The difference between self-centred and selfish

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When journalist Joe Ellison described his life as having “zero responsibilities” in a social media post, 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” came up a fair amount, too.

Joe and those who lived like him were “deferring” adulthood, some commentators said. They were “narcissistic” and “running away” from reality. Some of this is, unfortunately, the shade you can get when a post goes viral. But there’s a glimmer of reality to it, too. Because even today, society doesn’t tend to like it when people veer away from socially accepted narratives.

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We still widely associate ‘self’ with ‘ish’

In the 1950s, marriage was a culturally embedded expectation; something people aspired to and stuck at. Women were expected to put on the apron and men were meant to bring home the bacon. Needless to say, there wasn’t much room for personal fulfilment in this limiting world vision.

Fast-forward to the present day 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’. According to one study, some are “morally outraged” by people who choose not to start a family. It seems that anything that follows the path of the individual, rather than “settling down”, is open to accusations of selfishness. Why?

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Pursuing happiness for the sake of it becomes reckless

Growing up, we’re taught that anything is possible. Think big! we’re told. Follow your dreams! Yet, somehow, as adulthood swings into play in our 30s and 40s, these grand ambitions are expected to fade. 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 – with a large side serving of graft. 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? Eyebrows do still raise at this.

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There’s no honour in sacrificing your dreams

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

At the very least, it can 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 can breed resentment and bitterness — it can lead to being more inwardly entangled.

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If you’re self-centred, you’ll be more fulfilled

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 doesn’t make you some kind of entitled narcissist. It simply means you’re willing to cut free from expectation and follow your own path.

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

Ready to set off on your own solo adventure? Join Flash Pack today to meet other like-minded travellers just like you.

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