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in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: August 21, 2021

Podcast #725: The Curse of the Self

What a gift the human self is. It enables you to sense and reflect upon your own existence; examine the past and plan for the future; check certain impulses in order to reach for other aims; and conceptualize how others see you, allowing you to better connect with them.

But, my guest says, the blessing of the self also comes with a curse, one we need to get a handle on if we’re to live flourishing lives. His name is Mark Leary, and he’s a professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience and the author of The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life. Today on the show, Mark unpacks exactly what the self is and its vital benefits, before delving into the downsides that also come with having a self. Mark then shares how people can make the most of the advantages of the self, while mitigating its disadvantages, including the practice he most recommends for quieting the kinds of self-related thoughts and ego-driven behaviors that can make us miserable.

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Read the Transcript!

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. What a gift to human self is, it enables you to sense and reflect upon your own existence, examine the past and plan for the future, check certain impulses in order to reach for other aims and conceptualize how others see you, allow you to better connect with them. But my guess says, the blessing of the self also comes with a curse, one we need to get a handle on if we’re to live flourishing lives. His name is Mark Leary, he’s a Professor in Emeritus of Psychology and Neuroscience, and the author of The Curse of the self, self-awareness, egotism, and the quality of human life. Today on the show, Mark unpacks exactly what the self is and its final benefits before delving into the downside that also come with having the self. Mark then shares how people can make the most of the advantages of the self while mitigating its disadvantages, including the practice he most recommends for quieting the kinds of self-related thoughts and ego-driven behaviors that can make us miserable. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/self.

[music]

Alright, Mark Leary, welcome to the show.

Mark Leary: Thank you so much, appreciate being here.

Brett McKay: So you are a psychologist who has spent a lot of time researching, thinking about writing about the self or our sense of self, and this is something I think a lot… I think most people take for granted, the idea that they are a self, that they have a self. And I think if you’d ask most people on the street, “What is the self?” It’d be kind of hem and haw and be like, “Well, the self is a self.” So in psychology, how does psychology define the self? 

Mark Leary: That is a great first question, [chuckle] and a very important one, because the word self is one of the more problematic terms in psychology. It’s used a lots of different ways, it’s often very poorly defined, and ironically, given that I’ve studied this stuff for about 40 years now, I’ve argued that we should stop using the word self and use more precise terms. So, it’s hard to answer your question, people use it in a lot of different ways. When I think of the self, what I’m talking about is, I’m thinking about the ability, the mental apparatus in our brain that allows people to think consciously about themselves.

We have cognitive systems in our brain that do all kinds of thinking. We have systems that allow us to do math problems, or to assess risks, or make inferences about other people. Well, the self is just that mental system that allows us to be self-aware, to be able to think about ourselves consciously in very explicit and abstract in symbolic ways. So, psychologists who study the self are interested in the system and how people think about themselves, and more importantly from my standpoint, to study the consequences of those thoughts about ourselves for our emotions, our motives, and our behavior. Almost everything we do is affected to some extent by how we think about ourselves. So in general, the self is the thing that allows us to think about ourselves, and they give us that sense of self that you mentioned, and we can talk about that as we go.

Brett McKay:So, I mean, it was Kierkegaard right? He said, famously said, the self is relation that relates itself to itself. Did he kinda get it right? 

Mark Leary: Well, yeah, to an extent that’s right. If you think about the self is sort of being the person, it’s our ability as a person to relate to ourselves as a person. We can interact with other people, we can think about other people, we can have beliefs about other people, we can do that in a very odd way with ourselves. We have beliefs about ourselves, we talk to ourselves, have conversations with ourselves. So yes, a self is a person relating to him or herself.

Brett McKay: So there’s some debate as to whether animals have a sense of self, there’s some evidence that some animals do, the great apes can recognize themselves in the mirror, elephants can recognize themselves in the mirror, but no species has a sense of self like humans do, it’s something unique to us. So are there any theories as to why we developed a self, are there any adaptive qualities or advantage of it? 

