The Differences Between Narcissism and Self-Centeredness

Have you ever been told that you are self-centered or have narcissistic tendencies? Both traits are common in humans, but are distinguished on many psychological fronts. Here, we'll tell you more.
The Differences Between Narcissism and Self-Centeredness
Samuel Antonio Sánchez Amador

Written and verified by el biólogo Samuel Antonio Sánchez Amador.

Last update: 27 February, 2024

Without a doubt, all of us have been told at some point in our lives that “we only think of ourselves.” This is normal up to a point, as almost every human being puts their interests ahead of those of others at some moment in their life. However, narcissism, selfishness, self-centeredness, and other associated terms have many differences.

In addition to there being clear differences between a narcissistic person and an egocentric one, it’s important to emphasize that there’s a great step between these personalities and the psychological disorders linked to them, such as narcissistic personality disorder. In the following article, you’ll learn to distinguish these concepts and determine what’s normal and what’s pathological.

Selfishness, egocentrism, and narcissism

Before exploring the differences between egocentrism and narcissism, we find it interesting to lay out a series of bases on human psychology: The self-perception of the “ego” and the search for one’s own well-being over common progress. We’ll dissect these concepts separately, as they’re essential to understanding narcissistic people in depth.

What is selfishness?

The differences between egocentricity and narcissism include timing and intensity.
Although selfishness is something that characterizes part of the behavior of human beings, when it’s manifested excessively, it can lead to difficulty in establishing social relationships.

The Royal Spanish Academy of the Language defines selfishness as “an immoderate and excessive love of oneself, which makes one pay disproportionate attention to one’s own interest, without taking care of that of others.” In the world of biology, this concept doesn’t have any negative connotation, as it’s conceived as the tendency of an organism to look out for its own well-being (the opposite of altruism).

Egoism is imprinted to a certain extent in the genes, as all living beings seek their permanence in order to reproduce and, therefore, leave a greater imprint on subsequent generations. Many of the supposedly empathic acts in the animal world are explained by kin selection, that is, the kinship relationship.

It’s stipulated that in nature, living beings are more likely to have altruistic behaviors if those helped are their direct relatives because, after all, they share genes. The greatest exponents of this postulation are hymenopterans (ants and bees), as workers sacrifice their survival and reproductive capacity for the permanence of their mother (the queen).

Talking about selfishness in humans is more complex, as our ethics, morals, and personality go far beyond natural selection. In any case, information sources and psychological currents stipulate that every act carried out by a person is directed toward self-interest, even when it seems disinterested.

We’re all selfish to some degree because even with empathic or disinterested acts, we seek the well-being that “making the right decision” brings us.

What is egocentrism?

A self-centered person is selfish by definition, but certain nuances differentiate between the two terms. As the APA Dictionary of Psychology indicates, egocentrism is “the overvaluation of one’s own personality that leads a person to believe themself the center of all concerns and attentions.” In other words, it represents the failure to understand a reality other than one’s own.

Although they’re broadly linked, selfishness is conceived more as the need to accumulate goods or social aptitude. At the same time, egocentrism or self-centeredness represents the need to be the center of the world, regardless of the tangible goods that this entails. All self-centered people are more selfish than the norm, but not all selfishness is self-centered at the same time.

Anyway, all humans are self-centered to some degree. After all, we’re the center of our own existence, and therefore, we tend to believe that our experiences and thoughts are “special.” The set of egocentric traits has a peak prevalence during childhood, but it’s also observed in adults.

Self-centeredness throughout life

Here are some small touches of self-centeredness throughout the life of the average human being:

  1. Egocentrism in early childhood: All newborns and infants are self-centered by nature, as they show serious impediments when it comes to applying logical thinking and differentiating between one or more entities. For a young child, other people see, hear, and feel exactly the same way they do.
  2. Egocentrism in childhood: Young children tend to have a lot of trouble distinguishing the objective from the subjective. Therefore, they’re only able to experience the world from their own perspective and assume that this is the only possible one.
  3. In adolescence: Adolescents, due to the physical and hormonal changes they experience, are primarily self-absorbed. In addition, the development of one’s own identity requires a certain degree of uniqueness, which results in high egocentrism. Parental rejection at this stage may also promote the trait.
  4. In adulthood: The prevalence of individual self-centeredness tends to decrease after 15-16 years, as indicated by specialized works. In any case, all adults have certain egocentric traits or a tendency toward egocentrism depending on multiple factors.

As you can see, human beings experience their highest “loads” of self-centeredness in early infancy, childhood, and adolescence. This age distinction marks one of the main differences between narcissism and egocentricity, as we’ll see in greater detail below.

Human beings carry basic egocentric traits. It’s postulated that getting rid of them in their entirety is a task that’s never completed.

What is narcissism?

Narcissism is an excessive and exaggerated admiration that a person feels for themself, their physical appearance, or their gifts or qualities. In other words, it’s an over-interest in one’s physical self and concerns about their own needs, often at the expense of others.

It’s within human nature to be somewhat selfish and have self-esteem to some degree. However, there’s a clear difference between being a narcissist and being self-absorbed or self-centered.

Narcissism is characterized by a permanent feeling of greatness, which is accompanied by emotions of superiority, entitlement, arrogance, and a general lack of empathy and concern for others. Despite its negative connotations, a certain degree of narcissism has historically been associated with the natural makeup of the human being.

Narcissism, selfishness, and self-centeredness are normal traits to some extent. However, a deleterious combination of all of them leads to narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and other psychiatric problems. We’ll take a look at the characteristics in the following paragraphs.

What’s the difference between self-centeredness and narcissism?

We’ve dissected the terms involved extensively. Next, we’ll present you with the differences between self-centeredness and narcissism and how to detect people with these heightened (or pathological) traits. Keep reading!

