Navigating From Self-Absorption to Selfishness (Yes, There’s a Difference!)

I’ve long considered myself to be painfully self-aware, but only recently have I started to notice and understand my self-protective tendencies. I’d even venture so far as to group them all under the label of self-absorption—not selfishness, which I perceive as the tendency to choose what’s in your own best interest in order to serve yourself, but more like an obsession with preserving the self at all costs.
Like many young adults did, I grew up under the guise of perfectionism, firmly believing that my worth was inextricably tied to my performance. For me, the key priorities (as I perceived them) were to excel at school and to be thin/dainty/pretty/agreeable in appearance and demeanor. Did my parents ever once tell me that these were to be my priorities in life? Of course not, they loved me unconditionally—but even if they would have told me I was perfect as I was, I probably wouldn’t have believed them. My beliefs surrounding my own self-worth were formed from my own observations of how the world works—when you achieve something, such as getting an A on a test, you not only receive praise from teachers but you also increase your chances of accumulating a 4.0 GPA, the penultimate indicator of success and validation. In my mind, I drew the sweeping conclusion that hard work + discipline = positive outcomes, and I took it one step further to assume that those positive outcomes (or a lack thereof) indicated my self-worth. If I could make good things happen, then I was good as a result. Otherwise, what did I have going for me, my kindness, my sense of humor, or my ability to listen to and empathize with others? No way…
Once I had firmly convinced myself that my worth was tied to my performance, I proceeded to build habits in support of this belief. They were my moat—they were the behaviors that would protect me from outside threats that attempted to sabotage my achievements. In a nutshell, they involved turning down social interactions to focus on what I perceived to be most important (studying, working out, and eating “clean”), snapping at people and continually acting rushed/busy, and failing to branch out of my comfort zone to try new things. At a high level, these behaviors (or lack thereof) might seem fairly benign, but in reality they made me a terrible friend and coworker and prevented me from really being present and enjoying my life.
There’s absolutely a balance to be struck in terms of protecting your own energy and priorities from outside influences, but it certainly doesn’t require the drastic measures that I took to isolate myself from them. In my mind, I was doing everything in my power to uphold the version of myself that I thought was most valuable—the version of myself that was most efficient and successful and was able to provide the most tangible output and results. In reality, I was utterly self-absorbed, blatantly disregarding the joy of interacting with others on more than a transactional level, and missing out on all things fun and joyful. I was firmly convinced that I could survive off of achievement alone, harnessing the euphoria of outward validation to continue checking off more boxes as I graduated and began my career. But that’s exactly when everything changed.
As a working professional, you don’t receive the instant feedback that you do in school—I wasn’t able to feel validated in the same way because I was no longer completing assignments in exchange for grades. Instead, it became clear that my soft skills mattered a lot more than my ability to grind out work. My coworkers valued spending time with people who were friendly, energetic, and generally confident in their ability to produce good work without stressing about it. Deep down, I actually valued these things as well, but I was utterly terrified to give myself permission to change. I feared that if I no longer focused on getting shit done and producing high quality work, I would suddenly fail to do so altogether. Moreover, I feared that I didn’t have enough intrinsic value to provide others—what and who was I if not for my work ethic? The bravest thing to do was to find out.
In order to break the cycle of self-absorption and self-protection, I had to entertain the idea that I was enough as I was. I had to trust that as an individual, without all the bells and whistles of achievement/hard work/traditional success, I would be accepted and valued by others. Most importantly, I had to believe that I could, at some point, accept and value myself in this new capacity. After all, the worst case scenario was that I’d completely lose my edge and suddenly become complacent in life, thereby never accomplishing anything of value ever again. Even if that happened, I had to believe that I would still be okay. I had to start motivating myself from a place of kindness and love and I had to start practicing (not necessarily mastering, but practicing) self-compassion, all the while trusting that I’d still feel just as driven as before.
So how did that pan out? Truth be told, I am still working on this every single day. But what I’ve observed so far, I feel infinitely more energized and happy when I motivate myself with the genuine desire to get shit done in order to accomplish my own goals, rather than harnessing the fear of never achieving or being enough. And all it takes is a simple (albeit daunting) mindset shift, which starts with “I am not good enough if I don’t achieve this thing” to “I am going to give this thing my best shot and I am still going to be good enough regardless of the outcome.” This shift frees you up to be creative about how you’re going to achieve your goals, and it allows you to relax and actually enjoy the process of getting to where you want to go. Otherwise, what’s all the fuss about?

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