Mark Leary: Absolutely. I mean, it evolved for some reason, and the two primary explanations, and we don’t know if these are true, one has to do with planning. Planning is so important to survival. Most animals just live in the moment, just moment by moment, they’re just responding to what’s happening, they’re not thinking about what can I do now that’s gonna make my life better a week from now? Planning allows us to do that, but planning allows us to be able to imagine ourselves in our own minds in order to do something now to improve life in the future. So, one possibility is for planning. The other possibility is for interacting with other people, that our interactions improve if we think about what we’re doing, if we have social goals, if we can imagine what other people are thinking about us, so that we became more effective interacting with others, to the extent we could think consciously about what we’re doing. Those are the two main theories, but we really don’t know.

Brett McKay: Alright, so the benefits of the self in order to… One idea is that in order to plan for the future, you have to have an idea of yourself, and I think what psychologists, they call this the analog eye, is that what it is? I think it’s…

Mark Leary: The analog eye, yeah. It’s sort of the image you have of yourself in your mind, if you think about planning for retirement, let’s say, you sort of imagine in your head, this little image of you, what’s that gonna be like? You’re thinking about it and you can move that around in your mind, sometimes seeing it like you’re watching a little movie, there you are sitting on the beach. Sometimes seeing it through your own eyes, you’re looking out at the beach in retirement, but you can sorta move this little avatar around in a very hazy funny way in order to plan for the future. Other times we just imagine there’s something we have to do. I have to stop and get the laundry on the way home from work. But all planning for the future requires self-awareness. And if you think about, if your life is anything like mine, it’s just nothing but a big list of plans. My to-do list is just crazy, and it’s all based on my ability to project myself into the future. So that’s one of the very important functions of being able to be self-aware.

Brett McKay: Well, another one too is decision making. So, yeah, you make these plans and you have to make a decision and then self-control as well, in order to make decisions, you have to exercise, well, I’m gonna do this and not that, and that requires a self.

Mark Leary: Absolutely. Yeah, self-control requires a self-decision making, not only requires me to think about the future, or what will happen if I make this decision versus if I make that decision, but then I have to pull from a storehouse of information in my brain about myself and what I want to do and what my abilities are, and how likely I am to be able to execute certain behaviors. And all of that requires self-awareness. Self-awareness also does a couple of other things, it allows us to imagine how other people perceive us. And if you think about how important that is in life, what a mess we would make out of our lives if we couldn’t think about how other people are looking at us. I mean, the horrible things we would do, and how we would act and how we would look and how we would smell if we couldn’t imagine what other people thought, the self is involved in that. The only way I can think about what you think about me is to think about myself and then try to extrapolate somehow, so self-awareness is involved.

Self-awareness is involved in introspection. Other animals have emotions and urges and goals, but they don’t seem to think about them consciously, you and I can think about, well, why do I want to move to this other town? How do I really feel about this person I’m romantically attached to? Why was I so angry in that meeting yesterday? We introspect on our emotions and motives and intentions. You can’t do that without a self. And self-evaluation. So many of our decisions are based on our own view of our self, and what our capabilities are, and what we like and what we don’t like. And to the extent we can figure that out, we can make better decisions and move forward with life. So self-evaluation is involved. So really, I think of five things that self-awareness does, it allows us to plan, to introspect, to evaluate ourselves, to figure out what other people think about us, and as you said, put all that together, it allows me to at least within limits, control my own behavior.

‘Cause if you think about what self-control is, it’s thinking about yourself in the future and thinking about, “What can I do now?” Or, “Boy, I’d be happier in the future if I lose weight. I need to eat less.” So I’m evaluating myself, I’m thinking about the future, and then I’m trying to talk to myself in order to keep myself out of the cookies every night. And all of that requires a self. I think what’s really impressive, if you think about human civilization, the things that make human beings different than every other animal, things like, we have philosophy, and we have religion, and we have government and education and science and technology and healthcare, every bit of that requires self-awareness. So, I think the reason humans are so incredibly different in good and bad ways from other animals is that we have this capacity that allows us to plan and evaluate and control ourselves that other animals don’t have.

Brett McKay: So those are the benefits of the self, and you wrote this book called The Curse of the Self, where you focus on, well, there’s some benefits, but there’s always… Everything is a trade-off in life, right? You always trade-off. But I wanna talk about this trade-offs, before we do, here’s kind of another bigger question that might be hard to answer, where does the self come from? Like, how do we get this self that’s able to relate to itself? 

Mark Leary: We have no idea.

[chuckle]

Brett McKay: Okay.

