Who is the center of awareness? Where is the source of intent? Who is observing, perceiving, reflecting, recalling, contemplating, anticipating, thinking, contented, hoping, judging, worrying, feeling, deciding, hurting, and concentrating? Who am I? I am the self.
- The Observer; the seat of perception,
- The Thinker; the seat of consciousness,
- The Judge; the seat of evaluation,
- The Prime Mover; the seat of intent,
- Your physical and mental being with all its human and unique characteristics.
The words: being, individual, soul, and ego have meanings similar to “self”.
Everything we do and every perception we have of the world around us accumulates over time and contributes to the ever-changing entity we refer to as our “self”. The first time we smile as an infant we have changed the world by stimulating others to smile back at us. Seeing their smile—and eventually perceiving the acceptance it represents—begins to change us; it is the beginning of our self-concept, self-image, self-confidence, self-doubt, and the autonomy, competence, and relatedness that form the basis of our motivations. How we engage the world changes how the world responds to us. This cycle of: do, see, perceive, assess, learn, and do again continues at a rapid pace countless times throughout our lifetimes and forms an ongoing spiral that begins to converge on the stable and consistent pattern of goals, beliefs, wishes, intent, habits, talents, and behavior we call our “self”.
Events that happen to you, the choices you make, and the influential people you meet throughout your life all contribute to what you learn and believe about the world. These factors, and the meaning you assign to them, merge and blend with your human nature and personality to create your ever evolving self. The moment you first tried to roll over, or crawl, or walk, or talk was either successful and satisfying or it was frustrating for you. Your parents, or anyone who may have been watching might have encouraged your exploration or they may have been critical and discouraging. The childhood games you played, the first time you were left alone, the first day of school, the first time you were betrayed, or lied to, punched in the nose, or abandoned are all important events that you have perceived, interpreted, learned from, and have contributed to revising your self-concept. Perhaps you begin to think of the world as a friendly and accepting place where hard work is rewarded, or you may think of it as angry and hostile. You begin to understand the consequences of actions; the connection between an incident and a result. Your attitude toward the world begins to take shape as that attitude influences how you behave in the world. As you grow older you may have participated in sports, or music, or dancing. Perhaps you were talented, perhaps you were not.
Your competence in each of these activities was assessed by yourself and no-doubt by others. As a result your self-concept expands to include such beliefs as: “I am good at sports, not very good at music and dancing, OK in spelling, and not so good in math.” These ideas are refined as you score your first goal, win your first game, flunk another test, win your first trophy, get badly injured, and get cut from your first team. Believing you are good at sports may cause you to play for more teams, which of course increases your skill in the sport. As a teen you suffer the wrath of your peers; perhaps you are popular and attractive, or alone and plain. You go on your first date, have your first kiss, and agonize over sex. This may go smoothly, but more likely it does not. Learning continues throughout your life as your beliefs are challenged, refined, and revised. Your experiences and beliefs are constantly reinforced, interpreted, evaluated, and inevitably distorted by your self-talk—your ever-present inner dialogue. You may believe the world is a warm and wonderful place, or it may be full of harsh and cruel obstacles. You may be quietly confident, or you may be anxious, afraid, and ashamed.
Although events happen to you, the choices you make are your own responsibility. What education you complete, choices you make about drinking, driving, smoking, and drugs, the friends you keep, what you talk about, where you hang out, choosing to be the conformist or the rebel, deciding whether or not to go to college, career choice, and marriage choices are all shaped by your self-concept as they contribute to your self-concept. You may make these choices confidently and autonomously, based on your own well-considered beliefs, or you may be greatly influenced by peer pressure, parents, or the desire to please others. Critical choice points will reveal your own self and continue to shape your life and your self. Some choices will strengthen your authentic self, and others will contribute to your fictional self.
Certain people will strongly influence you and contribute to your self-concept. These include parents, siblings, peers, teachers, coaches, bullies, heroes, role models, teammates, tormentors, competitors, and your nemesis. You admire some, loath some, and you simply tolerate or ignore others. You learn from them all and they all contribute to who you are today. This self-spiral continues to change you as you change the world.
As your self-spiral grows you will accumulate intrinsic regulations—rules that you have carefully evaluated and decided are congruent with your values and beliefs. These contribute to your authentic self. But you are also likely to accumulate introjected regulations. These are behaviors performed to avoid guilt, humiliation, fear, or anxiety, or to attain a false pride by enhancing your image but not your stature. These move you away from your authentic self and toward your fictional self.
