dangerous “preoccupation” level of focus. I accept that in a system-centric society, however, any view that differentiates the individual from the system is going to be given a little bit of hairy-side-eye from those within the system who feel threatened by any form of individuation by others. Spock was wrong, I think, when his dying words to Kirk spoke of “the good of the many outweigh the good of the few, or the one”. All things working best in moderation, I think the “good of the many” can only function optimally as a focus when held IN BALANCE with the “good of the one”. My primary example in the counselling room is illustrating how many of my clients will run themselves ragged or burn themselves out entirely for partners, family, employers, anyone depending on them for something, really. And not just once; this becomes a significant personal and societal problem when that level of self-immolation becomes the default expectation, the norm (I talk elsewhere about burnout, and I suspect it’s not done as a topic here yet, either). We can’t/won’t/don’t draw boundaries that defend the Self, so we sacrifice the Self to appease the potentially-unrealistic expectations of others… because we are taught from the get-go that to do otherwise is “selfish”, and inherently “bad”.

So, it becomes clear(er) why I as a therapist might have a problem on my clients’ behalf with this concept, yes?

To accept our Self as a valuable part of what we do, requires looking inward and getting know that Self. It starts with some basic needs & wants framework, then moves out to explore the expectations and values we carry that maybe still have validity in our day-to-day experiences, or maybe don’t. Sometimes it’s a process of simply giving people safe emotional space to just talk about their own experiences in ways they may not have experienced previously, to validate them with an experience of being *heard*. We explore stories and beliefs, working on strengthening some narratives or jettisoning others as seems useful to the client. But always, the purpose of the exercise is to create space and allowance to deliberately focus on Self in a way that isn’t preoccupation level, and isn’t a negative or detractive factor to the individual whose Self is coming under internal observation.

To be “centred in Self,” then, becomes a process of developing trust and confidence in what we know about our own needs and wants, how they motivate or goad us, what boundaries we drawn around them and other internal spaces or experience we come to value as at least equal to those of others around us. Balancing the Self in relationship, balancing Self with Other, becomes another step in the process that goes along with boundaries and consent development, sometimes at the level of teaching people for the very first time that they are entitled to even have boundaries.

It’s a process, this differentiation between selfish and centred-in-selfness, and sometimes an emotionally heavy one. It involves a lot of conscious script challenging, standing up to our own embedded beliefs about our roles, and cognitively challenging or stripping down the values that have been imposed on us. Redefining Self requires learning first how to see what has probably never been clearly seen before, then learning to understand what we’re seeing, and figuring out what battles are worth fighting. I’m pragmatic about this kind of work with people; I often tell them, “It took you [client’s current age] years to get to this point, it’s not going to be anything we can reprogram overnight.” But we have to first recognize we HAVE permission to self-observe, self-reflect, then self-direct based on the most important word in that process: SELF.

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