Mark Leary: Because it’s all tied up in big questions about consciousness. We are consciously aware of ourselves, but we’re also consciously aware of our environments. Researchers don’t even know what consciousness is. How is it that you can take a five-pound piece of meat, the brain in your head and have it have personal experiences and emotions and thoughts, and visual perceptions and hear things, is a very fundamental question. I mean, for me, that’s the most important question any science can answer at this moment, to understand the sources of consciousness. Only when we understand that, then we can say, “Well, okay, we’re conscious of all kinds of things,” how is it that we, unlike most other animals can be conscious of and think about ourselves? So, there’s lots of theories, there’s lots of speculation. It goes back hundreds of years in philosophy, people saying, how do human beings do this thing? But we really don’t know. Don’t have the slightest idea.

[laughter]

Brett McKay: Okay, so we don’t know. [chuckle] We don’t know why we have a self.

Mark Leary: Yes.

Brett McKay: Theories from philosophy, and I’m sure religion has ideas of what the self is or why it’s there.

Mark Leary: And neuroscientists are working on it in terms of trying to understand what could be happening in neurons in the brain that would produce consciousness and self-awareness. And you know, again, they’re speculating but nobody knows.

Brett McKay:Alright, so there are benefits to having a self, allows us to plan, allows us to make changes in our lives for the better, but there’s also downsides, and one of the downsides you talk about is that having a self can distract us from the world around us. How so? What does that look like? 

Mark Leary: Well, we talk to ourselves in our own heads an awful lot. Sometimes that’s very beneficial. We have to sit down and plan. We have to figure things out. But research suggests that the majority of the thinking that we do about ourselves is not beneficial, it’s not actionable, it’s just ruminating about things, worrying about things, just remembering things from the past. Well, that would be okay, except all of that chatter in our heads interferes with our ability to pay attention to the present situation, and we’ve all had that happen many times. Think about the Talks that you’ve sat in, or meetings you’ve been in, where you suddenly you realize you’ve lost track of what’s going on, ’cause you’ve been wrapped up in your own thoughts about yourself.

 Or you’re supposed to be picking up the laundry on the way home from work, and you’re so wrapped up thinking about the day and worrying about something that’s happening on the job, it’s not until you’re pulling into your driveway, you really go, “Dang, I was opposed to pick up the laundry.” I found this when I had small children, is I often found that when I was playing with them, I was only playing like I was playing with them because my mind was somewhere else, wrapped up in some problem I was thinking about. So these self-thoughts are distracting. Ideally, what we would like to have is a self that turned on when we needed it, when we had to think consciously about ourselves, it would turn on and we’d use it. And then it would turn off again and be in stand-by mode until we needed it again. But our self-thoughts don’t work that way, we think about our way ourselves way too much. So, if we’re distracted by it, we’re preoccupied by it, it makes us unhappy sometimes, because we’re sitting in a meeting thinking about the problem we had with our partner that morning at breakfast, and it’s not doing any good for us at the moment, it’s just making us miserable.

We also know that thinking too much about yourself interferes with memory, you get so caught up in your own thoughts, you’re not paying enough attention to what’s going on at the moment to be able to encode that event. We have that happen a lot when we meet people for the first time. We’re introduced to some stranger, and 30 seconds later, we don’t know that person’s name, even though we just learned it. Why don’t we know it? Probably because we were thinking, “Well, what am I going to say? Who is this person? Oh, this is a nice looking person. Oh, I wonder if I can trust this person.” Our mind is abuzz with self-related thoughts. In extreme cases, our minds are so abuzz that we really can’t perform the behaviors we need to perform, we’re so distracting. I mean, many of us, we’re trying to work on something, we’re at the computer, but we’re ruminating about a problem, a financial problem, a relationship problem, our kids, whatever, and we’re so distracted, we’re having trouble devoting our attention to the task we’re on.

We see that when people choke under pressure, when athletes choke in games, what’s really happening? What’s really happening is that their self-thoughts are interfering with those automatized behaviors they’ve learned so well, they can shoot that basketball, great. But when they start thinking about their problems or how the game’s going, or, “Oh my God, we’re losing the game,” those conscious self-thoughts can interfere. Or students experiencing test anxiety. When students have test anxiety, yeah, they’re anxious and that’s a problem, but the big problem is, they say their mind goes blank. I was so nervous, I couldn’t think about the test, my mind went blank. Their mind didn’t go blank at all, their mind filled up with catastrophizing self-thoughts that made them unable to pull out the information they needed.

