Egoism and egotism sound like they’re synonyms, but they’re not. True, they’re in the same ballpark, but there’s a crucial difference.
Egotism is having an inflated sense of self, a feeling that you are superior to others. Egotistical people are typically vain. And the word also carries the connotation that the egotistical person is deluded in this self-belief. Boy, that sounds like a rare thing, right? Well, not so fast. Instead, self-serving bias is fairly common, baked into most human psyches (where it serves a self-protective purpose).
And a certain pattern has been found reliably in psychological studies where the majority of people surveyed consider themselves above average (this is known as illusory superiority or the above-average effect). This is statistically impossible. A considerable number of individuals must be either average or below. So it would seem looking at these facts that some degree of egotism (self-delusion and upgrading one’s self-concept) is semi-common.
Okay, so that’s egotism. What is egoism then? An egoistic person puts their own needs and wants before those of others. Egotistical people do this, too, of course, but there’s a key difference when it comes to egoistic people: They don’t necessarily think they are better than other people. True, they serve themselves — but not because they feel superior.
That Narrow Place Where You’re Egoistic But Not Egotistic Is Prime Real Estate
Egoism just makes sense in terms of survival, even for the most social of animals. Because no matter how much you want to help others, it’s hard to do when you’re run down or in bad shape yourself. So taking care of yourself first just makes sense. It’s very much like the popular scenario that people talk about: You put on your own oxygen mask first during a plane crash before assisting others.
And I think it’s the healthy piece of a lot of the cultural love of rugged individualism and talk of independence of freedom that’s so endemic to American culture — egoism. (Likely motivated by capitalism because individuals buy more toasters than they did when they were part of enmeshed extended families all living in one household.) It’s important to take care of yourself. It is. You shouldn’t neglect yourself in your quest to help others. That ultimately helps no one.
But I’ve found that too often it’s easy for folks to take that message and sprint right over the border into egotism.
Anyway, it’s something I’ve been working on hard — learning to take care of myself (and others) without turning into a vain jerk. It’s a trickier balance than most admit. That narrow place where you’re egoistic but not egotistic is prime real estate.