Psychology

Selfish vs Self-Centered vs Self-Absorbed vs Narcissist. What Is the Difference?

There are clear distinctions between being “selfish,” “self-centered,” “self-absorbed,” and a true “narcissist.”

To help us better understand, we asked experts to discuss their difference.

Table of Contents

Dr. Ramani Durvasula

Ramani Durvasula

Clinical Psychologist | Professor of Psychology | Author, “Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Narcissistic Relationship“

There are some significant differences.

Selfish is defined as lacking consideration for others and is only concerned with oneself

It generally carries a negative connotation and is often conflated with egocentricity. Now there has been a movement among some to consider whether selfishness is ever “good” such as when a person may put their needs ahead of others to get something important done or to take care of themselves. It’s a tricky concept because it is predicated on not considering others.

The idea of sometimes putting yourself first, while also considering the needs of others doesn’t have an easy word – perhaps circumspect, or self-aware. But in general, selfish carries a negative meaning and implies that someone puts them ahead of others without considering them.

Related: How to Be Less Selfish?

Self-centered is more of an identity description while selfish may be used to describe actions

A self-centered person is a person who can only use themselves as a frame of interest (how will this affect ME, what will I get out of this, how will I benefit). So self-centeredness also reflects egocentricity (in fact one could argue it is synonymous)

Self-Absorbed can imply where a person’s attention and energy is focused

They may only be able to talk about themselves, their own interests, things they have done, and what matters to them. They are rarely able to lift their heads long enough to consider the interests, drives, activities of other people, and are probably not that interested in the worlds of others.

The narcissist is all of the above with the larger picture of lacking empathy, entitlement, grandiosity, validation seeking, arrogance, etc

And all of these narcissistic qualities reflect selfishness, self-centeredness, and self-absorption. But narcissism also takes in more territory including lack of self-reflective capacity, the need to control others, antagonism, manipulation – but even these patterns are meant to prop up the almighty self.

It is possible a person could be self-centered, or selfish, or self-absorbed and not be narcissistic. A self-centered person may put their lifestyle etc first, but still be able to be very present at work. A self-absorbed person may love listening to themselves talk, but may not be entitled. A selfish person may still not be manipulative.

Mahsa A. Lindeman, MFT

Mahsa A. Lindeman

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Walnut Creek Family Therapy

These terms are best understood on a continuum or spectrum in order to understand the subtleties and differences as well as any similarities.

Starting at the most benign end of the spectrum, we have qualities or traits of selfishness. Selfishness is really the least harmful and least ingrained pattern of behavior. We all have selfish traits in different ways as well as seasons of life where it is appropriate and healthy to be selfish.

Selfishness is when someone lacks consideration for others and is mostly concerned with their own needs or interests

For example, if we looked at the definition of selfishness, it is described as someone who lacks consideration for others and is mostly concerned with their own needs or interests. Babies, toddlers, children, and teens often fall into this category but in many cases, it is a natural and normal part of their development.

In your adult life, you may go through periods of time when it is appropriate or healthy to be selfish. For example, when you are physically ill or hurt, you may need to receive from others more than you normally would and that’s okay. Or when you have a loss of a close relationship either through death or dealing with a break-up.

Related: What to Do After a Breakup

In this season of your life, you need to focus more on your own feelings and needs until you can recover and function appropriately again. Others may provide extra support, help, and care to help you recover through periods of the grieving process for any number of losses.

These are all times when you technically may be considered selfish but in reality, it is incredibly important to focus on your needs for a period of time.

We often notice times or certain situations when someone may act selfish but typically this behavior does not persist regularly or they are able to take in feedback about their behaviors and choices from others.

People described as selfish care capable of change although they have a choice around whether they actually implement the changes.

When the behaviors of focusing on your own needs above others is a more consistent pattern, we then move further down the spectrum to describe someone as self-centered.

Self-centered people display selfish characteristics more often and focus on themselves more than someone who is simply selfish

They may have more consideration for others, they may have empathy for others but generally, they view themselves as the center of their world in most cases.