So, I had a student once who characterized this very well. Well, I would encourage your listeners actually to try for the next three minutes, if there’s some place where they can safely do this, just sit down and say, “I’m not going to think any thoughts about myself for three minutes. It’s my brain, I can control it, I’m gonna sit here and not think a single thought about myself for three minutes.” And I think they will be amazed if they’ve never tried that, that they can’t do it. You can’t get past 15 seconds and then you think about the thought and, “Oh, I wasn’t supposed to think that I thought, now let me try it again,” and it’s just a cacophony of chatter. I had the students say, after I asked my students to try that for three minutes, she said, “I didn’t realize how much my brain thinks without my permission,” which I think really captures it beautifully. Yes, your brain thinks without your permission, and it’s distracting and pre-occupying.

Brett McKay: That’s a tough thing to do, ’cause you have to use the self to not think about the self, which is like fighting fire with fire.

Mark Leary: Yes. [chuckle] It is. That’s exactly right. Exactly right. It’s a problem, and it does impede the quality of our lives by interfering with what we’re trying to do.

Brett McKay: And another way that thinking about the self or the self can make our lives distract us and make life harder is, insomnia is often just the self thinking that I can’t sleep. This is a problem. Why can’t I sleep? I’m sure cats don’t think, “Oh man, I can’t sleep,” they just, they don’t even think about it, but we…

[chuckle]

Mark Leary: That’s right.

Brett McKay:We make the problem worse by thinking about the fact that we can’t sleep.

Mark Leary: Perfect example. Yeah. Why do we lie awake at night? It starts out thinking about the day, thinking about problems, maybe just ruminating. Sometimes they’re not even problems, might be something positive, I’ve gotta decide tomorrow if I’m gonna go vacation in this location or that location. That’s not a problem, but that’s me lying awake at night trying to make a decision with these self-relevant thoughts. Then as you say, it turns from staying awake, ’cause those kinds of thoughts are intruding, to thoughts coming in about the fact that I gotta go to sleep, I’ve got a busy day tomorrow. Why can’t I go to sleep, what’s wrong with me? You gotta relax. And you know the old classic advice for insomnia is count sheep. Well, that’s cliche, but the general idea is, if you really could count sheep and stay focused on counting sheep, it would crowd out all of those self-relevant thoughts. Now that’s hard because the self-thoughts are more powerful than the images of sheep jumping over a fence or something. But the general idea is, if you can start thinking about something neutral, not self-relevant, then you’ll quiet down all that self chatter and go to sleep..

Brett McKay: Alright, so besides distracting us from the world beyond our head, the self can also distort the way we see reality, how so? 

Mark Leary: Well, these logs we have about ourselves have content of various kinds. And one thing we know is that, our thoughts about ourselves are not necessarily reality, they’re just inferences or hypotheses, which means that, when we base our behavior and our decisions and our emotions on our beliefs and our thoughts about ourselves, those beliefs and thoughts about ourselves are sometimes wrong. Now, if they were just sort of randomly wrong, that would be sort of a problem. That means we’re not being accurate and are accurate in our self-perceptions. But we know that our self-thoughts tend to be biased in a favorable direction. And that shouldn’t surprise anybody.

When you ask people to rate, you give them a list of characteristics and abilities and you ask them, “Do you think you’re below average on this characteristic, or average, or above average on this characteristic?” Things like, “How good of a driver are you? Are you below average or above average as a driver? As a lover, are you below average or above average? Are you more moral than average or less moral than average than the average person?” So we’re asking people to rate themselves compared to everybody else, on these positive and negative characteristics. Well, if people knew the truth, half the people would say, “I’m below average,” and half the people would say they’re above average. That’s the way averages work. Half the people are below and half the people are above in some normal distribution of driving ability.

