How to Stop Being Self-Centred (And Start Sharing the Spotlight)

An inflated sense of self-importance doesn’t make you a bad person, but it could be damaging your relationships.

Susan MacLeod used to demand attention at work a little too often. At her Halifax home, she had a comfortable dynamic with her husband and their two teenage children. But at the office, she bowled over her fellow colleagues on the hospital communications team. “I would say, ‘Here’s my idea and I think it’s the best idea,’ and I got very annoyed when people didn’t agree with me,” she says.

Over time, MacLeod, now 66, experienced the Aha! and Ugh! moments familiar to those of us who realize we have some stuff to work on. First, a team-building exercise prompted a co-worker to see that he dominated conversations—MacLeod recognized the same ears-on-me tendencies in herself. She began to reflect inward and wasn’t happy with everything she saw.

Many of us, like MacLeod, can be occasionally self-centred. It doesn’t mean you have narcissistic personality disorder, a rare clinical mental health condition defined in part by a deep need for attention and admiration. Nor does it mean you’re a bad person: a healthy shot of narcissism empowers us to speak up and confidently claim our rightful place in the world.

Left unchecked, however, an inflated sense of self-importance, hitched to the lack of empathy that defines narcissism, can trample over the needs of others and hurt our relationships. If you do sometimes believe you are the one and only cat’s meow, take heart. We can get better at not thinking we are better than everyone else. 

Explore the Roots of Your Self-Centred Behaviours

Looking back, MacLeod believes she was overcompensating for an insecure childhood. She knew her parents loved her and did their best. But self-esteem wasn’t generally a priority for families in the 1950s, and her artistic bent wasn’t encouraged. Her parents didn’t think she could draw. She eventually connected the dots between her childhood and the behaviours she wanted to change. “I realized that my personality responded with a great deal of insecurity and later ping-ponged between that and extreme self-confidence,” she says. 

Rod Wilson is a former clinical psychologist and Vancouver-based author of Thank You, I’m Sorry, Tell Me More. “The core of narcissistic tendencies is usually about some kind of wound in your personal history where you felt completely inadequate or abandoned and not valued,” he says. As an adult, that person may start to compensate, masking their true self-image.

That buffering can happen in all sorts of ways. As an example, Wilson points to a shopper who enters a store and demands preferential treatment because they see their needs as taking priority over those of others. Parents with narcissistic tendencies might revel in the accomplishments of their children because those achievements reflect well on them. Or conversely, the parent may envy the children because their success takes attention away from them. Or a spouse might make excessive requests of their partner without appreciating the impact. 

Luckily, once a person can name their narcissist tendencies, they are well on their way to dealing with them in a healthy way. “Start practising things that will change you,” says Wilson. “We can all do this.”

Find Someone You Trust 

How we communicate with others, even in day-to-day chit-chat, can be where the rubber meets the road in narcissistic tendencies. Julie Blais Comeau is a Gatineau executive coach and etiquette officer who has trained politicians, business leaders and other professionals on how to communicate with empathy. Blais Comeau suggests seeking out a trusted role model who seems to be a well-liked, gracious person and a gifted conversationalist. Then ask that person: what could I do to make it better when we engage in conversation? 

This will be challenging, says Blais Comeau. “You’re making yourself very vulnerable. But opening yourself up and asking for pointers can help.” The same technique of finding a role model in selflessness can work with marriage and parenting relationships. Who do you know who puts others first in a healthy and balanced way? (They sound exactly like someone who would give you a hand.) If you are the Gabby Garth or the Chatty Cathy of a group, Blais Comeau says practising phrases like, “Tell me more,” can help us all talk less and listen instead.

Do the Opposite of What You Did Before

When MacLeod was trying to stop herself from taking centre stage so much, she would bite her lip to remind herself to let others shine. As she practised listening to, and enjoying, the conversation around her, she reminded herself: it seems to be fine without me. She began to speak up again only after it became easier for her to give others room to contribute.  

Self-centred behaviours, like overtalking, can be flipped on their heads with effort. It’s not easy, but once we identify a narcissistic thread in our behaviour, trying to do the opposite can help. Instead of entering a room and immediately launching into a story of your day, try asking your friend or partner a specific question about theirs. Continue with questions and interest. 

A sense of entitlement can be offset by empathy. Ask, What are others experiencing? rather than, How can others give me what I deserve? adds Wilson. If you’re the shopper who asks that your needs be met first, remind yourself that you’re not actually the centre of the universe, he says. If you’re the parent basking in the light of your child’s accomplishment, tell yourself they are their own person, and so are you. If you’re the spouse making selfish demands, debrief with your partner regularly and ask them how you can meet their needs, as well. 

MacLeod found that meditation classes and therapy helped her find a healthier balance between her regard for self and others. She also began sketching her mother and friends in the nursing home where her mother lived. The resulting graphic memoir, Dying for Attention, details helping her mom navigate long-term care, an experience that called on the empathic powers she’d practised over the years. “It also helps to have a sense of humour. We need to learn not to take ourselves so seriously,” says MacLeod, who is grateful she acted on her desire to change. “I saw that I had an opportunity to grow and I took it.” 

Now that you know how to share the spotlight, check out expert advice on how to improve communication in your relationships.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada