The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life

The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life

The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life

The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life


Despite its obvious advantages, our ability to be self-reflective comes at a high price. Few people realize how profoundly their lives are affected by self-reflection or how frequently inner chatter interferes with their success, pollutes their relationships with others, and undermines their happiness. By allowing people to ruminate about the past or imagine what might happen in the future, self-reflection conjures up a great deal of personal suffering in the form of depression, anxiety, anger, jealousy, and other negative emotions. A great deal of unhappiness, in the form of addictions, overeating, and domestic violence, is due to people's inability to exert control over their thoughts and behavior. Is it possible to direct our self-reflection in a way that will minimize the disadvantages and maximize the advantages? Is there a way to affect the egotistical self through self-reflection? In this volume, Mark Leary explores the personal and social problems that are created by the capacity for self-reflection, and by drawing upon psychology and other behavioral sciences, offers insights into how these problems can be minimized.


As a university professor, I regularly attend my university’s graduation exercises each spring. As I’ve sat through my share of both excellent and dreadful commencement speeches, I have sometimes mused over what I would say to the graduating students and assembled guests if I were ever invited to give a graduation address. What important lesson could I impart in 15 minutes or less that, if heeded, might change the graduates’ lives as they made their way out into the world?

A few years ago, as I listened to a speaker talk about the challenges that the graduates would face, I decided that my commencement speech would tell students that their greatest challenges in life would be ones that they inadvertently created for themselves. “You will face various disappointments, problems, and even tragedies in life,” I would say, “many of which you will have little or no power to control. But the primary cause of your unhappiness will be you.”

This claim is not new, of course. Others have suggested that people are often their own worst enemies. But others who have examined this topic rarely consider the possibility that people create so much unhappiness for themselves because of how the human mind is designed. As a social psychologist with interests in self and identity, I have come to the conclusion that the natural human tendencies to be egocentric, egotistical, and otherwise egoistic play a central role in our problems at both the personal and societal levels.

Although a few other animals can think consciously about themselves in rather basic ways, no other species possesses the powers of selfreflection that human beings have. The ability to self-reflect offers many . . .

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