But that’s not what happens. What happens is, on almost all characteristics, 70% to 80% of people say that they’re above average. When it comes to being a good employee, if you ask people, “In your organization, you think you’re above average as an employee or below average as an employee?” Again, if people really knew the answer, if a big voice came out of the sky and told you the truth, half the people would say they were below average. Only 13% of people say they’re below average at work. We have this strong bias to perceive ourselves too positively, and that creates all kinds of problems. It creates problems in our decision making. We’re making decisions based upon false assumptions about how good we are at things, and that’s not good. It creates conflicts with other people, because if you think you’re doing better than most other people, you rightfully feel entitled to higher salaries, or more respect, or more compliments. But if we’re over-estimating how good we are things, then we’re not gonna get as much pay or attention or respect or deference as we think we deserve, and we’re gonna be disgruntled by it. This better than average effect is so robust.

I did a study a few years ago, where I asked a very large sample, I said, “I want you to think of all the disagreements you’ve had with other people. It could be trivial disagreements, unimportant things, or major disagreements. In what percentage of those disagreements you had with other people, do you think that you are the one who’s correct?” And again, the average person, the average should be 50%. Now, some people may be more correct than others, but if a disagreement has one wrong person and one right person, then on average, the average person should be right half the time. That’s not what you get. The average person thinks that they are right, about two-thirds of the time. Well, that creates a lot of conflict when we disagree with other people, we think we are more correct than we statistically and logically can be. And so the over-positivity of our self-thoughts create a number of problems in our lives, and there’s not much we can do about it, except realize, however you feel about yourself, it’s probably too positive. And I know that’s kind of depressing and demoralizing, even if you say, “I’m not above average. I’m below average,” chances are, you’re probably even more below average than you think you are. We just have this tremendous tendency to self-enhance.

Brett McKay: Alright, so we have this bias to think that we’re awesome. And besides thinking already, that we’re great, we also evaluate events in our lives, that happened to us in a positive light typically. So if we get a… I don’t know. If a project turns out great, that we were working on, we think, “Well, that was mostly me and everyone else, they didn’t really do anything on that project, it was me.” Probably not the case, or if something… But the flip side is, if it turns out poorly, what we do is like, “Well, that wasn’t my fault.” It’s like, “Everyone else is a bunch of dum-dums, and I did everything right and it’s their fault.”

Mark Leary: Absolutely. Those are called self-serving attributions. The attributions, the explanations we make for events in our lives, are very self-serving. You’re right. We take more credit for the positive things and less credit for the negative things, than we should. And again, that creates conflict among people, because we have disagreements about who was responsible for this argument that you had with your partner this morning. Whose fault was it? I don’t know. But it wasn’t mine. So yeah, self-serving attributions are a problem as well.

Brett McKay: So another way the self can make us miserable and be a curse is that, it can exacerbate negative emotions like sadness and worry. There’s research that suggests that animals have emotions like fear, they experience that, but they don’t think about their fear. So what does the ability to think about our emotions, how does that make them worse? 

Mark Leary: We conjure emotions on our own that have nothing to do with our situations. I like you bringing up the animals there. Because yes, animals have emotions, they have negative emotions when there are threats or challenges in their environment at the moment, and they have positive emotions when good things are happening, benefits and opportunities. That happens with us as well, but we can conjure up, we create so many emotions for ourselves by just how we think about ourselves and our lives. Nothing has to be happening. I can be having a perfectly nice evening, sitting, watching television, relaxing, my life at the moment is fine, and I can make myself miserable, replaying that argument I had with my boss a week ago, or worrying about the medical procedure I have to have two weeks from now, or starting to think about my retirement account. We create an awful lot of negative emotions in ourselves, sadness, anger, anxiety in particular, worrying about things that we don’t have any control over, but we sit and worry. Ad you’re right, the animals aren’t doing that. You don’t get the sense that the owl sleeping in its tree is worried about what it’s going to do tomorrow, what might happen to it.

 Now, let me point out, sometimes those negative emotions we create for ourselves, can be beneficial, that worrying about that thing, “I worry that I’ve got some weird symptoms here,” well, that may motivate us to go to the doctor. So sometimes, our negative emotions we create, are actionable. There’s something we can do about them, and they’re motivational, and that’s fine. The vast majority of times, when you make yourself feel badly, it’s not actionable, you’re just feeling badly, and it’s not improving the quality of your life at all. So a lot of human unhappiness is generated by the way we think about ourselves and our lives, and has nothing to do with the situation we’re in, at the moment.