Self-absorbed is when someone is nearly always preoccupied with themselves and their own needs

The term self-absorbed is describing traits that are further down the spectrum. They are someone who is nearly always preoccupied with themselves and their own needs. This preoccupation usually comes at the expense of others’ needs.

For example, a partner who is self-absorbed makes choices that serve their own needs rather than the needs of the relationship or their partner. They can take into account feedback they hear from their partner or other important people in their lives and may try to make different choices but ultimately they often come back to making sure their own self-interests are met first and foremost.

Narcissism is when simply cannot identify or empathize with what someone else may be feeling

At the end of the spectrum is someone who is described as narcissistic and likely meets the requirements of the full-blown personality disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Although Narcissists often make choices that serve their own needs again, the biggest contrast between any term lower on the spectrum and the disorder is that narcissists lack empathy.

Due to deficits in the way the brain forms in their early years, narcissists simply cannot identify or empathize with what someone else may be feeling. Often times narcissists also engage in destructive and controlling behaviors such as manipulation, gaslighting, sabotaging, emotional/physical/sexual abuse of others, as well as a complete disregard for other peoples’ needs.

Related: What Is Narcissistic Abuse?

Some narcs may sometimes appear as if they care for others but they do not truly feel any of these feelings. They are simply mimicking what they have seen others do. There is no depth or consistency to their seemingly caring thoughts or actions.

Ultimately, people who are described as selfish or self-absorbed or self-centered may be more focused on their own needs rather than incorporating the needs of others as well but they do not lack empathy and often do not engage in the destructive and harmful behaviors that narcissists engage in.

They are able to take responsibility for their actions and make appropriate changes from there if something is important enough for them to do so.

It is important to note that healing work such as therapy can often produce positive results with selfish, self-absorbed, or self-centered people because they still have what is called an observing ego which means they can step outside of themselves and look at something from the perspective of another or from an outsider’s perspective.

They have the ability to take in feedback, heal the underlying reasons why the self-focus ever developed, and use skills such as empathy to correct their relationships with others. These people are capable of change, whether they want to make changes is still up to them, but they are capable of it.

Narcissists however do not have the ability to step back and observe themselves or other people. This would require the ability to own/take responsibility for your actions and make changes from there, which is not something a narcissist will ever do.

Instead of taking responsibility they often blame others, project their own insecurities, gaslight their victims, and create a “smoke and mirrors” effect to confuse others and create doubt.

Narcissists do not have the ability to change. Because their behaviors stem from changes and deficits that have taken place in their formative years, there is no way to then correct these deficits later in life.

Many people ultimately find that going low or no-contact with a narcissist is the healthiest choice they can make since change is often not possible.

Dr. Cali Estes, PhD, MCAP, MAC, ICADC

Cali Estes

Psychologist | Cognitive Behavioral Therapist | Celebrity Addiction Specialist | Founder, The Addictions Coach

A selfish person will do an act deliberately to help themselves in a specific situation

A good example is eating the last piece of cake and throwing the box out hoping no one will notice they did it because they didn’t want to share.

Self-centered individuals will continually put themselves first on multiple occasions

Most of their conversations will start with “I need ‘ or “I want’. They do not consider other people’s needs or wants first or even at all. For example, they may want to go to the beach today but they agreed to go to their niece’s birthday party and simply get up, turn off their phone and go to the beach.

Self-centered individuals won’t consider anyone else’s feelings but theirs. This causes a lot of arguments in adult life, especially in relationships.

Most of this behavior is learned and from childhood with a parent that gave them what they wanted, especially in a store so they wouldn’t be disappointed or angry. In a sense, the parents created a monster.

Self-absorbed people have very strong opinions about what they and others should do and when

They border on the mental health diagnosis of narcissism. Their opinion is fact and can degrade a person for not following their way of thought. They abuse their friends for money, gifts, time, and more.

They are insecure but not as insecure as a narcissistic person, which is actually a fragile individual. They appear careless, callous, and aloof.

