What do you think about all day? If it is mostly about you, then you may suffer from self-centeredness.

People consider self-centeredness to be a negative character trait. If you are self-centered, the first thing to do is to not beat yourself up about it. If you do, your shame will just give you another reason for negative self-preoccupation.

Instead, see your self-centeredness as a symptom of an underlying angst—the felt sense that you are somehow insufficient or unsafe. Anxiety drives self-centeredness. It can be an existential insecurity regarding your inherent worth, value, safety, or wholeness. For some, it is a painful sense of a lack of integrity or authenticity. There is a feeling that they are somehow frauds. I’ve heard self-centered patients refer to themselves as losers, rejects, or junk. Self-centered people often feel threatened, vulnerable, and anxiously insecure with others. Narcissistically self-centered people suffer from an addiction to their specialness; they have an underlying insecurity related to an inability to safely love and be loved.

Self-centeredness then is driven by pain. The pain is that we are not worthy or safely connected to others.

I suspect self-centeredness originates from a combination of genes, childhood trauma and training. During our early years, our primary caregiver (usually our mother) teaches us how to feel about ourselves based on how they feel about us. We absorb our sense of self like a preverbal sponge, for the felt sense of self is before words. Ideally, we absorb a sense of being worthy and whole despite our misbehavior and regardless of our talents. Hopefully, we are then socialized to be attuned to others so that we might form mutual friendships where we learn over time to focus on others in the dance of interdependence.

For all too many, however, these processes go awry. There is misattunement, trauma, or both. If we are emotionally neglected, our emotional limbic system will not develop a stable sense of wholeness and relatedness. If our mothers experience distress, we absorb that distress into our being as well. If we suffer the traumas of abuse, early social rejection, social isolation, or bullying, our capacity to engage in interdependence with a sense of safety and wholeness can be damaged. Disconnected and broken, we slip into self-centeredness.

Being self-centered is costly. It is at the root of many psychiatric illnesses, including addiction, personality disorders, anxiety disorders, and depression. Self-centeredness damages relationships, because self-ruminations rob you of the capacity to tune into and attend to others. You cannot be empathic. It is a vicious cycle, because the anxiety that drives negative self-centered ruminations causes more anxiety.[1] Depressed people experience compulsive negative self-ruminations that worsen and perpetuate depression. Self-centeredness may even contribute to more health problems and a shortened life span.[2] Self-centeredness also drives addiction, because self-centeredness leads to disconnection, and disconnection fuels addiction, which creates more disconnection and self-absorption, and so on in a downward spiral of misery.

Self-reflection, as opposed to self-centeredness, can be helpful. Thinking through our problems, for example, can be helpful for problem solving, especially when done with others. Self-reflection can also enhance insight—again best with the help of others—as we attempt to make sense of ourselves and our lives. If self-reflection can help us to develop a compassionate, insightful, and accountable narrative of ourselves, then it can promote healing and growth.

Dissolving Self-Centeredness

So how do we counter self-centeredness? The answer is through the practices of mindfulness and love.

First, practice mindfulness. Mindfulness helps us see and sets us free. Recognize that you are engaging in this negative mental habit. Then note what is driving it. It is negative depressive ruminations about the past, or anxious ruminations about the future? Is it narcissistic self-preoccupation with your specialness as an antidote to your underlying sense of inadequacy? Can you feel the lack of a sense of safe connectedness and wholeness? Get in touch with your suffering. Become mindful of your underlying pain. Then feel compassion for your pain.

The next mindful step is to not take yourself personally. See the obvious: that you are not your conditioned recurring sequences of thought patterns, and nor are you the painful feelings that visit your consciousness on such a regular basis. You do not choose the mental and emotional ruminations that arise in your Awareness. Seeing that you are the empty field of Awareness in which conditioned thoughts and feelings arise gives you some distance and freedom from these mind products. By mindfully not taking yourself personally, you defuse shame and unhook yourself from your self-centeredness. Now you are free. This does two things: it sets the stage for you to cultivate self-love and it frees you to let go of your self-centeredness and lovingly focus outward on Life.

In your mindfulness, practice being in the Now. This helps you to let go of negative ruminations about the past and anxious ruminations about the future. I find it helpful to ask, “what is wrong with this moment?” Almost always, the answer is, “Nothing, in fact this moment is quite nice.”

With mindfulness comes the intentional daily practice of love. Devote yourself to loving yourself. Self-compassion is healing. Blend it with self-affirmations. When in pain, say to yourself, “I’m sorry you are not feeling well (or safe, or whole, or secure, or anxious, or….). I love you. You are good and whole and sacred just as you are, with all your mistakes and imperfections.” Be very kind to yourself, mindfully noting negative thoughts and feelings as they arise. Greet them with kindness, but allow them to pass on their own accord in the light of your loving Awareness.

Cultivate the feeling of love that arises with the practice of stillness. When immersed in the pain of self-centeredness, recall and reexperience a time when you felt loved. Infuse your consciousness with this love. Do this over and over. If you repeatedly, intentionally engage in this practice when you are mindful of your pain, you will experience a gradual transformation from feeling broken to feeling whole. Love heals. The underlying pain that drives self-centeredness will gradually fade.

Along with self-compassion, love yourself in your actions. Take very good care of yourself, as if you were caring for your own child. Remind yourself that you are sacred and have the gift of this one precious life for which you are the steward. Do nothing to harm yourself. Optimize your vitality, as you are no good if you are no good, and your suffering will only fuel self-centeredness. Paradoxically, taking good care of yourself frees you to focus outward on others.

Second, mindfully let go of self-absorption. Instead, focus outward. Make this an intentional, daily life habit. Devote yourself to your true purpose: to nurture and savor Life. Focus on others. Reach out to them. Devote yourself to the practice of love in all your daily affairs. Develop a healthy social network of loving people and engage with them in loving interdependence. Get involved in a sport, an art, a hobby, or a cause. Ask what the world asks of you and answer the call. Be of service to others. Be helpful, generous, and kind as you go throughout your days. Remember that giving is a gift you give to yourself.

As you connect with others, be careful, especially if you have a history of trauma. Combine reverence for others with a healthy respect for the potential of others to hurt you if you let them. Protect yourself so that you are not retraumatized. Practice assertiveness. Be discerning. Limit your engagements with people who are abusive, exploitative, or neglectful. You are looking for safe, accountable mutuality. At the same time, realize that we all can step on each other’s toes. Be ready to forgive unintended missteps and disappointments.

You can free yourself of self-centeredness by combining the practice of mindfulness with the practice of love—for yourself and others. Be patient and persistent, as it can take time to heal and reprogram the brain through these practices. Recruit the help, guidance, and support of a professional for treating any underlying psychiatric illnesses, including any addiction, anxiety, depression, trauma or neglect, that may be driving your self-centeredness. With support, intention, effort, and persistence, you too can be freed from this painful condition.

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Image from: https://melaniejeanjuneau.blog/2018/01/02/who-is-really-the-centre-of-my-universe/.

[1] Gaydukevych, D. Kocovsku, N. Effect of Self-Focused Attention on Post-Event Processing in Social Anxiety. Beh. Res. And Therapy. 50(1), Jan 2012, pp 47.55.

[2] Seltzer, L. Self-Centeredness, the Root of All (Psychological) Evil? Psychology Today. Posted 8/24/16. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201608/self-absorption-the-root-all-psychological-evil. Accessed 3/12/18.

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