How to Be Selfless by Being Self-Centered

April 14, 2011  

I travel the world extensively. And during these jaunts I am always interested to hear of the differing points of view held by others about American culture. One commonly-held perception is that Americans are self-centered, believing that they are the center of the universe.

There is some truth to this perspective. On the whole, American culture is individualistic.

Studies have been conducted illustrating the differing impact of independent versus interdependent cultures; Americans being independent and Asians, for example, being interdependent.

An article in New Scientist Magazine titled “Self-Centered Cultures Narrow Your Viewpoint” reported that cultures emphasizing individualism fail at being able to infer another person’s perspective. Cultures that emphasize interdependence, on the other hand, are easily able to put themselves in the shoes of others and be more empathetic. A lack of empathy can certainly give the perspective that an individualistic society is self-centered.

To illustrate the difference between individualistic and interdependent culture, the study used the example of a U.S.-based company that attempted to improve productivity by telling its employees to “look in the mirror and say ‘I am beautiful’ 100 times before coming to work.” In contrast, a Japanese supermarket instructed its employees to “begin their day by telling each other ‘you are beautiful’.”

But is being self-centered really all that bad?

Perhaps I can offer up a slightly different definition for self-centered. It depicts a way of being self-centered that might actually be beneficial.

To start off, I am not suggesting that people should be selfish. I think of selfish as being “exclusively concerned with oneself.” And while selfish and self-centered are found to be synonymous in the dictionary, being self-centered—in my opinion—is entirely different.

Centering is what you base your life on—what you focus your attention on.

My parents are children-centered. For them, my sister and I are the most important part of their lives. They live vicariously through us, listening intently as we share our day’s events or track our whereabouts via Facebook.

I have friends who are spouse-centered in that they do everything to please their partner.

Many of my friends are work-centered. Their job is the most important aspect in their life. They get meaning from their career. It is no surprise that men are twice as likely to die during their first five years of retirement, than they are prior to retirement. [NOTE: Being work-centered is different than “marrying your work.”]

Others are service-centered. They give their lives to charity and others. They sacrifice their own well-being for their cause of choice.

In fact, in an apparent attempt to shed the self-centered label, I have seen the pendulum swing so far over in some areas that there has become a complete disregard for one’s own self.

As a simple illustration, several years back, I had conducted a survey for a book that I was writing covering individual’s relationships to goals. The study uncovered that 53 percent of people agreed with the statement: “I sometimes get the feeling that I am living my life in a way that satisfies others (friends, family, co-workers) more than it satisfies me.”

Is this healthy?

This leads me to the benefits of self-centering…

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