A narcissist is a scared, hurt individual that puts others down before they get hurt, even if there is no perceived threat

They make a selfish personality trait look like child’s play. For this personality, the entire world (according to them) simply revolves around them, and exists because of and to serve them.

Their worst nightmare is an educated empath because we are able to see through the smoke and mirrors and force them to be vulnerable and see inside themselves.

Jason Shiers

Jason Shiers

Certified Psychotherapist | Transformative Coach, Wide World Coaching

All the above have 0 meaning, and the difference is simply – subjective opinion

When we start seeing people beyond psychological symptoms and constructed personality disorders, we then have a chance of helping them. While we support the victim mentality as if narcissists should be avoided, for example, talking about people’s behavior as part of who they really are, then we perpetuate the problem.

To clarify, people do behave in a selfish, self absorbed, self centred or narcissistic way, but it is not who we they are, its an outward manifestation of a hurt person with a misunderstanding of how to cope, that is hurting people.

Seeing psychological innocence is the #1 requirement to be able to understand this.

Narcissism’s origins come from the story of Narcissus, where Narcissus fell in love with his own image when seeing his beauty in a pool of water. How this relates to present-day understanding of narcissism is the same, it is is not a real part of the human psyche it is the over-identification with an image of the self, otherwise known as the ego.

The funny thing is, it is only the ego of one person that sees the ego in another, because we can only see our own thinking and recognition of that thinking, in others.

So psychological innocence means seeing past the created identity, the ego and understanding the overly selfish behaviors, and focus on the self-image of a person is simply an attempt to survive. To keep their identity alive.

Psychological innocence means that we see beyond the image of self and know that under that illusion is a perfect, whole, mentally healthy human being, who has become lost in their developmental understanding of how the mind works and who they are.

To keep this totally real, we all have an ego, a self-image, and in some ways seek to better ourselves, our surroundings, and our statuses, simply because that is the experience of being human.

Understanding this doesn’t exempt you from being hurt, or picking who to hang out with, it just helps you have relationships and connections with people beyond the image of self and with a deeper and more meaningful connection.

Dr. Lynette Louise

Lynette Louise

International Brain Change and Behavior Expert | Author | Speaker

Think of Selfish vs Self-Centered vs Self-Absorbed as ingredients in the recipe for Narcissism.

Selfish people are desirous of having, owning, and controlling things and the attention of others

They get a feeling of worth through the attainment and retainment of things, experiences, and people. They do, however, have the ability to be introspective and notice their own flaws.

A self-centered person observes life through the lens of themselves

They would be very challenged to care about people with no similarity to themselves. However, they do still have enough self-awareness to comprehend their own self-centered perspective. They may not care much, but they comprehend it.

Self-centered people like to think about themselves, though. So with the right analogies, they can absorb other focused lessons. They do not feel a drive toward owning and controlling everything like a simply selfish person does unless that ownership gives them pleasure for their own particular reason. So though self-centered people are selfish they are not driven based on others wanting and admiring their things but based on what they themselves want.

A self-absorbed person loses the ability to be introspective and aware of the effect they have on others

Self-absorbed takes self-centered a step deeper and loses the ability (for the most part) to be introspective and aware of the effect they have on others beyond any effect that is desired in order to achieve their goal. Think of it as a ladder descending into narcissism. Each step takes you a little deeper.

A narcissist view everything they think as right and lacks empathy and compassion

Once the person is a diagnosable as Narcissist (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) they contain within themselves all of the above labels (selfish, self-centered, self-absorbed) and are also without empathy or compassion.

They view everything they think as right. This creates a personality full of arrogance that is unable to comprehend personal blame and responsibility. Thus, anything bad is everyone else’s fault and everything good is because of them.

Ironically, despite the fact that they are convinced of their own perfection (unlike the selfish, self-centered, self-absorbed person) narcissists have a strong need for admiration and approval. To sum up, narcissists not only know they are great but want to be sure you know it too.