1. Self-gratification is part of narcissism, but not self-centeredness

The essential key to distinguishing an egocentric person from a narcissist is very simple. Narcissism requires self-admiration, while self-centeredness doesn’t. An egocentric person believes that they’re the center of attention but don’t receive gratification from their own admiration.

Let’s take a practical example: A very egocentric person feels that their reality is the only true one, but they necessarily think that they’re perfect, excellent, or that they stand out from others. Adolescents tend to have a high load of egocentricity, but at the same time, this is one of the vital moments in which one is most dissatisfied with their identity.

Furthermore, studies have shown that people who suffer from depression tend to be more self-centered than those who don’t manifest this disorder. Narcissistic disorders have also been associated with the depressive tendency, but certainly not in the same way. A narcissistic person repeats (and believes) how much they’re worth, something that isn’t true in the case of all egocentrics.

Narcissism is much more focused on elevated self-perception than self-centeredness.

2. Egocentricity is key during the early stages of development

As we’ve said in previous lines, young children have high loads of egocentricity. This isn’t voluntary or bad per se, as it’s normal for a human who isn’t able to distinguish between the objective and subjective to believe that their perceived reality is the only one that exists. Although these trends need to be corrected over time, they’re normal.

Narcissism also appears in peaks during youth, but it’s not so clearly associated with childhood in the cited literature. This personality trait is much more complex (it requires physical assessment, self-perception, approval from others, and many other things), so it naturally doesn’t characterize little ones.

In any case, it should be noted that both components (in the non-pathological field) clearly decrease as the individual gets older. According to studies, the greatest impetus in charge of lowering the narcissistic burden is a person’s search for their first job. People with marked narcissism tend always to want to be right, something that doesn’t fit at all with work dynamics.

The search for friendships, love intentions, and many other interactions also make us understand that self-centeredness and excessive narcissism aren’t going to get us anywhere. Therefore, both tend to decrease over the years (but they don’t disappear completely).

3. Narcissism is more utilitarian

As we’ve said in previous lines, egocentricity is characterized by a failure to understand the realities of others. However, this doesn’t always mean that the person feels that others are less valid or that they can manipulate them. They simply have no interest in others and are completely absorbed in their own situation.

On the other hand, highly narcissistic people seek their own well-being and, in many cases, use others to achieve it. As much of their personal success depends on external perception, they’ll do their best to achieve external validation. This can include manipulation, false charisma, persuasiveness, breaking social norms, and much more.

Children are self-centered by nature, but they don’t have a hidden agenda or evil that justifies their actions. High narcissism does have more negative connotations.

4. Narcissism has a positive side

Another key difference between egocentricity and narcissism is that the latter seems to have a certain positive connotation in the right doses. Egocentrism isn’t conceived as something “good,” as it’s usually not useful to focus on oneself without wanting to understand others in almost any specific scenario.

For some professionals, healthy narcissism is synonymous with high self-esteem and self-confidence. The following could be the main indications of this personality trait:

  1. High self-esteem
  2. Empathy for others and recognition of their needs (loving yourself doesn’t imply not loving others)
  3. A realistic and authentic concept of yourself
  4. Self-respect and love
  5. Courage to understand the criticism of others while maintaining a positive perception of yourself
  6. Enough confidence to set your own goals and pursue them
  7. Emotional resilience
  8. Healthy pride in yourself
  9. The ability to admire and be admired

All of these traits make up what could be thought of as healthy narcissism. In any case, we highlight that not all professionals agree with this concept and with the nomenclature used.

5. Narcissism can become chronic

The differences between self-centeredness and narcissism include the need to seek mental support.
If narcissism significantly affects the quality of life, and the affected person decides to seek psychological help, this could bring significant benefits.

As the last of the differences between egocentrism and narcissism, it’s necessary to mention that the latter can become chronic in a disorder known as narcissistic personality disorder. Sometimes, it’s believed that self-centeredness is the main trigger of this disease, but as we’ve said in previous lines, it’s much more natural (especially in the early stages of life).

The StatPearls medical portal notes that narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by a persistent perception of grandiosity, a need for admiration, and little empathy. Symptoms begin in early adulthood and are as follows (at least five must be present simultaneously):

  1. The patient has a grandiose perception of themself (exaggeration of achievements and hope of being rated above others for no reason).
  2. They’re preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, brilliance, beauty, and perfect love.
  3. They believed themselves to be more special than others and, therefore, that they can only be understood by other special people (or institutions).
  4. They require excessive admiration.
  5. They feel that they require greater treatment than the rest of human beings.
  6. They take advantage of others and use them to achieve their own achievements.
  7. They have no empathy and refuse to acknowledge the requirements and needs of others.

As you can see, the pathological traits of a narcissistic person have a lot to do with the differences that we’ve mentioned above with regard to egocentric people. Someone characterized by their self-centeredness isn’t necessarily a person who takes advantage of others and thinks they’re better in all cases. However, the majority of people with chronic narcissism do.

The prevalence of this disorder ranges from 0.5% to 5%. Other sources estimate much higher figures, from 1 to 15%.

As you may have seen in these lines, the differences between egocentricity and narcissism are multiple. In any case, to a certain extent, egocentricity is considered a normal part of human development, while narcissism is usually kept at very low levels or, otherwise, it can transform into a pathology.

Although the distinctions are multiple, it’s important to recognize that we’re all a bit self-centered and narcissistic. This isn’t bad as long as we don’t lose sight of the fact that the way we see things isn’t the only viable one and that, of course, everyone around us deserves to be treated with the same respect and integrity as we do.

Este texto se ofrece únicamente con propósitos informativos y no reemplaza la consulta con un profesional. Ante dudas, consulta a tu especialista.