Brett McKay: Or a big emotion that people experience, that can really get in the way of having a flourishing life, that’s caused directly by the self is, social anxiety. Social anxiety is caused by you thinking too much about how you are engaging in that social interaction, so you’re just thinking about yourself, and as a result, it just makes you anxious and want to avoid social interactions completely.

Mark Leary: Exactly. You nailed it. Social anxiety is me worrying about how I’m coming across to other people. “I’ve gotta give that talk tomorrow, and I’m worried about it and anxious. Gotta get up in front of the audience,” or, “I’m meeting new people,” or, “I’m going on a job interview,” or, “A date with someone for the first time, and I’m upset and anxious and ruminating about it,” and that’s solely my concerns with what the other people will think. And again, there’s nothing wrong with being concerned with making a good impression, that’s important for the quality of our lives too, but there’s a big downside if it makes you so anxious that you’re terrified when you have to get up and give the talk or you have to go in for the job interview, and you’ve created that in your own mind. Absolutely.

Brett McKay: And the other thing that self just makes these problems worse, okay, the self can conjure up… We have these emotions and then we start ruminating on them, it makes it worse, so we’re thinking, “Oh well, I’m worried about this event that’s about to happen,” so you start thinking, coming up and you start worrying more, but then yourself can also be like, “Why are you worrying about this? You’re such a dum-dum,” and so you just make things even worse. You start beating yourself up for the self having an improper response to your emotions.

Mark Leary: Exactly. And that’s that introspection function I was talking about. We analyze ourselves and we get upset with ourselves because we’re not as happy as we should be, or we’re more anxious than we should be. We beat ourselves up and get depressed about the fact that we’re depressed. Life’s tough enough, there are real challenges we all have to live with, that create anxiety and sadness and anger and other negative emotions. These are real things. There’s nothing wrong with that. The sad thing is that, all of us heap a whole bunch of stuff on top of that, that’s not necessary, and we created it. And again, if we had a switch, you could turn off all of this self-reflection, we could shut down that part of our misery. And when I think about things that upset me, most of them are in my own head. It’s not that I’m confronting a problem at the moment, it’s in my head.

Brett McKay: Well, you highlight some research that they can show how introspection can mess up relationships or harm relationships. So this idea, you wanna evaluate your relationship with a significant other, and then you do this quiz, for example, it’ like, “How would you rate your significant other, on X trait?” You never thought about that trait before, you were attracted to your partner for some other reason, wasn’t that trait. But then you realize, “Wait, my partner, my wife doesn’t have that trait. I don’t know, maybe we don’t have a good relationship.” If you hadn’t even thought about it, it wouldn’t have been a problem.

Mark Leary: Yeah, there’s great research on the downsides of introspection, they’ve shown it with relationships, they have shown it with people’s ratings of the tastes of food. Have people taste jams and rate how it tastes and why they like it or don’t like it, changes their perceptions of how good the jam is. What’s happening, I think, is so many of our reactions to things, our relationship. Why are we attracted to the person we’re attracted to? There’s a zillion possible reasons. We are only conscious of some of those things. A lot of it’s happening below the wall level of awareness. We don’t know why we were attracted to that person. Why does this jam taste good? I don’t know, it just tastes good. When you take something that’s automatic, like the fact we like one person, or we like this jam, and you try to make it conscious and think deliberately about it and introspect on it, you can start to focus on things. As you said, that we’re actually somewhat irrelevant in our attraction to the person initially, but once we start thinking about it, that can actually modify how we think about the person or the jam or something else.

 So if you take it too far, it sounds like you’re saying, “Well, don’t introspect. Don’t try to think about why you feel the way that you feel,” and I’m not saying that, I’m saying there’s a potential downside. A lot of our reactions are automatic, and if we try to think about them consciously, we’re gonna get it wrong in terms of why. And we just don’t know why we like or don’t like certain things. We’ll come up with reasons, we’ll explain it and they seem right. But are those the real reasons why we like our partner? Is that the real reason this jam tastes good? If we’re honest with ourselves, we really don’t know.

Brett McKay: Alright, so the self has benefits, but also comes with downsides, and some of these downsides, these negative aspects of the self, can become so overwhelming for people, that they try to escape the self. I think Roy Baumeister wrote a book a long time ago, called Escaping the Self, where he makes the case that things like alcoholism, extreme sports, addiction, they’re ways to sort of quiet the self down. How do we think those things would quiet the self down, but actually make us more miserable? 