Rebecca Zung, Esq.

Rebecca Zung

Lawyer | Author, “Negotiate Like YOU M.A.T.T.E.R.

The word narcissist is thrown around these days like candy being thrown at crowds off a parade float. In my divorce practice, in the initial consultation, it seemed every woman thought her husband was “controlling” and every man described his wife as “crazy” – now everyone is simply a “narcissist”.

From a litigation perspective, it really doesn’t matter if the other person has actually been clinically diagnosed to be a narcissist. If that person is overly difficult, weaponizes the court system, refuses to produce required financial documents, wrongfully withholds timesharing against a good parent, and regularly employs manipulation and intimidation tactics to get the upper hand, a clinical diagnosis is of no import. It’s the experience that matters.

That all being said, there are clearly distinct differences between being “selfish”, “self-centered” and a true “narcissist”.

While the experience of the person interacting with the three traits can be largely the same, it is what’s going on in the mind of the person that is the difference.

To be selfish is more malicious than to be self-centered

A selfish person may understand the impact of their selfishness on the other person but may not care. On the other hand, a self-centered person may only be concerned with his or her own life and world, and truly just doesn’t see the effect it is having on others.

Teenagers are a perfect example of self-centeredness. They aren’t aware of the sacrifices their parents make for them or how much they have to learn about the world.

Some degree of self-centeredness is a good thing. We want to be able to focus on our self-care, our families, and our careers without being distracted. However, too much self-centeredness can lead to being downright selfish.

Related: Being Selfish vs Being Selfless, How to Find the Balance

Narcissists are a whole other beast. Of course, they are both selfish and self-centered, but it goes to the extreme. All three traits should be viewed through the lens of a continuum. All humans want to feel seen, heard, and know that we matter. All humans enjoy being celebrated and respect. Wanting these things does not make one selfish or even self-centered.

To be a narcissist is to be virtually unable to feel any sense of empathy, care, or compassion for others

They are all the way at the end of the spectrum to the point of being pathologically past the point of being able to change.

Some level of childhood trauma caused something to happen within their brains so that, while a select few narcissists can be taught to mimic caring behavior, they are unable to be rehabilitated to the point of actually feeling anything for anyone but themselves.

Dr. J. Salim, DMD

J Salim

Owner and Founder, Sutton Place Dental Associates

Self-absorbed and self-centered people are predominately preoccupied with themselves and their own lives

Self-absorbed and self-centered are essentially the same trait. They refer to people that are predominately preoccupied with themselves and their own lives. They limit their perspective of the world to what is of importance to them.

They have a narrow view of life, concerned with their own affairs and well-being. Some may not see this as a negative trait and consider such individuals as being interested in self-reflection, delving within, introspection, and seeking self-awareness.

However, their myopic view of life, ignoring what is around them, and neglecting others, could become a precursor to depression, addictive tendencies, stress, anxiety, and fear.

Such people are hardly at equilibrium, don’t lead a balanced life, and are not easy to befriend. They are simply too concerned with their own lives to have the time, focus, energy, and dedication to care about others.

Selfishness is a more advanced form of self-centeredness. It characterizes people whose thoughts, words, and actions lack any consideration for others’ feelings, likes, and desires.

A selfish person wants the best for oneself and is solely seeking their own satisfaction, desires, wants, and objectives

Such a person doesn’t care for others or their interests and well-being. He (or she) is solely interested in gathering life’s benefits and repelling its harms, for himself or herself. The selfish person doesn’t truly and genuinely care for others, as long as his (or her) own needs are taken care of.

Such a person is still concerned with moral and ethical boundaries and doesn’t normally cross them. Albeit, self-interest dominates his (or her) world.

It is a step away from the notion of altruism where selflessness is the modus operandi, the person is genuinely concerned for the well-being of others, the person is willing to get out of his (or her) own comfort zone, the person is willing to sacrifice his (or her) own well-being for that of others.

