Reviewed in the United States on August 14, 2010
Ironically, this is an excellent self-help book because, based on extensive psychological research, Mark Leary explains the importance of controlling and even diminishing the activity of the self. This is because the self is perhaps as much of a curse as a blessing (hence the book's title). The book provides practical techniques for managing the downsides of having a self and, though the book is written with academic rigor, it's also very enjoyable to read and easy to understand.
Because of the quality of Leary's writing (on which I can't improve), I'm quoting from the book extensively in this review in order to provide a rather detailed summary of the book. That will hopefully convince you of the value of the book and will encourage you to read it in its entirety.
Leary begins with the premise that "... the defining difference between human beings and other animals involves the nature of the human self. As we will see, evidence strongly suggests that most other animals do not have a self at all and that those species that do possess a self have only a very rudimentary one compared with human beings."
This leads to variety of conclusions, which are summarized in the preface of the book: "The ability to self-reflect offers many benefits by allowing us to plan ahead, reminisce about the past, consider options, innovate, and evaluate ourselves. However, self-awareness also sets us up for a host of problems that are unlike the difficulties faced by any other species. Among other things, the capacity for self-reflection distorts people's perceptions of the world, leading them to draw inaccurate conclusions about themselves and other people, and prompting them to make bad decisions based on faulty information. Self-awareness conjures up a great deal of personal suffering in the form of depression, anxiety, anger, and other negative emotions by allowing people to ruminate about the past or imagine what might befall them in the future. The inherently egocentric and egotistical manner in which the self processes information can blind people to their own shortcoming and undermine their relationships with others. The self also underlies a great deal of social conflict, leading people to dislike those who are different from them and to fight with members of other social groups. It also leads people to endanger their own well-being by putting egoistic goals over personal safety. For those inclined toward religion and spirituality, visionaries have proclaimed that the self stymies the quest for spiritual fulfillment and leads to immoral behavior. And, ironically, using self-reflection to help us deliberately control our own behavior can often backfire and create more problems than it solves."
To elaborate further, the following are more specific points from the book which I found particularly noteworthy:
" ... the self evolved under conditions much different from those under which most people live today."
"We spend much of each day in an automatic mode with our selves quiescent ... The self is sometimes engaged as we do these things, but it's not necessary."
"To the extent that we are self-focused and living in the inner world inside our heads, we are not able to live fully in the world outside."
"Once a behavior becomes well-learned, self-preoccupation can interfere with its execution."
"Perhaps the most tried-and-true method of quieting the self and reducing it effects on behavior is meditation."
"Perhaps the biggest bias in people's perceptions of themselves involves their penchant for overestimating their own positive qualities."
"Most people think not only that they are better than the average person, but that their friends, lovers, and children are above average as well."
"People tend to judge themselves as better than the average person on virtually every dimension that one can imagine."
"... self-serving attributions may be seen when people work together in groups, such as committees or teams. When the group does well ... each group member tends to feel that he or she was more responsible for the group's success than most of the other members were. When the group performs poorly, however, each member feels less responsible for the outcome than the average member."
"Although people typically keep their egos well inflated, occasionally the balloon pops, sending self-image into an uncontrolled dive. Even minor failures, setbacks, rejections, and disappointments can prompt harsh self-criticism."
"... people tend to think that the characteristics that they personally possess are more important and desirable than the characteristics that they do not possess."
"People are relatively blind to their own biases, but they see other people's biases much more clearly."
"We each tend to think that our view of the world is the correct one and that other reasonable, fair-minded people will (or at least should) see things the same way we do. When other people disagree with us, we naturally assume that they are deluded, ignorant, or biased."
"It is instructive that people who show the least evidence of self-serving illusions also tend to be the most depressed and that people who show the greatest biases in self-enhancement are most happy."
"... people who view their romantic partners in overly positive ways and who overestimate how much their partners care about them are more satisfied with their relationships than people who perceive their partners and their commitment more accurately."
"The tendency for people to perceive themselves and the world in self-serving ways reflects a method of reducing anxiety, uncertainty, and other unpleasant feelings by a back door route. In the short run, doing so undoubtedly makes us feel better about ourselves and our plight, and, as we have seen, it may have other beneficial consequences as well. But, in the long run, these illusions may compromise our ability to deal effectively with the challenges of life."
