Selfishness Versus Self-Awareness

There are so many different ‘self’ words these days that it can be difficult to differentiate between them; the varying aspects of self can get blurred, particularly when influenced by an outside source. There is self-care, self-centered, self-absorbed, self-assured, self-aware, and self-ish to name just a few. With the main focus of all of these words being on ‘self’, one might wonder if being self-anything should be considered a negative thing. After all, we should be focused on others and not ourselves, yes?

In reading the words above, it may have become apparent that I have included some potentially positive words as well as some that have the connotation of being negative; this was done on purpose, to illustrate a point. Many of us have been taught throughout our lives (and particularly in childhood) that we should consider the thoughts and feelings of others before our own, and this has led to the belief that selfishness is running rampant through today’s society. The problem with this is that selfishness is typically an external force, or, an opinion imposed on us by the impression of another person which may or may not be completely accurate.

In considering the writing of this post, it was important to define a few key terms. According to the dictionary, selfishness is defined as lacking consideration for others, or being concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure. Self-awareness, on the other hand, is the conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires. One of the key differences here is the fact that selfishness is an external label while self-awareness is internal, imposed on us by only ourselves. 

The implication here is not that we should stop placing the needs of others before our own; it is more that, through true understanding of our own feelings, motivations, and thought processes, we can more accurately determine how ‘self’ fits into our world. We consider ourselves on a daily basis without even realizing it. For example, we make the decision to have, or not have children. We decide who or what we want to be when we become adults and where we will acquire the education or experience we need to make it happen. We choose who our friends will be and how we will socialize. These are examples of self-awareness, because we are internally choosing to focus on our own development as an individual.

But what about the other stuff? Deciding to leave a spouse, quitting a job, or always being late to social functions are examples of external selfishness that can be imposed. But are they, really? Or, are these also more examples of self-awareness? Perhaps the relationship dynamics are such that the reason for leaving is just not apparent to others. Maybe an employee is being emotionally abused by their boss and they are at their breaking point. And maybe someone is always late because they are dealing with depression or anxiety. The point is, we just don’t understand because we are not them.

One of the phrases I tend to use in sessions with my clients is, “Other people are none of your business.” This may sound harsh, but it really isn’t. Basically what it means is that we can only change our own thoughts, feelings, and actions – not those of other people. They are responsible for their own stuff. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about others, or not help them. But, when we get overly involved in what another person “should” be doing, or that they “must” react in a specific manner, we come dangerously close to imposing a label on them that they might not deserve.

Responding to other people in a non-critical way is actually one of the best ways to connect to another person, and to build relationships. Instead of assuming that we know why a person is responding in a particular manner, it is sometimes more effective to assume we know nothing. Getting curious about behavior, asking questions, and exploring an issue with another person in a non-judgemental manner will often go further than assigning a “selfishness” label to them. When we seek to understand, we are able to learn things we never knew, and connect in ways we never thought possible.

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