The Choice to Be Self-Centered

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Buddhism teaches that life is suffering and when we accept and surrender to this fact we can then learn to cease fighting and find internal harmony. While I try to wholeheartedly embrace Buddhist philosophy I definitely have a hard time accepting suffering. But if I manage to sit in the painful situation long enough, I usually glean some insight that relieves my difficulty.  

For the first two months we lived in our new rental home I was angry with our landlady because she wouldn’t promptly repair what was broken.“Why is she doing this?” I lamented. “We’re good people. We pay our rent.” I was so consumed by what I interpreted to be her lack of respect for us it was the last thought before sleep each night, the first thought each morning and even kept me awake in between. My mental and emotional energy was drained by this obsession and as a result of that, my physical energy as well. But eventually, after talking and thinking through my frustration in my search for relief and meaning, I had a light bulb moment when I realized it was my self-centeredness that was causing me pain.  I was taking it as a personal affront. When I could finally grasp that her refusal to be dependable had nothing to do with me, she’s just an irresponsible person, my anger subsided and resentment disappeared.

Not long after this realization my husband joked about living with the woman who never made herself up.      

“I sit home all day. Does it really bother you?” I apologetically retorted.

I’ve thought about my husband's comment for weeks now and have to finally admit that my not wearing makeup is indeed also a facet of my self-centeredness. I’m fearful about time. I feel there’s never enough and the extra ten minutes taken to apply makeup might take away from my writing or my business. And I’m lazy. If I don’t wear makeup during the day I don’t have to wash my face at night. Once I explored and admitted my motivation without judgment and self-flagellation, I then had to admit that I like me with a smidgeon of makeup. A hint of dark blue eyeliner, a dab of mascara and some face powder really doesn’t take much time to apply. While my husband loves we whether I wear makeup or not, I want to appeal to him.  

To think of myself as having been or continuing to be self-centered is repugnant to my ego, but its been in the exploration of the term that I’ve come to view it not as a character flaw to reject but instead as a trait to understand and compost to help grow my Self Appeal. In the past I never could have explored the concept of self-centeredness because it sounded and felt to me like, “selfish” which I was ashamed of being called. I wanted to deny any part of myself I thought abhorrent. But selfish, defined as only or primarily concerned with oneself without regard to others is not the same as self-centered which is defined as concern with oneself and one’s own interests. Today I can distinguish between the two terms and discern that a little bit of self-centeredness is necessary to make healthy conscious choices. 

Being Self-Centered is a Natural State

We’re born self-centered. In the first two to three years of life we’re motivated foremost by our id, the sensory pleasure seeking personality that is primarily concerned with getting our basic needs met and seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touching. But as we age and progress through child development stages, our ego is under construction and our maturation shifts away from simple id gratification to understanding order. In other words, we’re able to recognize others’ needs and requests. But many of us, even as adults, don’t evolve past getting our basic needs met. Abraham Maslow theorized and arranged these basic needs from most instinctual, or strongest, to weakest.  He postulates that unless we have these needs met in ascending hierarchal order shown in the pyramid below, we cannot evolve to self-actualization, being able to achieve one’s maximum potential, which he classified as a growth need.  To further understand, his theory states that if we do not have enough food to eat, our focus will not be on health or property. Likewise, we will not be concerned with the self-actualization focus of problem solving if we lack confidence or self-esteem. Building Self Appeal focuses on walking up the hierarchal pyramid of needs creating safety, intimacy, love and respect within ourselves so that we may attract and exist interdependently with those that have these positive life-affirming qualities also. We cannot give to or get from others what we do not possess for ourselves.   

 Abraham Maslow lived from 1908 to 1970 and became the leader of the humanistic school of psychology.  His Hierarchy of Needs, which he’s most remembered for, is shown here as a pyramid with the most primitive needs at the bottom and was taken from the on-line dictionary  Wikipedia.

Abraham Maslow lived from 1908 to 1970 and became the leader of the humanistic school of psychology.  His Hierarchy of Needs, which he’s most remembered for, is shown here as a pyramid with the most primitive needs at the bottom and was taken from the on-line dictionary Wikipedia.

What Inhibits our Growth?

Once our physiological and safety needs are met our progression up the pyramid can be inhibited by fears that arise during childhood and lie beneath the awareness of our adult consciousness as subconscious fears that drive our actions and reactions automatically.  These fears perpetuate and aid our defense mechanisms that if go unquestioned into adulthood can prohibit conscious reasoning.  Our superego, an internalized parent and/or societal voice, develops around the age of five or six and can be heard within our heads saying, “should,” or “shouldn’t”. While keeping individuals from creating havoc outside the social order, fears of disobeying this restrictive voice can keep us locked into limiting mindsets and circumstances. And a modern-day barrier to self-actualization and greater Self Appeal is that we live in a materialistic externally focused world where emphasis is placed not on how to develop internally as a selfless yet self-loving person, but instead on outward appearance and acquisitions.

The Tool of Self-centeredness

In order to cultivate and maintain Self Appeal you need to have the courage to look deeply into your heart and scrutinize your motivations. You have to be self-centered, but with love rather than out of fear of self or others. When my husband first joked about my lack of adornment I felt hurt and wanted to defend and justify myself. But as I sat in these uncomfortable feelings with an open mind, I used honest self-examination as a chisel to identify my laziness and reveal the underlying fear of never having enough time. These tools brought into my adult consciousness aspects of myself I’d rather have denied and helped construct my reality. Regardless of where my fear of not having enough time comes from it will not automatically go away with denial. With the awareness that it’s an unconscious motivator though, I have the opportunity to understand and soothe this fearful part of myself and then it’s control on my life lessens. If I had merely reacted and started wearing makeup strictly for my husband's acceptance, it would have lead to bitterness and resentment. It would have been a, “have to,” instead of, “choose to.” In the past I wore makeup because I’d been brainwashed by magazines and television that I was plain and unattractive if I didn’t. Then I grew tired and quit wearing it because the heavy makeup worn as a stripper became laborious. Because I sincerely explored all the reasons why I do or don’t wear makeup today, I have a choice whether I want to wear it or not tomorrow. Having a choice based on information and education is empowering.

Like an onion peeled, uncovering these layers of reasoning brought me clarity and peace of mind. It is self-centeredness that helps me make choices I can live with not just reactionary decisions that might cause me and those close to me grief and anxiety. Working through discomfort I’ve been privileged to climb a step higher towards self-actualization and internal harmony. Today I can sit here plain faced with a bit more non-prejudice and acceptance and approval of myself that helps me accept and approve of others and their human imperfections. But I won’t be bare faced for long. Joe will be home soon and today I choose to put on makeup, not as a mask but as an adornment and a testament to my self-respect and love of me, which I now choose to share with him. 

Susan Bremer O'NeillComment