The difference between self-centred and selfish

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When journalist Joe Ellison recently described his life with zero responsibilities, a lot of people celebrated in his vision.

They were drawn to the freedom of living as you please, and shared stories of their own – similar – experiences.

But as the comments section heated up, the word “selfish” got bandied about a fair bit, too.

Joe and those who lived like him were “deferring” adulthood, some commentators said. They were “narcissistic” and “running away” from reality.

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Some of this is just the smoke you get when a Facebook post goes viral. But there’s a glimmer of truth to it, too.

Because even in this day and age, we don’t like it when people veer off a socially accepted narrative.

The life that you want

Back in the 1950s, marriage was a culturally embedded expectation; something people aspired to and stuck at.

Women were expected to put on the apron strings straight out of uni (if they went at all) and men were meant to bring home the bacon.

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Needless to say, there wasn’t much room for personal fulfilment in this limiting world vision.

Fast-forward to 2018, and it’s an entirely different picture. Solo travel is on the rise among all age groups, and an increasing number of people are choosing to live alone or not have children.


Yet old habits die hard, and we still widely associate “self” with “ish”.

Parents are “morally outraged” by people who choose not to have children, according to one study, while backpacking north of your 20s is also grounds for suspicion and distrust.

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In fact, it seems that anything that follows the path of the individual rather than “settling down” is open to accusations of selfishness. Why?

Dampened ambition


Growing up, we’re taught that anything is possible. Think big! we’re told. Follow your dreams!

Yet somehow, as “true” adulthood swings into play in your 30s and 40s, these grand ambitions are expected to fade.

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Now is not the time for dreaming but for knuckling down to it, so the script goes.


You’re expected to put your own needs aside in place of some wider calling (kids/marriage/career – delete as applicable).

Ambition can happen, but only in the very traditional sense of the word; aka, with a large side serving of graft.

Read more: Tackling the mid-30s blues

The idea of simply pursuing happiness for the sake of it becomes reckless, irresponsible even.

You want to pause your job and travel the world aged 44? Expect eyebrows to hit the ceiling.

Ride your own wave

And yet, why should doing what you want be considered fanciful?

Not going down the mortgages and parenthood route doesn’t make you selfish, any more than doing so suddenly turns you into a paragon of virtue.

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There’s no medal of honour that comes with casting aside your own ambitions, and no honour in sacrificing your dreams.

At the very least, it make you less you; a watered-down version of your own abilities and potential.

And at the worst, compromising on what you want in pursuit of some larger “selfless” goal breeds resentment and bitterness.

In other words, it makes you more inwardly entangled than the most selfish of selfish people.

Where’s the sense in that?

The joy of being self-centred

Selfish means “lacking consideration for other people”. It’s an act of freezing other people out, or wilfully choosing not to see the plight of others.

It’s not the same as being self-centred; where you’re closely attuned to your own needs and desires.

Putting yourself first – within reason, obviously – doesn’t make you some kind of bratty, entitled narcissist. It simply means you’re willing to cut free from expectation and follow your own path.

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If you’re self-centred, you’ll be more fulfilled – meaning you have greater resource and motivation to reach outwards beyond yourself.

Relentlessly put your own needs on the backburner, however, and you risk an erosion of self.

So, be self-centred. Listen to your own needs. It will make you a bigger and happier person, which is good news for you AND everyone else.

Images: Shutterstock and Flash Pack


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