It’s Good To Be Self-Centered

I once read an article by a meditation teacher from Thailand. One of the practices he taught was meditating on compassion, in which you learn to sit with compassion for yourself, then your partner, then your family, your friends, your community, and eventually, the world. The idea is that you start in the center and work your way out, one level at a time, until you can bring compassion to how you think about strangers, people you don’t like, and so on.

But when this teacher came to the US, he discovered something that puzzled him. Almost all of his students had a major block when they tried to sit with compassion for themselves. They could tune into it when thinking about spouses, children, friends, and communities, but they had a hard time thinking about themselves compassionately. I think this is one of the big sources of relationship and sexual difficulties.

In US culture, we tend to think of self-centered and selfish as the same thing. I used to do that, and as a result, I would put other people before me, even when that created difficulty and pain for myself. The notion that putting myself first would make me a bad person kept me from setting limits because I thought that other people’s wants were more important than my needs. It kept me from asking for support because I didn’t want to be a bother to anyone. And it made it impossible for me to even know what I wanted because I was so focused on meeting other people’s desires that I couldn’t even recognize that mine existed.

I struggled with this for years. I knew intellectually that it’s important to be able to identify and state my needs and wants. I knew that being able to set boundaries without feeling guilty about it is a key part of creating healthy relationships. But I couldn’t untangle it until Thorn Coyle explained it in a workshop. Like they say during the safety briefing on airplanes, you need to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others.

Selfishness is putting your oxygen mask on and not assisting the person next to you. Or it’s putting your mask on and then cutting the hoses to everyone else’s because you want to make sure you have air to breathe. But being self-centered means taking care of yourself first so that you’re more able to help someone else. It means that you take responsibility for your needs, rather than expecting or demanding someone else to be responsible for them. That’s the first step to empowering yourself.

There are a lot of different ways that people get taught to put other people before themselves. And there are plenty of ways that this plays out along axes of privilege and oppression. For example, women are often expected to sacrifice their own goals and needs in service to their families, communities, and workplaces. And when they don’t comply, they’re judged far more harshly than men who do the same thing. I’ve seen similar patterns play out for people of color, too. That’s not to deny that white men (such as myself) can also learn to set themselves aside. It’s simply an acknowledgment that some of the forces that shape this are situation exist on many levels, from the familial and interpersonal to the socio-cultural. Each person’s experience of this will be influenced by their location on different axes of privilege.

Being self-centered means attending to your own needs, but that’s not the same thing as grabbing for everything you want. The line between need and want can sometimes be hard to discern (especially if you really, really, REALLY want something), and I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules. But if you’re putting your wants above someone else’s needs, you’re probably in the selfish zone.

That means that being self-centered can be entirely in alignment with helping, supporting, or serving others. Taking care of yourself in order to be there for your family, your friends, and your community is self-centered. Taking care of yourself at the expense of others, or ignoring your impact on others is selfish. People who work in the helping professions (medical and mental health practitioners, healers, teachers, coaches, staff at non-profit organizations, etc.) often find themselves struggling with the need to take care of themselves and the desire to not be (or not be seen as) selfish. That can make it hard to set needed limits or ask for what they need to be able to function. And colleagues and co-workers often reinforce these situations because they’re also facing their own challenges.

That’s relevant because similar dynamics can develop in relationships or families. Many of my clients have shame reactions when they’re learning how to state their needs and desires. In his book Passionate Marriage, David Schnarch observes that when we’re learning how to step back and create the room we need for ourselves, it can often feel as if we’re totally disengaging from our partners, which can trigger feelings of abandonment or rejection. To put it another way, in a healthy relationship, each person is an individual who is in connection with another. In enmeshed or codependent relationships, individuality gets lost. (Schnarch also makes the point that one big reason sex disappears in enmeshed relationships is that sex creates connection. Why would you want to get closer to someone when you already feel suffocated?) And when we try to create the space to be individuals in connection with each other, we might feel as if we’re completely disconnecting rather than just getting some room to breathe.

That’s because we don’t know how to discern how movement away from each other feels different from disconnection. The fear of disconnection fuels the enmeshment by making it impossible to tolerate the distance we need in healthy relationships. It’s often a fear of rejection and shame, since shame is the emotion of disconnection. Learning to tolerate your shame and your partner’s shame is part of developing shame resilience. And shame resilience is an essential part of avoiding enmeshed relationships and being self-centered. If I’m going to stay centered in myself, I need to not sacrifice myself in order to keep you from feeling shame and rejection when I set a boundary, call you out, or don’t do what you think I should. I also need to be able to withstand any accusations of being selfish, while also being willing to look at whether I’ve moved out of self-centeredness and into selfishness.

I think this is why that meditation teacher discovered that many of his students had so much difficulty in having compassion for themselves. Between confusion about the difference between being self-centered and being selfish, and coming from a culture that uses shame to try to control people, they had a much easier time being compassionate towards other people than themselves. Their internalized shame and self-judgment got in the way of being self-centered.

I wish there was an easy way to move towards self-centeredness. The messages, experiences, and wounds that we’ve each had are so diverse that there isn’t one path forward, and the habits that we each develop to protect ourselves take time to change. But to quote Arthur Ashe, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

Becoming self-centered is like learning to keep your balance while riding a bicycle. It takes practice, it takes time, and it takes support. Since it’s about how you manage your relationship with yourself while in connection with other people, it isn’t something that you can do all on your own. It’s something that grows out of engaging with someone else. The support of partners, family members, friends, a therapist or coach, teachers, and others is an essential part of this practice.

I also think there’s an embodiment piece that can help. In my work as a sexological bodyworker, I use a variety of experiential practices to give people room to explore the edges of their comfort zones and expand their skills at staying upright on the bicycle. For some people, it’s learning how to identify how it feels when they’re in a place of yes or no. For some people, it’s learning how to give specific feedback, rather than expecting the other person to read their minds. For some, it’s moving through their grief or shame so they can claim their power. For some, it’s simply being held in a place of respect when they state a boundary or ask for something. But wherever the edge is for them, the opportunity to feel into it and be supported in their discoveries can be incredibly healing. And it’s often a step along the way to becoming self-centered and able to experience embodied pleasure.

If you’re curious about how you can become more self-centered in your sexual relationships, get in touch and let’s explore where that can go for you. For folks in Seattle, we can work in person. And many of the exercises can be done with a partner while I guide you by video. I also have colleagues across the US and parts of Canada, and I’m happy to help you find someone local, if that’s a better fit. You’ll be amazed at how much easier your sex life becomes when you and your partner are self-centered.