February 23, 2014

Are We Self-Aware or Self-Absorbed?

mirror makeup reflection

 “Moderation in all things … especially moderation.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

If you like puzzles, here’s an interesting one for you.

Is it good for us to know more about ourselves?

That is an easy one, right? If you’re like me (and most other people), you know that self-awareness is a good thing.

It allows us to understand our thoughts and emotions, to know our strengths and limitations—it gives us an opportunity to influence ourselves and gain more control of our lives.

But here’s the kicker. We can have too much of a good thing!

For example, thinking is a good thing. On the other hand, too much thinking is an “obsession.” Planning is another great thing, but too much planning turns us into control freaks. It’s the same with exercise, rest, food (even healthy foods), etc.

In theory, self-aware people should be happier and well-adjusted. After all, they know themselves better than those who are low on self-awareness. This enhanced self-knowledge should in turn lead to better emotional regulation and growth toward self-improvement and contentment.

Yet, research has shown that growing toward high self-consciousness is actually associated not only with psychological health, but also with distress, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Oh my! How can this be?

Have you ever found yourself focusing all your attention on one single thought (like an unpleasant incident or an embarrassing situation), and you found yourself unable to get it out of your head? Did it feel like being stuck in a loop, having a broken record playing over and over inside your brain, with you unable to find the mute button?

Did you notice how the more you tried to get rid of that annoying thought and pick yourself up from that negative mood, the louder and more persistent it got?

This sort of thing happens to all of us from time to time, but it’s always worse when the focus of this loop is our own selves: our own problems or weaknesses, our embarrassments and shortcomings.

But wait—how is that possible? Wasn’t thinking about ourselves supposed to be good for us? Shouldn’t it make us happier and wiser? How did this “good thing” turn into its complete opposite and, more importantly, what can we do about it?

I’m going to show you a simple and phenomenally effective technique that’s been scientifically-proven to solve this problem that we all face. And the great thing about this is that you can reap the benefits of this powerful technique in just 10-15 minutes a day!

But first let’s try to understand “why” and “how” this happens in the first place. And it should be fun, too, because it’s all about me, me, me!

Do you know what “self-focused attention” is?

As the name implies, it’s when the entire focus of our attention is directed inward.

Not only in the sense of being constantly aware of our thoughts and emotions, but also in our interactions with other people. For example, when someone is with a group of people who are having a conversation and this person is primarily occupied with “what should I say next,” or “what do they think of me,” or “did I sound confident enough?” we say that this person has a self-focused attention.

In the field of personality psychology, researchers have conducted a lot of analysis on self-awareness and self-focused attention, and a growing body of evidence indicates that self-focused attention is significantly and positively correlated with depression and anxiety.

As it turns out, people who scored highly in private self–focused attention are more dysphoric  (i.e., distressed or unhappy) than those who are lower in self-consciousness.

A similar effect was found for people with social phobia.

In another recent study, they found that people who used more first–person singular pronouns, like “I” and “me” were actually more likely to suffer from negative moods, including depression, anxiety and social phobia.

So does this mean that paying attention to ourselves is bad? Well, no, not exactly.

A number of other studies painted a clearer picture. When people were put in front of a mirror or asked to focus inwardly, there was a noticeable increase in whichever emotion the experimenters induced*.

This is an interesting piece of information, because it tells us that not all self-focus is bad. In fact, self-focus merely seems to heighten our predominant moods. If our mood is good, self-focus can make us feel even better. And if our mood is bad—well, you get the picture.

This has led researchers to assume that there’s more to self-focus that meets the eye. And it turns out that it all boils down to one simple question:

Are You Self-Aware or Self-Absorbed?

Researchers looked at the complex mental activity of self-awareness and thought it would be naive to assume that only one form of introspection existed.

Clearly, different people analyze themselves in different ways. Some think about (and of) themselves in positive and empowering ways, leading them to useful insights that enrich their lives, while others seem to always see themselves in a negative light that reinforces their fears and weaknesses.

So after a re-examination of the whole concept, a fine distinction became clear. Self-consciousness can take either one of two forms, self-rumination or self-reflection, each form leading to entirely different consequences.

“Self-ruminators” tend to anxiously examine themselves, focusing mostly on the discouraging aspects of their personality and behavior. They often think about things like: “Look at all the things I did wrong,” or “Why does this always happen me?” They spend a lot of time beating themselves up, questioning and second-guessing themselves over and over again.

“Self-reflecters,” on the other hand, love figuring themselves out—to them, it’s like a fun game. They are highly self-aware and secure. They philosophize their shortcomings and enjoy examining themselves and learning new things about themselves. They are more in control and are characterized by better mental health. They have wisdom.

This fundamental distinction within self-awareness has proven to be increasingly useful in explaining the puzzle we tried to solve at the beginning of this article, the one psychologists fondly like to call the “Self-Absorption Paradox.”

Self-rumination (and the negative state of mind that accompanies it) is usually the result of us living too much inside our heads, caring only about our own thoughts, wants and needs, and not paying enough attention to the outside world and the bigger picture.

In contrast, self-reflection is about exploration and expansion. It’s about seeing our experiences within the larger context of other people’s experiences. It’s usually characterized by a sense of empathy and greater understanding, of feeling that we’re part of a greater whole.

In other words, self-absorption is a judgmental drive that seeks to feed and protect our egos, while self-awareness is a non-judgmental, non-egocentric perspective on problems and their solutions.

You might now be asking yourself, “Okay, this is all fine and dandy, but how do I change myself from a self-ruminator to a self-reflecter?  What exactly do I need to do?”

Now that is an excellent question. And the answer can be found in—oh wait, that’s what we’ll talk about in the next article!

Stay tuned.

References: Scheier and Carver, 1977

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