When I was a senior in high school, a defining truth was passed down to me by my most beloved English teacher, Mrs. Matthews. The truth was this: It is important to always be selfish, but never self-centered. Sounds a bit weird, doesn’t it? Like the opposite of everything we’ve ever been taught, right? But when explained the world opens up and the fog clears, letting sunshine and joy in.
To be self-centered is to only think about yourself and to have others work for only your ends. On one end it can mean that you consider something in your appearance, character, intelligence or talent superior to those around you. On another, it also means that you put an unspoken (or in some cases spoken) expectation on others to make you happy. In the end though, to be self-centered is that you think only of what you can get from others to please yourself.
We all have our moments of being self-centered and we all know individuals whose lives revolve around a heightened need to have others tell them how important they are, how beautiful, how loved and adored they are. It’s human nature to want re-affirmation from the outside world, but in the end it doesn’t matter what others think of us, it’s about what we think of ourselves as individuals that matters.
To be selfish is a very different thing indeed to being self-centered. To be selfish is to know what makes oneself happy and what doesn’t; it entails a level of self-awareness and understanding but also the gumption to go out and do it ourselves. Selfishness means relying solely upon ourselves to find happiness, love and accomplishment because we are the only ones who know how to make ourselves happy.
Let me put it to you this way: if you leave it up to other people to do the “big” things, those important moments of joy or love, you’ll always be disappointed in one way or another. We’ve all pictured the ideal way a moment should play out, the way we’ll feel when someone else gives us exactly what we want, a moment of light; it rarely happens the way we picture it does it? Putting quantifiers on another person’s actions in relation to how important you are to them sets up failure and animosity both from you and from them. In these moments, a person is being self-centered.
But there’s another piece to the puzzle too, an essence that an individual can never fully relate to another person – only we hold that essence inside of us and therefore only we can make ourselves truly happy. And therefore even if an important person in your life plays their role in your ideal moment perfectly, there will still be something missing and the moment will be incomplete in some way. What I’m saying is that the people around you don’t know that they’ve just failed you, only you do.
So why put this destined-to-disappoint test of loyalty or love on them? Instead, realize that only you can make yourself happy in a way that will rarely disappoint. Make the dinner reservations at the romantic Moroccan restaurant you’ve wanted to go to for your 10th anniversary instead of dropping hints and putting silent quantifiers on your husband’s ability listen and therefore his level of love and appreciation. As soon as you start to let go of these unspoken exams and begin to take happiness into your own hands, well, you start to see all the other ways people tell you how much they care, admire, respect and love you – everything you’ve wanted to know all along.
So that’s one truth, something that I’ve built my life around and have been richly rewarded by. But the other day I learned another. I was having lunch with a friend, catching up and swapping news. I told her how recently I’d gotten a very quick, very unexpected, very decisive brush-off from someone I’d been dating. It was like a hit and run with no explanation and no confrontation, it was just done. I’d been wracking my brain trying to figure out the why of it all and was quickly being driven crazy. It was then that my beloved friend said this: You don’t know his story.
What she meant was that I didn’t know if there’d been family pressure, an ex-girlfriend resurface, insecurity or fear about the feelings he (or I) was experiencing…and I never would, and that’s when it hit me – we are the only ones who know the way to bring happiness and we are the only ones who will know the entirety of our own stories. Even if you relay something in great detail to another person, the story will never be complete; there will always be something missing, something impossible to translate.
Just like happiness, there is an essence inside of us that only we can identify and understand. Is that essence the thing that makes us, us or could it be our soul? Deep questions, but let me get back to my point…
That one simple statement brought to me such clarity. Not only did the worry and hurt and angst over the break-up disappear, but so many other things that I carry with me every day began to lift away as well. There was a lot of forgiveness in that moment.
We all have a story that can never be fully told, you just have to accept and understand the bits that other people share about their lives and above all, always ensure that the overall story of your life is one of joy and love and (most importantly) personal acceptance.