Mark Leary: Well, we all do things every day, to try to quiet the self-chatter down. We don’t consciously think about it that way, usually. It’s not that we sit down to watch television and say, “Hey, I need to think less about my problems, so I’m gonna lose myself in a mindless television.” But part of the appeal of leisure activities is that, it does get us less focused on ourself, watching mindless television, watching sports, playing sports, socializing with other people, going shopping, sex, things that take our minds off of ourself. Now, all of those activities may be pleasurable in their own right. If you’re playing sports or enjoying a television show or socializing, yes, they’re pleasurable in their own right, but part of the pleasure comes from the fact that they’re taking me away from thinking about my problems.

Brett McKay: Yeah, in research on alcohol says, one of the things that it does, it sort of quiet the self, you become less self-aware. And so that’s why people tend to be a little more social, they say things they otherwise wouldn’t have said, ’cause the self is basically taking a break a little bit, when the alcohol gets into your brain.

Mark Leary: Absolutely true. These general ways we all do sort of quiet the self on a daily basis, it doesn’t work for everybody. So alcohol drugs is the big dysfunctional way to do that. Now, alcohol does two things, one, it’s a central nervous system depressant, so it does relax you, even if it doesn’t change your self-thoughts, it does produce a little bit more relaxation. But there are studies that show, that people think less about themselves when they drink, in general. There are exceptions of that.

Brett McKay: One thing you mentioned in the book too, is that, religion and philosophy have been aware about this idea of the problems of the self, and they’ve tried to figure out ways to mitigate the curse of the self. Well, how have they done that? 

Mark Leary: Religion sort of feeds into the self in two ways. One is, religion really does two things. Religions differ a lot, but it has two functions, one is, to provide answers to the big existential questions. How did all this get here? Who I am I? How do I relate to the universe? What happens after I die? And religions, in different ways, provide some guidance, some hints, some answers to those kinds of questions. Well, those questions are all self-generated. All those other animals out there in the woods are not sitting around, wondering about how the universe was created or what’s gonna happen after they die. We do wonder about those things, and the uncertainty and the fear could be problematic for some people. Religion steps in to provide some tentative and answers.

 The second thing that religion does, related to the self is, it provides a moral code. It says, “Here’s the ways that you ought to treat each other, here are the ways that you ought to behave.” If you look at what most of those moral codes say, they involve not hurting other people, they involve not being selfish, not being too self-centered, treating other people the way you would like to be treated. So religious moral codes are ways to try to get people not to behave in an egocentric, selfish, self-centered kind of way, that if people weren’t already self-centered, if people weren’t selfish, we wouldn’t need moral codes. Everybody would behave themselves and get along pretty well, and that would work out fine. Now, the world religions approach the problem of the self in different ways. The Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, their approach to the problems created by the self, the self-centeredness, and selfishness, is to provide this moral code and say, “Here are the rules you really need to follow. You need to become a new kind of person in one way or another,” and different religions look at that differently, and behave in this way, in order to be a good person.

The Eastern religions, like Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism, as well as a lot of indigenous religions, they have moral codes, but they focus more on getting to the root of the problem, in terms of quieting down the self, removing some of the curse of the self, making people less self-preoccupied through meditation, through rituals, through spiritually related dancing, quiet down all of this stuff about yourself, and you’re gonna have a happier and healthier and better life. And so naturally, be better without having to just tell you to behave in certain ways. But both sets of religions, Western and Eastern, are both coming at the problem, that too much self-thought, too much egotism, too much self-awareness is a problem for people personally, and it’s a problem for how people treat other people.

Brett McKay: Okay, so the self has benefits, there are downsides, and you’re not advocating that we just kind of become un-self-aware ’cause that would cause lots of problems in our lives.

Mark Leary: Not at all, not at all.

Brett McKay: So what does the research say about what we can do to quiet the curse of the self. So we get the benefits of the self, which is that planning, decision-making, self-evaluation, while mitigating the down side? ‘Cause I imagine, you can’t eliminate the downsides completely, that just comes with having a self, you’re gonna have those downsides.