Narcissism is when you have completely moved to the opposite pole of altruism

You view others as pawns in your game of life, with zero concern for their well-being. It crosses all moral and ethical boundaries. The person doesn’t believe that rules, restrictions, or limitations apply to him (or her). He (or she) is willing to use and abuse others as long as his (her) needs and desires are met.

A narcissistic person has no empathy or sympathy for others, shows zero compassion,
doesn’t care at all about anything or anyone except for himself (or herself).

It is the ultimate form of a human animal, as opposed to a true human being. For such a person, altruism is pure stupidity and a waste of time.

It is natural for all human beings to have some degree of self-interest, to want to improve their lives, to seek benefits and personal growth and development. But such self-interest should not harm others or be detrimental to them.

Even acts of charity and helping others genuinely stem out of our self-interest. But this type of self-interest benefits others too, and not just us.

Beverly Engel

Beverly Engel

Psychotherapist, Heal My Shame | Author, “The Emotionally Abusive Relationship

Being selfish is but one quality of someone who is self-centered. The same is true for the difference between being self-absorbed and being a narcissist.

A selfish person wants everything for themselves, with no thought for the needs of others

Someone who is self-centered is preoccupied with themselves and is solely concerned with their own welfare, needs and interests. Self-centered people tend to not only be selfish but also egotistical and self-sufficient.

Someone who is self-absorbed is preoccupied with their own interests, feelings and experiences, too much so to listen carefully to others. They are also preoccupied with their own wants and needs. They only think about and care about themselves.

Most people throw around the word narcissist loosely, using it to describe someone who is seemingly obsessed with themselves. But narcissistic personality disorder has a distinct set of characteristics that differ from being simply self-absorbed. These characteristics include:

  • Feeling more entitled than the average person who is simply self-absorbed.
  • Lack of empathy for others.
  • Thinking they are better than others.
  • Not feeling guilty when they are wrong.
  • Feign interest in others than someone who is self-absorbed.

Terry McDougall

terry mcdougall

CEO & Career Coach | Author, “Winning the Game of Work: Career Happiness and Success on Your Own Terms”

Selfishness is when someone is focused on their own needs primarily and lacks consideration of others.

Self-centeredness is when someone is preoccupied with their own affairs but has enough self-awareness to recognize and consider the needs of others.

Self-absorbed people are oblivious to the needs of others and may expect others to find them as fascinating as they find themselves, yet are not capable of recognizing or acknowledging the needs of others.

Narcissists are aware of the needs of others, yet don’t really care about them unless they can be used to their benefit

Narcissists will sometimes feign interest in other people if they believe it will serve them. They tend to think that rules don’t apply to them and will ignore people not because they are oblivious to them, such as a merely self-absorbed person might be, but because they don’t think the person is useful to them therefore not worthy of attention.

Katie Utterback

Katie Utterback

Wellness Coach | Founder, Elevated Aura

While we throw around the term “narcissist” in pop culture as a way to identify someone who is maybe selfish, self-centered, or self-absorbed, that’s actually not the proper use of the term.

A narcissist is someone who is completely incapable of empathy or introspection and it’s one of the psychological personality disorders

In other words, while someone who is selfish, self-centered, or self-absorbed may talk about themselves too much or forget things that are important to you, the key difference is this:

When you explain to a narcissist that your feelings were hurt or they let you down in some capacity, the narcissist will not apologize. If they do, the apology will sound something like “well, I’m sorry but you made me…” Or if they apologize in a seemingly convincing way “oh baby, I’m so sorry, I’ll never do it again,” they are love-bombing and it’s a way for the narcissist to see if they still have control over their target. So in the end, their actions don’t match their words and they end up doing exactly what they said they wouldn’t do.

A healthy person without Narcissistic Personality Disorder will learn that they hurt someone’s feelings and the actions match the promise in the apology.

So really the difference is the ability to change their behavior – to remove the toxic fleas or habits that we may have picked up. A narcissist will be incapable of change, while those who are selfish, self-centered, and self-absorbed have the choice to shed that ego-driven mindset.

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