To understand yourself, begin by understanding: human nature, what you can change and what you cannot, your own personality traits, learned behaviors, and your values, beliefs, sense of justice, needs, goals, and motives. Integrate these to form your personal model for human interaction. Understand what guides you throughout your life. Discover your signature strengths, and the basis of your true stature. Examine your self-spiral, purge the introjected regulations, integrate your values, beliefs, and actions, and work to become your authentic self.
Your mind is organized with many thousands of symbols for many objects and concepts including: cars, chairs, the future, your hopes, goodness, your dog, your friends, and even yourself. Your mental symbol that represents yourself is your “self-symbol”. Words we use as symbols for ourselves (and others) are often chosen from our list of trait nouns, and trait adjectives. Some of these labels are accurate and some are not accurate representations of our self.
Humans have the remarkable, and perhaps unique ability to think about our own thoughts. This strange loop allows us to become aware of our self, to plan for the future, reflect and ruminate about the past, think about our selves as separate from others, imagine the thoughts of others, project our experiences into the minds of others, and judge our own actions. Self-awareness provides us the unique ability to control ourselves intentionally by imagining ourselves in the future and talk to ourselves about options for our future.
Self-awareness allows us to imagine the world from a variety of perspectives. Not only can we contemplate what we are perceiving now, but we can reflect on the past and imagine a variety of futures. We can also imagine what others are thinking now, or were thinking in the past, or will be thinking in the future. Self-awareness allows us to travel through time and read minds. But our awareness is less accurate than it may seem.
Humans were earthbound for millions of years. Their only experience of earth was the limited view each of us could gain from our village on the earth's surface. Mountain top vantage points gave a somewhat broader perspective, but even the most expansive view was of only a small portion of the earth. World-wide travel eventually allowed us to experience other regions on earth. Then in December 1968 the Apollo 8 spacecraft broke free from the earth and gave us stunning images of the whole earth, small and alone in the vast blackness of space. For many these images transformed the way they think about our planet. We can achieve a similar perspective when we can detach our consciousness from originating among our thoughts and move our awareness above, or outside of our own thoughts. Just as Apollo 8 peered down on the entire earth, we can adopt an awareness that examines our own thinking and contemplates it as a whole. People sometimes describe this viewpoint transformation as an awakening. This viewpoint can help us detach our egos.
Self-awareness, introspection, and self-consciousness open us up to the emotions of pride, envy, jealousy, guilt, shame, and hope. Our ability to imagine the world from another's perspective allows us to feel empathy, compassion, pity, envy, and jealousy. Self-awareness allows self-appraisal, which is discussed in more detail below.
Our conciseness and attention is often split between what we are doing, sensing, and perceiving in the world around us, and the thoughts we may be having about the past or the future. We constantly live in two worlds, one outside our heads and visible to others and one inside our heads known only to us. Because we have only a limited capacity for attention, our self-talk distracts us from the outside world and the outside world distracts us from our self-talk. Our attention does not always strike a useful balance here. It can be dangerous to be distracted by rumination or planning while driving. Self-consciousness can cause us to choke under pressure when we are called on to perform, as we meet others, in conversations, presentations, sports contests, or on stage. Self-talk can prolong insomnia as we worry about not falling asleep.
Self-awareness is often excessive. Ruminating, reliving, and repeatedly blaming yourself for a simple mistake in the past does more harm than good when it becomes prolonged, frustrating, distracting, and induces and prolongs shame. Worrying about events you cannot change produces unhelpful anxiety. When you have heard enough, it may be helpful to quiet this self talk. Meditation, undertaken as either a spiritual or secular activity, can be effective in quieting the self and breaking the cycle of rumination, allowing you to relax, and return your attention to the world present outside your head.
Our self-awareness disappears when we are sufficiently absorbed in an engaging activity and we experience the state of flow.
Since it is our self that has our attention during self-talk, we are constantly listening to an inherently biased and one-sided point of view. This first-person viewpoint, described in more detail below, is responsible for many distortions in perception, assessment, attribution, and reasoning. We are inherently biased. We invariably overestimate our positive qualities; nearly everyone considers themselves above average in characteristics important to their self-image. We claim more than our share of credit when things go well and we avoid blame when thing go bad. We judge people we identify with more leniently and favorably than we judge people we don't like. We offer advice to others more easily than we accept advice from others. We judge others based on behavior and we judge ourselves based on intent. We each tend to believe that our point of view is the correct one.
Perhaps this unrealistic view of the world helps us compensate for the bias toward safety that triggers fear, the bias toward just action that triggers anger, and the bias toward quickly identifying foe that triggers hate. Thinking well of ourselves provides a respite from anxiety and other negative emotions.
