How to Sanely and Safely Relate to a Self-centered Person

Illustration from Vecteezy

Trying to care for a selfish person is like traveling into a black hole looking for love. The more you do it, the more you lose yourself. Eventually you disappear and perish in agony. —Anonymous

Nothing pains me more in my mental health practice than witnessing a well-intentioned person trying desperately to be loved by a selfish person. The father who cannot understand why his own mother couldn’t care less about celebrating his children’s birthdays. The conspiracy theorist who emphatically clings to his point of view. The bean counter who doesn’t see how his rigidity affects others. The wife who gets upset with her husband for getting sick with COVID after he was vaccinated. The siblings who never call their parents to check in on them. The violent criminal who is only out for himself and his own deviations. Clearly there are understandable circumstances to these painful situations, such as drug and alcohol addiction or other health problems, but unfortunately too many times these situations arise because loved ones simply lack human compassion and don’t have the ability to love. About one in ten people lack the ability to have compassion for others and are incapable of true human emotional intimacy. They are family members in name only. Many of us who can love or at least are moved by human suffering cannot fathom such indifference and are prone to erroneously blame ourselves for such deficits or believe we can fix such shortcomings. We get driven crazy by the blatant acts of human inconsiderateness. In some situations, our very lives get endangered by self-centered people behaving badly.

My wish in this article is that you learn how to respectfully deal with self-centered people, who are becoming more common, and not allow yourself to be victimized by them. Waiting rooms at mental health clinics are filled by the wounded survivors of selfish people.

Hitching your identity to a self-centered person is like riding a wagon over the edge of a cliff hoping to fly. —Anonymous

Signals of selfishness in people

Many self-centered people appear normal enough, may look quite successful and may function at a high level in society. Afterall self-centeredness often gets socially confused with wealth, strength, career success and civic standing. Appearances can be very deceptive. The very things that make you successful in society can also doom you to failure in close intimate relationships and personal life setbacks. Here is what to pay attention to when examining people (and perhaps yourself) for selfishness:

  • A persistent pattern of always needing to be in control coupled with oblivion to others.
  • Having conversations center on oneself and lacking questions about other people’s lives.
  • Dominating others with storytelling, charm, personal complaints and unjustified expertise.
  • Inability to see other people’s point of view and an unwillingness to admit mistakes or wrongdoings.
  • Preoccupation with making a positive impression and demeaning others who appear less impressive.
  • Pattern of always being the center of attention in positive or negative ways.
  • Rigidity in life views, personal judgments, and decision-making.
  • Distinct absence of modesty and unwillingness to appear ordinary.
  • You feel not seen in your own life by this person.
  • Underlying tension about hurting, insulting, or causing anger in the selfish person for no apparent reason.
  • Feelings of boredom or wasted time in socializing with another person.

It’s vital to look beyond appearances to discern who you are dealing with. We need to know the difference between a crocodile and a cocker spaniel before we pet the animals. We don’t need to condemn people who are self-preoccupied, we just need to be safe in relating to them.

He that falls in love with himself will have no rivals. —Benjamin Franklin

Why are some people so selfish?

We don’t need to condemn people who are self-preoccupied, we just need to be safe in relating to them.It can baffle us why some people consistently only think about themselves and don’t consider the needs of others, especially when we ourselves are generally thoughtful and sharing people. It would embarrass us to forget our grandchildren’s birthdays let alone be indifferent to their needs. There is an important psychological term that explains this confusion. It is called empathy—the ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes.  Some of us don’t develop empathy in our early childhood years (between 18 and 36 months) and we may remain unempathic for our whole life, much like learning to read needs to happen in first grade and to go without it may leave us illiterate for life. Children who are raised by permissive or emotionally neglectful parents are especially prone to empathy deficits. They don’t learn how they affect others. This is where the saying “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world” comes into play. Yes, you can learn to read even if you never learned to do so in first grade and yes, you can learn to love even when you were never disciplined in childhood but it is a whole lot harder to do so as you age and sometimes you never do. The other cause of self-centeredness is an instinctive indifference to suffering in others. Some of us kids begin crying when other kids cry and some of us just look the other way and couldn’t be bothered. Besides nurture nature accounts for a about 40% of our sensitivity to others. Some of us are just born kind-hearted and others not so much. No matter how much we were short-changed in our childhoods we always have the option to work on ourselves in counseling and support groups to improve who we are. We alone are responsible for who we are.  

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Why are selfish people so harmful?

