A friend of mine read my last post and texted me the next morning:
How do you keep from turning into someone who sees other people around you as background props?
His question was a sincere one, that came from a place of wanting to grow. But I think my answer surprised him. Maybe it will surprise you, as well.
You see, the truth is that no one really “turns into” an egocentric (“me-centered”) person. And that’s because being egocentric and unaware of others is our first state of being when we are born. An infant is incapable of considering others. It needs what it needs. It wants what it wants. All that infant knows is whether it feels it has had those needs and wants met or not. And if it hasn’t, you’ll be sure to hear about it.
Moving into toddler through kindergarten years, children become aware of others but only insomuch as others can meet their own needs and wants. Because of this, toddlers become great manipulators. “If I throw a tantrum, I may get what I want.” “If I say a cute and nice thing, I may get what I want.” But, at that age, it all ends with getting what I want from the people around me.
Even into grade school, most children begin to form friendships based on “what’s in it for me.” They begin to perceive who is well-liked and seek to be friends with those children. They share only if it will garner some positive attention or privilege from a key adult. It is a rare grade school child who has already developed true caring and empathy, regardless of the external rewards.
And in high school, the egocentric bent often becomes self-consciousness. Teens have their stomach in knots and their day ruined, carefully using hair or hoods or hands to hide that one zit that they are sure everyone else in school is bound to be staring at (while the truth is that no one notices your zit, because they are all too busy making sure no one sees their own).
In simplest terms, then, egocentrism is a sign of immaturity.
Often, when kids I mentor decry how horribly their parents handled a situation (“They should know better! They’re the parent!”), I remind them that adults are just teens in older bodies and to maybe cut their parents some slack. And this is true. Unless adults are intentional about developing their ability to see the perspectives of others, they don’t just reach a certain birthday and – *POOF* – the egocentric nature evaporates, never to be seen again.
As I told my friend this morning, maybe a better question is this:
How can I become someone who sees others around me as real and important people like myself, instead of as background props?
And that answer, at root, is a simple one: choice.
That’s right. By our late teen years, most all of us do have the cognitive ability to choose new behaviors and attitudes, rather than simply repeating those comfortable patterns that came naturally with being a child. We have the consciousness to be able to acknowledging that we may be lingering in me-centered thinking and behavior. And if we can admit this, it’s a good sign that we’ve already come quite a ways; for like a young child, a totally egocentric person does not care whether or not he is egocentric, because he is all there is in his world. Once we come to this realization – that we are hanging onto egocentric ways – we can begin to remind ourselves more and more often There are other people around me with needs and wants and dreams and struggles as important as my own – to write it down if necessary – and to practice new habits and behaviors that foster growing degrees of self-awareness, others-awareness and empathy.