We can begin to counteract our inherent bias by developing a healthy skepticism toward our own ego-directed point of view. We can more accurately assess the world when we learn to compensate for the bias we use to perceive it. Consider a variety of viewpoints and dialogue with people who hold differing views before making important decisions.
We worry about the future we imagine, we ruminate about the past we recall, and we worry about what others did, thought, or might do. Anxiety results directly from our self-awareness and self-talk; it really is all in our head. We monitor the world with a bias toward identifying actual and potential threats. Although worry is beneficial when it alerts us to problems and urges us to avoid them, it is not helpful when there is nothing further we can do to avoid danger or ensure success.
We also worry about threats to our own thoughts and ideas. We protect the ideas we have of our self-concept, ideas we have about others, and our goals—our ideas about the future. Fear, anger, jealousy, and humiliation can be evoked as easily by threats to our ego, significant others, or goals as they can by physical threats. Many emotions are generated or sustained by how we talk to ourselves.
We imagine ourselves as similar to people in some groups and different from others. We invariably demonstrate favoritism toward people in the in-group. This affiliation with the in-group and dissociation from the out-group can be triggered even when only trivial characteristics or differences define the groups. Abstract concepts select the symbols we attach to the “good guys” and the “bad guys”. There is almost always some way for the people in the in-group to construe themselves better than the people in the out-group. This has been dramatically demonstrated by sports fans, social clubs, cliques, the Robbers Cave experiment, and in other research. The often misunderstood fact is that you are probably less similar to the members of your group than you assume and you are more similar to members of rival groups that you assume. We all share human nature.
The bias of egotism allows us to interpret events in self-serving ways. We take more credit than we deserve, and accept less blame than is our due. We attribute kind motives to ourselves and evil motives to others. We feel we are unfairly recognized and rewarded for our efforts. We feel we suffer more pain than others understand or appreciate. Although we are egotists ourselves, we dislike others who we see as conceited, vain, arrogant, stuck-up, pompous, snobbish, and boastful.
When our ego is threatened, we feel insulted and suffer humiliation. For some, the greatest fear is to be seen as a wimp.
Our self-awareness provides us the powerful ability control our self intentionally. This requires us to be aware and monitor what we are doing, establish and pursue goals for the future, control our impulses and delay gratification to pursue our long-term goals, and act on the strength of our own decisions.
If we are a two-year old caught up in our own tantrum, it is all consuming. If we are a parent and our two-year old child is having a tantrum, it is disconcerting. If we are walking through the park and see another child having a tantrum, we can simply notice that here is a child who has yet to grow up and gain control of his immature impulses.
We can attain this same detachment, judgment, and self-control over our own destructive egos. We can observe our ego wanting more, clamoring for attention, proving themselves right or better or blameless, distorting facts in frantic attempts at self-justification, seduced by our first-person viewpoint, overcome with arrogance and we can choose to stop it. We can stare back our own thoughts and jump into the space, created by our awareness, between our ego and our values. We can choose to act consistently with our values rather than submit once again to an impulse. We can choose humility over arrogance, stillness over aggression and destruction, cooperation over competition, inclusion over exclusion, needs over wants, generosity over greed, peer over power, candor over deceit, stature over status, dignity over disrespect, compassion over belligerence, and authentic over bogus.
The perception that our ego—our self—is somehow superior is only an illusion. What would be the basis for such superiority? The ego has no substance, it is not real, it is only an illusion. Learn to see beyond that illusion.
We do not tolerate tantrums from two-year olds. Don't tolerate tantrums from your ego, or anyone else's. Quell ego rants.
Self as our Prototype for Others
To create the mental symbol we use to represent each person we consider to be very similar to ourselves, we begin with our self-symbol and then modify it to create a unique symbol for each of our close friends. For each acquaintance that is more distant from our own self image, we modify the symbol we have for them more from our self-symbol. This is illustrated on the left where our self is in the center, our closest friends each have individual symbols very much like our own, and our more distant acquaintances have similar, but increasingly different symbols. This is represented here by the differences in the color of the more distant symbols. For strangers, or people we do not want to be associated with, we may not begin with our self-symbol, but instead use the symbol for someone else we also distance ourselves from. The result is that the symbols for close friends are very similar to our own, and the symbols for people we do not identify with are quite different.
The word “intimacy” has several meanings. Here we consider the meaning of “a close association leading to detailed knowledge and understanding of another person”. An intimate friend is someone we trust enough to expose our own vulnerabilities and secrets during many reciprocal and authentic dialogues.