You know, sometimes it can be quite fun or informative to be around self-centered people. You may wonder what the big deal is about being around people who are all full of themselves. The real danger in such relationships is the lack of empathy such people lack and our looking to them to fulfill our needs. Empathy develops in the part of our brain (right prefrontal cortex) that enables us to control our impulses, consider the needs of others, learn from our experiences, show compassion for others, and regulate our emotions. It’s the part of our brain that allows us to be fully human, affiliate with others, and tame our behaviors. You can imagine a world where every time you got mad at another person you had to get violent, or every time you got enamored by someone you acted inappropriately with them or you had to seek revenge on anyone who hurt you.  Such behaviors belong in the animal kingdom, or “wild west,” and are not conducive for safe modern living. Selfish people essentially are more prone to act like bratty children, wild animals, or bad actors in the wild west.  They can’t just put the brakes on and often devolve into scheming human beings who hide their dark impulses. Having a relationship with a selfish person is a lot like having an alligator as a pet. Most of the time such people are safe, but you never know when you will be bitten. They don’t make good pets.

The most dangerous aspect of selfish people is their tendency to gaslight others—making other people become confused and distrust their own instincts as a mechanism to get power over others or squirm out of taking responsibility for their own behaviors. The classic 1944 movie, Gaslight, with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer aptly describes the crazy-making manipulations by a selfish husband that almost drives his wife insane and nearly destroys her. Gaslighting is the standard psychological technique used by selfish people to control others. It brainwashes partners to doubt their own sanity and be controlled by a self-centered person. Often phrases like, “It’s not what you are thinking,” “It really didn’t happen that way,” or “You just don’t understand,” are the typical manipulations. Often the lasting psychological damage of brainwashing is the most harmful result of this type of relationship. It may take years of repair to overcome such damage from being with a selfish person.

Let us have the humility to know we cannot change others into whom we need them to be. —Anonymous

How to protect yourself from self-centered people

Realize that you alone are responsible for keeping yourself safe. Be alert to danger in people. It’s better to not choose a self-centered person for a life partner. Some of us get smitten by the appearance of a person who only think about themselves. We confuse such habits with being self-confident, attractive, heroic, and desirable. Perhaps these are the qualities we wished we had in ourselves, and we look to another person to supply them for us. Hero and celebrity-worshipping are so common in our social media driven culture that we make critical mistakes in doing so in our personal lives. Make no mistake, if you are dating a star, you will likely come to regret your choice in the long run. Most of us do better with reasonably attractive, responsible, down-to-earth, moral people for mates. True confidence is built on empathy, not stardom.

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If you are already married to a selfish person, prepare for a life of suffering and loneliness. You are actually living with an emotionally dead person, and you will be burdened for years to come. Either seek counseling to alleviate your plight or pursue personal happiness with friends outside your marriage. Carrying a shell of a person through life is a mighty burden. Realize you alone, not your loved one is responsible for your happiness. Get help in a good Alanon group to preserve your sanity and consider the services of a good divorce lawyer and skilled psychologist as you will need them to protect your family from harm. Selfish people are the most dangerous when you are just about to leave them, and they will remain so for the rest of your life. They are simply unable to separate, and you will need a plethora of support to stay divorced. There is always the risk of getting murdered when you try to separate from a selfish person, since they lack empathy and only think about themselves and blame you alone for all their pain. Also, children always need to be protected from selfish parents since they may get used as pawns in a divorce. With adequate help you can eventually make a break from a selfish person. You can be safe if you get the support to do so.

If you have a relative that just does not get it, don’t lose sleep over that person. You cannot change or influence that person to do better anyway. Don’t argue, threaten, or reason with such a person since the higher parts of their brain are not on-line. It will feel like you are talking to a wall when you try to get through to a self-absorbed person and it will drive you crazy. It’s best to set limits with a selfish person, telling him what you will and will not tolerate. Never trust a selfish person since they will tell you what you want to hear and do what they want anyway. Remember: Only God can repair brain-damaged people. If you are around selfish people in casual ways, enjoy them when you can. Some self-appointed experts really do know what they are talking about, and they can be funnier and more charming than most people. They are creatures of God, and they deserve respect just like the rest of us. I think they are put on the earth to help us all learn safety, love, and true compassion. Just remember, never pet a crocodile, or ever let them sleep in your bed.

Sometimes you have to give up on people. Not because you don’t care, but because they don’t. —Spirit Science

Final thoughts

Just as much as I believe in protecting yourself from hurtful people, I also urge you to never stop loving others. This thought is encompassed in a famous prayer — “Do it anyway” — written on Mother Teresa’s home for children in Calcutta. It is:

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men.

Last Updated on November 9, 2022

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