"... viewing emotions as natural reactions to real events overlooks the fact that people's emotions are often affected by how they talk to themselves, if not created entirely by the self."
"Many, perhaps most, of the things people worry about never materialize and, even when they do occur, worrying about them in advance is rarely beneficial."
"People who worry a great deal tend to be more depressed, report more physical symptoms, and have higher blood pressure than people who worry less."
"... the hunting-gathering lifestyle of human beings prior to the advent of agriculture did not evoke a great deal of rumination about the future. Life was lived mostly day to day, with no long-term goals to accumulate possessions, succeed, or improve one's lot in life, and, thus, few distal events to worry about. People's attention was focused primarily on what needed to be done today, and tomorrow was left largely to take care of itself. With the emergence of agriculture, however, people moved from and immediate-return environment ... to a delayed-return environment ... Modern society is a profoundly delayed-return environment."
"Anticipatory anxiety about death seems to be a uniquely human characteristic, another by-product of our ability to self-reflect. Only because we are able to imagine ourselves in the future can we worry about death at all ... When people think about their death, their reactions appear to arise not only from the fact that they will no longer function as a living organism but also that they will cease to exist as a mental self."
"People may be focused on the present moment yet still conjure up a good deal of unhappiness by wishing that, at this moment, they were somewhere else ... The solution to this particular curse of the self is to fully accept whatever situation one is in at the moment."
"Human beings expend much of their anger on symbolic events that 'threaten' something abstract that they hold dear, such as their ideas, opinions, and particularly their egos."
"... a person's sense of identity involves not only the person him- or herself but also his or her house, romantic partner, children, friends, prized belongings, and accomplishments."
"Once formed, people's self-concepts strongly influence their behavior."
"People who want to escape the aversiveness of self-reflection may watch mindless television, listen to music, read, exercise, shop, sleep, meditate, or have sex. Assuming that the person is not so self-absorbed that escaping the self is impossible (for example, when one is grieving), these diversion can decrease self-thought by focusing one's attention on other things. Some of the pleasure of these sorts of activities comes from their ability to quite the self."
"People with the highest status and power often need to escape the burdens of the self because they are chronically overwhelmed by their authority and responsibility."
"Various religions construe the problem a bit differently, but they concur that the self is an impediment - perhaps the chief impediment - to spiritual realization, religious practice, and moral behavior, and that a spiritual person must take steps to neutralize the self's negative effects."
"All organisms possess internal mechanisms by which they regulate themselves automatically, but human beings are unique in their ability to control themselves intentionally."
"People typically control themselves by telling themselves to do or not to do certain things."
"People do not purposefully control their behavior in ways that are not consistent with their attitudes, values, and goals unless they are self-focused and monitoring themselves. Self-control requires self-awareness."
"Failing to monitor themselves sufficiently allows impulses that were previously held in check by deliberate self-control to emerge. Research shows that people often behave in uncharacteristically dishonest, cruel, and antisocial ways when they are deindividuated."
"People cannot exert self-control ... unless they have an explicit goal ... Many failures of self-regulation occur because one urge or goal overrides another."
"... people have greater success controlling themselves if they do so early in a sequence of temptations when the impulse is not yet too strong."
"Perhaps the most surprising thing about self-control strength is that it can be depleted by previous acts of deliberate self-regulation. Each time a person controls him- or herself, self-control strength is temporarily weakened - as if some of it were used up - making subsequent efforts to control oneself more difficult ... In fact, simply making choices and decisions also depletes self-control strength. Even when people are not asked to control their behavior, they show signs of self-depletion when they must make difficult decisions."
" ... the self did not evolve to exert the amount of control that we require of it in modern life."
"... the insight that many of our problems, mistakes, and misbehaviors stem from the inherent nature of the self should lead us to cut everyone, ourselves included, a little more slack than we usually do. After all, we are all in this boat together, doing the best we can, using psychological equipment that isn't perfectly suited for the job."
"... chronically setting and pursuing goals can lead to a situation in which the purpose of life today is always the achievement of some goal tomorrow. Today simply becomes a means to some future end, leading us to forget that the only life we really have is the one going one right now. The self's ability to project into the future keeps us focused on the distant prize and distracts us from living fully today ... The solution may be to have goals, but not to become too attached to them."