Mark Leary: I think so, but I think you can improve the quality of people’s lives, by minimizing them, by mitigating them and cutting them down by 20 or 30%, would create a real improvement in the quality of life. Research suggests a number of things, but they tend to fall into two or three large categories. I you’re trying to say, “How do I minimize the impact of my self-thoughts on the quality of my life and how I affect the world?” The first is, find some way to reduce the sheer amount of self-thoughts you have, to cut back on the frequency of self-related thoughts, because many of them are useless, they’re making you miserable and they’re creating conflicts with other people, they’re being egotistical. How can we shave that back? And the most tried and true way is to learn to meditate, and I realize, a lot of people look at meditation as stanced, and something really weird. It can be tied up in some odd things, but basically, it comes down to simply a psychological training tool, that it’s a way to quiet down the degree to which you are thinking about yourself and to not take your self thoughts quite so seriously. And there are plenty of things on the internet, there are classes in meditation, there’s different brands of meditation.

 And I know, a lot of people sort of feel like it’s… Well, it’s associated with spirituality and religion and some new age kinds of ideas, and it often is. But it doesn’t have to be. It can be purely a mental, psychological training tool, focused only on trying to diminish the degree to which you think about yourself. Ad people who go through meditation classes and practice regularly, it’s clear, that they think less about themselves. They still get tangled up in all of the stuff we’ve been talking about, you’re right to curse of the self does not go away, but they do it less and they report being more relaxed and more happy and more balanced, because they don’t have all of that chatter going on. So the first thing is to just trying to slow down the pace at which you think about yourself on a daily basis. The second is, when you do think about yourself, don’t trust those thoughts quite as much as you probably do. I call this ego-skepticism. We know that our thoughts are often biased, we know that our thoughts about ourselves are incomplete, a lot of the things that affect our behavior are below the level of awareness, we don’t think about them, we can’t think about them. So don’t take your thoughts quite so seriously. They are hunches, hints, hypotheses that are often true, and they guide your behavior in fruitful directions, but they’re often wrong or incomplete.

So if you just don’t take your own thought quite so seriously, and use them for guidance, then I think you’re less likely to fall into some of these traps we’re talking about, you’re less likely to be ego defensive, you’re less likely to make bad judgments based upon the fact you perceive yourself too positively. And if you can do each of those things a little bit, and I don’t wanna hold out too much hope you can do them a lot, because we’re not designed that way, we were not designed with a brain, to live in the environment we’ve created. That’s the irony of all of this. We evolved with a brain that works really, really well if you’re a hunter or gatherer or living in a tribe of about 30 people. We don’t live that way anymore, we’ve created a civilization and a global economy where we just have to deal with too many people and too many issues, and too many choices.

I have been amazed we do as well as we do. We have a lot of dysfunction as a species, no question. But the fact that we can live in an environment that’s so different from the one that our brain was designed to live in, it’s pretty remarkable. Biologists tell us that our brain is not fundamentally different than it was 50,000 years ago, during the Stone Age, but yet it’s coping with all of this. So if we just tell ourselves, we’ve got to do certain things to promote our ability to cope with our current lives that we’ve created, and one of those things is, to become a little less self-focused, less egoic, less egotistical, and to lower that curse of the self.

Brett McKay: Well, Mark, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go, to learn more about your work? 

Mark Leary: I guess just really two places. One is the book, The Curse of the Self. I guess it’s probably still on Amazon, and my blog, at psychologytoday.com. The blog that I have there, is called Toward a Less Egoic World. The idea being, if ego and self and identity create all of these problems, what steps can we take to be less egoic and create a less egoic world and lower some of these problems? And I know there’s maybe 15 posts on there, I try to keep up with it every month or so, but that’s psychologytoday.com, people can Google my name, L-E-A-R-Y or look for Toward a Less Egoic World, and that will… Now, those are written for the average person, with the implications, “What do we do to minimize the curse of the self?”

Brett McKay: Mark Leary, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Mark Leary: Thank you so much for having me.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Mark Leary. He is the author of the book, The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life, it’s available on Amazon.com. Also check out our show notes, at aom.is/self, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

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 Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousand of articles written over the years, about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of The AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher premium. Head over to Stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code, MANLINESS at check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app Android or IOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of The AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to leave us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member, who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard, into action.

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