As we get to know more about an acquaintance we develop an increasingly complete and complex mental symbol for that person. However, there is a limit to how well we ever know the other person. There are limits to how much time we will spend together and there are various boundaries limiting what we will ask, what we will tell, and what we are willing to learn about each other. Because these boundaries limit the information exchange, the information we gather is incomplete and the symbol we are able to create for the acquaintance is necessarily incomplete. Because the symbol is incomplete it remains significantly different from your self-symbol. This is illustrated here by the noticeable distance between the self and the symbol for the acquaintance.
We know more about our close friends than we do about acquaintances. The amount of time we spend together, the number and nature of interactions and common experiences we share, the interest we have in learning more about each other, and our willingness to share more information all help us create a more complete symbol for our close friends. The similarity in our self-symbol and the symbol we create for our close friends is illustrated above by the proximity of the two symbols.
Intimacy takes this information sharing to the next level. During an intimate relationship we feel safe enough to expose and discuss our vulnerabilities and secrets. This additional information allows us to create a more complete symbol for an intimate partner. Also, because of the completeness of the symbol and also because the people we choose to become intimate with typically share many of our characteristics, the symbol we create becomes very similar to our self-symbol. This illustrated in the figure by the significant overlap of the two symbols. We feel empathy for people we become intimate with.
The Extent of Compassion
You naturally feel closer to people who seem most like yourself. The symbols you create for the people who are most like yourself will be most similar to your own self-symbol. It is easiest to empathize with these people who are most like yourself. You can still feel compassion, if not full empathy, for people who are different, but still something like yourself. But even if you are a caring person, you may feel indifferent toward people who you hardly know, or who are not like yourself. The symbols you have for these people may be very incomplete, or they may include features unlike yourself. In any case their symbols are unlike your self-symbol. Finally there are people who are not like you. In fact, they are unlike you. If you consider them so distant and foreign that you allow yourself to consider them as not quite human, hate can creep in. They are dislike you and you may choose to dislike them. This general scheme is illustrated here in a schematic diagram derived from the figure above. The people most like yourself are shown close to the self-symbol. Those least like you are farther away. The most compassionate people will have large regions of empathy and compassion with small or non-existent regions of indifference and hate. Less tolerant people will have smaller areas of empathy and compassion and allow the region of hate to close in around themselves as they become a prisoner of hate.
Empathy is other-awareness, symmetrical with self-awareness.
Seeing things from your own point of view is always easier, and first-hand experiences seem more real than understanding another's point of view can ever be. Your eyes, nose, taste buds, tactile sensors, and ears connect directly only to your brain. Only you experience first-hand the direct sensory input of the world; you, your self, is the observer. This raw sensory input is interpreted and gains meaning through your unique perceptions and past experiences. Furthermore, contemplation, desire, intent, pain, introspection, consciousness, and reflection are all private and solitary. This unique first-person experience creates a fundamental asymmetry that contributes to many of the other asymmetries that govern social interactions. It also contributes to the asymmetric character of egotism, narcissism, selfishness, greed, and the magnitude gap. We judge others based on behavior and we judge ourselves based on intent. Your own point of view, the way you see things, is unique. The golden rule and our empathy struggle to overcome this fundamental imbalance.
We influence others by changing their point of view.
For the reasons just described, each of us tends to consider our own point of view as more complete, valid, and important than anyone else's point of view. However, each of us differs in the weight we give to our viewpoint when compared to other viewpoints. A particularly humble, considerate person may understand, appreciate, and evaluate other points of view and grant them an importance similar to their own. They weigh other points of view as heavily as they weigh their own, as in the diagram on the right.
It is more typical, however, to weigh your own viewpoint more heavily than others. We all have a great need for self-justification. If one person disagrees with you, perhaps you will discount that contrary viewpoint, but if two or three people express differing views, you will consider and adopt their viewpoints. This is illustrated in the diagram on the left where several other viewpoints balance the first-person viewpoint.
Egotists, and others with high self-appraisals dismiss all but overwhelming evidence contrary to their point of view. It may take tens, hundreds, or in extreme cases thousands of dissenting voices before any other point of view is considered. This extreme imbalance is shown on the right, where the “eye” and the “I” are just too big. Where do you strike the balance?
This phenomenon can create a problem when it comes to choosing leaders. Great leaders make decisions, create a compelling vision, hold tenaciously to that vision, and inspire people to overcome obstacles and move forward toward the leader's expressed vision. This vision is often an expression of the leader's first-person viewpoint. A problem can occur, however, if that viewpoint becomes destructive, the leader rejects alternative viewpoints, and the direction cannot be changed. This can be the making of a tyrant.
