Selfish, or Self-Centred?

What is the difference between being selfish and being self-centred? Why is understanding this difference important in relationships? We often use these terms interchangeably, but there is a real distinction.

What Is A Self?

We first need to clarify something about what 'self' means. We need to make a distinction between 'person' and 'self'. The word 'person' means the whole reality of what it is to be a human being. Philosophically speaking it is an ontological term. It is about being and existence as such. So the person is the whole reality of the human being, what we know and what we don't, whatever it might happen to be. The word 'self' means the 'psychological self', that is, that dimension of the person of which I am self aware. It is like a 'working approximation' of the person, the handle I have on what it is to be me.

This distinction has enormous implications, but we are only going to consider some of them here.

The first important implication for us here is this: the self is a work in progress.

The self is something I develop through life by the very fact of being conscious and intentional. When I was a little child my self had only developed to a certain stage. As I go through life I learn and grow. More of my potential is developed as I go along, so I 'become more'. Becoming more does not mean becoming someone else. The person who I am remains the same. But my capacities develop, and my sense of who I am develops.

The second important distinction is this: the process of self growth is partly a result of my own intention and partly a 'reflex' response to situations.

If the self is a work in progress, it is partly an individual work and partly a communal work. I am not the sole creator of my self. Others play an important role, as do the physical conditions of my life.

Self-Centredness as Reflex Individuality

Here I am using the term self-centredness to mean something that occurs as a reflex, something spontaneous, and selfishness as something intentional. The process of my 'self construction' occurs as partly spontaneous and partly intentional. It is also partly individual and partly communal. This gives us our definition of self-centredness:

Self-centredness is reflex individuality.

This leads on to a definition of selfishness:

Selfishness is intentional individualism.

You will note that 'individualism' is being used here in a pejorative sense to distinguish it from 'individuality'. Sometimes there are situations where we need a word like individualism to use in a positive sense. Perhaps individualist, or vice versa? Anyway, although it would be helpful if common usage made some of these distinctions more clearly, for the purpose of this article I will use individualism to refer to things coming from a selfish motivation.

Intention and Self Awareness

In order for some act to be intentional it also needs to be self aware.

If something is simply outside your horizon of awareness you cannot act intentionally in relation to it. For example, if someone was knocking on my front door, but I didn't hear it, you could not say I was rude for not answering the door. In simple cases like that we all understand the difference. However, a problem arises in personal relationships because of the greater subtlety and depth of interaction.

Early in a marriage a couple will start finding out all sorts of things about each other that they didn't know. Some of this discovery is accompanied by hurt feelings because each assumed that the other would be aware of the same things. For example, a woman might have an expectation that her husband would phone her about some change in his timetable. Meanwhile he is not aware of any such expectation. Or a man might expect that his wife would understand that he needs some quiet time to himself each day, but she doesn't realise how significant this need is.

In such situations it is important that one's first response be to assume 'reflex individuality'. That is, you don't assume some selfish intention but that there is a mismatch in one's prior experiences that has led the other to doing things differently, or putting more weight on something than you would.

It Takes Time to Change

Growing in relationship is difficult also because it takes time to change. It is not as simple as discovering that the other person has a different way of doing things or a different sense of what is more or less important. Once you do discover these things, you first need to work out whether you are prepared to change to suit the other, and if so you then need to try and change things in yourself which are habitual to some degree, and perhaps quite deeply ingrained. You might also agree too quickly to adapt, and only later have second thoughts about whether you are really prepared to.

Changing such things is not like flicking a switch.

Once the other has become aware of something, you can't just expect them to change overnight. You can't interpret all subsequent shortfalls as intentional failures. Sometimes it will be simple forgetting, sometimes acting out of habit before thinking, sometimes remembering but feeling ambivalent about whether you should really have to change, sometimes remembering and deciding not to do it anyway.

For such reasons it is important for a couple to clarify their mutual expectations. If one partner feels pressured to change in a particular way but doesn't really accept it, then it makes everything harder. Then the other starts to suspect, for example, that his or her partner is forgetting 'accidentally on purpose'. If such a situation arises you then have two problems, the original lack of genuine mutual agreement, and now an uncertainty about whether the other is even being truthful.

This throws a spanner in the works because the process of change can be difficult, and each needs to cut the other some slack. If suspicion is added then they lose the measure for the change. For example, if one keeps 'forgetting', the other never knows whether their partner is making a genuine effort. Someone might be happy enough to accept the slowness of change but not any untruthfulness associated with it. It muddies the waters because the solutions can be quite different. Does the other person need tips and strategies for remembering the relevant matter? Or does there need to be more discussion about the original 'agreement'? Or does there need to be repentance for deceit? The action needed is totally different depending on which it is.

The Differences between the Sexes

The differences between the sexes adds a further dimension to this challenge. Men and women can find it hard to believe that the other is so different in some fundamental ways. Not only that, these differences often run quite deep, so that change might be quite difficult, and even impossible. Such impossibility is not only due to the difficulty in changing habitual ways of acting and feeling. It can also be due to an inability to even understand what it is that the other is talking about. Something about the other's perspective might simply be outside one's own horizon.

I think of it like being able to wiggle one's ears.

A very small percentage of people can intentionally wiggle their ears. I have no idea what it is that makes that possible.

So even if I decided I would like to be able to wiggle my ears, I have absolutely no idea how to even begin. There is not even a 'toehold' to help me get started. Even if someone tried to explain it to me their words wouldn't make sense because there is nothing in the field of my awareness to connect them to.

It can be like this between the sexes. Something that seems simply straightforward and obvious to one might not even be within the field of perception of the other. It is important that couples at least be aware of this possibility, so as to consider it as one of the possible reasons for misunderstanding between them. It is also a reason not to rely only on your own resources as a couple, but to have others you can turn to for advice.

Marriage as a Catalyst for Growth

Marriage is like a crucible for emotional development.

Marriage brings together two different kinds of human beings with two different ways of feeling human. It is an intense workshop in emotional development - if both spouses are willing to grow, and if they have available to them the necessary assistance to enable growth in understanding.

Each spouse will already have a preferred way of feeling, but they also have potentials for further development. If they both have the willingness to grow through their relationship they can learn a lot from and about each other. You could definitely say they will be 'stretched' by engaging in this challenge.

It is important in this to recognise the value of understanding. Yes, emotional growth requires willpower and persistence, but the whole process is made easier with understanding. This does not mean easy, just easier than it would be without.


This article has revolved around one key insight, the difference between selfishness and self-centredness. This insight needs to be brought to bear on the challenge of marriage as a whole and the willingness to engage in the necessary process of growth. Each spouse is engaged in a process of self development, and this involves both an individual and a communal dimension.

In marriage you get the communal dimension 'with a vengeance'.

You are almost certain to discover that you were a lot more individualist that you realised. But also that much, or even most, of this was not selfishness, but simply the boundary of your current 'reflex individuality'.