Escaping From the Prison of Self-Obsession

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Introspective self-awareness is sensitivity to one’s internal experience—thoughts, feelings, judgments, assumptions—and behavior. It may include an evaluative aspect that rates how well we do in terms of morality, success at tasks, or relating to others.

The extrospective dimension of self-awareness is sensitivity to the internal experience of others, especially to the effects of our behavior on them.

Self-awareness facilitates goal-directed behavior. It helps us learn from mistakes, correct them, apologize for transgressions, and repair relationships. Self-awareness is not an end; it’s a means to better living.

Self-obsession is a preoccupation with one’s internal experience. It greatly impairs the ability to see other perspectives. We’re all self-obsessed when experiencing strong feelings. At those moments, it’s difficult to see other people’s perspectives and, consequently, the effects of our behavior on them. We tend to judge other people by their negative reactions to us without seeing what we’re doing to cause their reactions. I had one client who thought his wife was “mean” when she called him insensitive after he told her she was an idiot.

Because the self-obsessed can’t see other people, they do a lot of projecting and make judgments of others according to their own feelings and states of mind. Chronic self-obsession reduces other people to sources of feelings. You’re okay when you make them feel good and seriously flawed when you disagree with them.

Self-obsession vs. Narcissism

The self-obsessed can be narcissistic, preoccupied with egos inflated by exaggerated personal qualities and achievements. More often, they ruminate about mistakes and misfortunes. Rumination consumes so much of their mental energy that they’re easily overwhelmed by the complexity of relationships or work tasks. They’re sensitive to criticism because they’re self-critical. They often see themselves as victims. Unlike the entitlement of narcissists, who feel more than deserving of admiration and privilege, the entitlement of the self-obsessed is compensatory: “It’s so hard being me, I shouldn’t have to wait in line too.”

The self-obsessed are burdened with resentment and envy. In contrast to the calculating manipulation of narcissists, they impulsively manipulate other people, usually with no goal in mind and often to their own detriment.

The self-obsessed are more likely than narcissists to read self-help books. But they do it to feed their self-obsession or diagnose their partners rather than improve their lives. While narcissists live in an imagined paradise of the self, the self-obsessed dwell in a prison of the self.

How to Turn Self-Obsession into Self-Awareness

If you have trouble seeing other perspectives or looking at yourself with relative objectivity, try the following.

Write out a detailed description of yourself. Read it out loud into your phone or a digital recorder, and then listen to it as if it were someone else saying the words. Return to what you’ve written and modify it according to how you want to feel and what you will need to do to feel the way you want. Read that into your phone and play it back.

Describe an interaction when your partner or someone else said something you didn’t like, something that hurt or offended you. Then write down what you said immediately before that person’s hurtful or offensive remark.

Recognize that, like you, other people feel guilt, shame, anxiety, and sadness that they try to conceal. To paraphrase psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan, we’re all more human than not.

Choose a therapist who helps you see other people’s perspectives, rather than simply validating yours.

Forget why you’re in a hole and focus instead on how to climb out of it.

Look for people and things to appreciate.

Practice compassionate and kind behavior toward yourself and others.

Embrace Uncertainty

The ever-developing sense of self is more of a systemic process than a fixed entity about which certainty is possible. An inward search by itself can never provide certainty. If we focus on ourselves, we can’t accurately see anyone else. This creates a natural state of uncertainty, which, in extreme cases, drives us toward isolation or seclusion.

Self-defeating ways to cope with uncertainty include attempts to conceal it with dogma, superstition, delusions, drugs, ego, attempts to control other people, perfectionism, or anger.

The self-enhancing path is to accept uncertainty and use it as motivation to learn about yourself, in relation to others, with the goal of growing smarter and healthier. Humans are inherently ambiguous. We’re better off striving for consistency and improvement, not certainty.

True self-awareness includes an acceptance of uncertainty and appreciation of the self in relation to others. Genuine self-awareness precludes self-obsession.

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