Many types of self-appraisal, both accurate and distorted, are important to understand. Self-esteem is an overall evaluation of your self by your self. This assessment can be favorable, neutral, or unfavorable. High self-esteem is a favorable self assessment. An unfavorable self assessment is low-self-esteem. Appropriate high self-esteem is (authentic) “pride”, but excessive or unjustified high self-esteem is called: “egotism”, “arrogance”, “hubris”, “conceitedness”, “narcissism”, or a “sense of superiority”. Low self-esteem is “shame”. “Ego” is a synonym for self or self-image.
Self-esteem includes two largely independent appraisals. One is a sense of confidence and competence, called self-efficacy. This includes confidence in your ability to think, understand, learn, choose, and make decisions. The other is a sense of intrinsic worth, called self-respect. This is your right to appropriately assert your own thoughts, values, needs, and wants.
Narcissism is self-love combined with an artificially inflated ego (self-image). It includes “grandiosity” and dominance, and is correlated with an often hostile disregard for others
A major cause of violence is high self-esteem combined with an ego threat. Violence is most likely to occur when someone who thinks well of themselves receives feedback that contradicts their own favorable view of themselves, and they then decide to “fight the feedback” (quite literally “kill the messenger”) rather than assimilate the new information and revise their self-appraisal. This is more likely to occur with someone who holds an unwarranted, exaggerated, or unfounded positive self-image. This can be called “fragile high-self-esteem” or “wounded pride”. People who are highly sensitive to a loss of self-esteem, e.g. “touchy”, may react to seemingly minor ego threats with considerable hostility. They are easily insulted and quick to anger. They may be boastful and arrogant and always trying to prove they are good enough. The terms: wounded pride, disrespect, verbal abuse, insults, anger manipulations, and status inconsistency all describe ego threats. People with high but stable self-esteem tend not to be angry or hostile.
A reliable indicator of low self-esteem is the need to see other groups as inferior. This is the essence of disrespect and a dangerous first step toward hate and violence.
People with (secure) high self-esteem generously appreciate the achievements of others.
Egotism can directly cause violence because the egotist allows their first-person viewpoint to prevail over other relevant, important, but differing points of view. This lack of consideration reduces the typical inhibitions to violence.
Transcending Your Self
Our self is an essential but often pesky companion. Learn to tame it. When you hear your self talking, recognize it is only one voice among the crowd. Shape your self-symbol. Deliberately quiet your self when it is not being helpful. Enjoy the resulting calm and contentment. Be skeptical of what your self is telling you. The self is merely an illusion, it has no substance, do not become attached to it, focus on what is real. Seek out alternative viewpoints. Let go of your ego defense mechanisms, and control your self.
Strive to unmask your true self.
We use many words to refer to self-related concepts, including:
- Ego—a synonym for self or self-image.
- Self-absorbed—Focused on your own affairs and concerns.
- Self-admiration—Admiring yourself; pride.
- Self-aggrandizement—Exaggerating your own importance or significance.
- Self-appraisal—Assessing the value of your self.
- Self-awareness—Thinking about our own thoughts
- Self-centered—Yielding to the first-person viewpoint.
- Self-concept—What you believe about who you are.
- Self-control—Exercising willful intent and awareness to choose our actions.
- Self-efficacy—Confidence in your own abilities. Recognizing your own power.
- Self-esteem—An overall evaluation of your self by your self.
- Self-justification—Describing events in a way that preserves your pride and reduces cognitive dissonance.
- Selfish—Disregarding other's viewpoints and needs
- Self-loathing—A severe lack of self-respect. Shame.
- Self-respect—Recognizing your own intrinsic worth. Your right to appropriately assert your own thoughts, values, needs, and wants.
- “Know thyself.” ~ Socrates (470–399 BC)
- “Somehow we learn who we really are and then live with that decision.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt
- “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance.” ~ Confucius (551 – 479 BC)
- “One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.” ~ Leonardo Da Vinci (1452 – 1519)
- “First-person viewpoint is the fundamental asymmetry of humanity.” ~ Leland R. Beaumont
- “The strength of a man's virtue should not be measured by his special exertions, but by his habitual acts.” ~ Blaise Pascal (1623–1662)
- “Be reasonable, do it my way.” ~ An old joke satirizing the first person viewpoint.
- “We don't see the world as it is. We see it as we are.” ~ Anaïs Nin
I Am a Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter
Self Matters, by Phillip C. McGraw
Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence, by Aaron T. Beck
Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, by Nathaniel Branden
Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill, by Matthieu Ricard
The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life, by Mark R. Leary.
Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem, Psychology Review, 1996, Vol. 103, No. 1, 5-33, by Roy F. Baumeister, Laura Smart, Joseph M. Boden