Self-Absorption: The Root of All (Psychological) Evil?
Here’s what you should know about obsessing, ruminating, and self-centeredness.
Posted August 24, 2016 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
If you’ve ever been called self-absorbed, you can be sure you weren’t getting a compliment. Not only is the root definition of the term negative, but it’s also saturated with unfavorable connotations. As generally understood, the concept is synonymous with self-preoccupied, self-centered, self-obsessed—and even egotistical and selfish.
Dictionaries define self-absorption unappealingly as “preoccupied with oneself or one’s own affairs,” frequently adding that it’s “to the exclusion of others or the outside world.” That is, self-absorbed individuals typically don’t show much concern about anyone or anything outside their (narrow) self-interest. As such, they typically make little effort to understand others’ thoughts and feelings. And overly focused on themselves, they can easily miss the mark when they try to. They generally don’t make the best of friends.
Obviously, paying attention to our wants and needs is appropriate, even necessary. But whether we’re feeling extremely bad or nervous about ourselves, worriedly ruminating about how others perceive us, or indulging in grandiose thoughts about our "specialness," we’re descending into a state of toxic self-absorption. And as a personality trait, attending excessively to ourselves—and at the expense of almost all other considerations—is typically regarded not only as abnormal but as unethical, too. For such behavior depicts almost the opposite of altruism.
When self-absorption is explored in the literature, it’s generally contrasted with self-reflection, self-awareness, and introspection—personality characteristics regarded much more positively, for they’re related to maturity, sensitivity, and achieving valuable personal insight. And they’re also viewed as enabling individuals to treat others more thoughtfully.
But I haven’t seen discussed by writers on the subject just how many psychological dysfunctions can be accurately understood as “maladies” of self-absorption. From a variety of phobic, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive impairments to many depressive disturbances, to various addictions, to post-traumatic stress disorder, and to most of the personality disorders, self-absorption can be seen as playing a major role. So any effective treatment of these dysfunctions needs to include significantly reducing these obsessively self-centered tendencies.
Experts on pathological narcissism routinely speak of self-absorption as perhaps the most “identifying” trait of this personality disorder. And their descriptions of such an intense self-focus are anything but flattering. The self-absorption of narcissists betrays their grandiosity, sense of entitlement, lack of empathy, and exploitative relationships. Borderline personalities are also characterized as self-absorbed—so self-absorbed that these individuals frequently can’t discern what’s going on around them, not only interpreting what others say and do but regularly arriving at false conclusions as to how others regard them.
But though all narcissists and borderlines are self-absorbed, not all self-absorbed individuals warrant being appreciated as portraying either personality disorder. And as I indicated earlier, many other personality disturbances can be seen as involving self-absorption (histrionic, paranoid, avoidant, dependent, and obsessive-compulsive).
What mental health professionals sometimes fail to sufficiently account for is:
- The pivotal function that self-absorption plays in mood disorders—and in a large variety of other non-personality disorders as well
- How self-absorption is best understood as a key strategy that susceptible people employ to protect themselves from immediate mental and emotional threats.
Self-Absorption and Anxiety
Let’s look first at self-absorption as it moderates nervous, helpless, or shameful feelings in anxiety disorders. According to Dan Neuharth, Ph.D., MFT: “Underneath their self-centeredness, they are likely afraid of feeling flawed, powerless, unworthy, or out of control” (as quoted by Laurie Sue Brockway, P&Geveryday). And I’d add to this, also feeling threatened, vulnerable, and insecure—which gets at the heart of why self-absorption is such a common characteristic in those who harbor profound doubts about themselves that it impairs their everyday functioning.
Moreover, individuals with an anxiety disorder are “afflicted” with self-absorption not because they’re selfish or insensitive to others (as are narcissists), but because they’re locked into bothersome, repetitive thought processes reflecting fears both about their personal adequacy and how others might (adversely) see them.
Doubtless, their destructive habit of self-critical, over-analyzing rumination is compulsive, and it’s quite unlike the self-congratulatory inner meanderings of the narcissist. Yet the anxiety sufferer's introspective endeavors do represent attempts to get their heads around something upsetting to them. And by at least keeping their apprehensions fully in consciousness, they divert the felt danger of being totally overtaken by these (mostly irrational) fears.
Writing for New York Magazine, Melissa Dahl humorously observes:
Nerves have a way of making you fold into yourself, obsessing over each awkward thing you’ve said or done in front of someone you’re trying to impress. You’re chatting away, but you’re also very much focused on you, trying to figure out the impression you’re leaving. Meanwhile, you’ve missed the last five minutes of the conversation, which makes it highly likely that the impression you’re leaving is that you’re kind of a jerk. [!]
Less able to accurately identify another’s perspective, such rumination carries with it substantial relational costs. And while in itself this self-focus doesn’t indicate an anxiety disorder, if it’s constant or exaggerated, it’s unquestionably characteristic of someone who suffers from such a malady.
In another study (2012) cited by Dahl, two Canadian researchers, examining whether anxiety drives people to self-focus, or whether such a focus actually leads to anxiety, these experimenters found evidence to confirm the latter hypothesis. And this is certainly rich food for additional scientific thought. For the literature rarely, if ever, appreciates the possibility that self-absorption can precipitate anxiety, depression, and other psychological disturbances—rather than simply constitute one of their undesirable effects.
Self-Absorption and Depression
Consider how complementary to the above discussion of anxiety is this description of depression:
Depressed people dwell constantly on self-recriminations about how bad (stupid, ugly, worthless) they are; there is a continual, critical internal voice tearing the person down, questioning every move, second-guessing every decision. . . . People with severe depression appear totally self-absorbed and self-involved. This incessant, negative internal dialogue fills the sufferer with intense shame.
And looking at depression specifically from an ego-disapproving Buddhist perspective here’s one revealing Web forum entry:
I believe self-centredness to be the very cause of depression. And not just depression, but every ailment in the world as we know it. The irony is, I can only see this NOW, with hindsight, looking back at my mindstate when I was depressed: "Ego all the way, me me me, MY problems, MY depression, MY past, MY MY MY MY. . . ." That very self-absorbed, self-centered fascination with my own ego and its agenda is exactly what kept me trapped in that depression for so long. . . . All I was doing was feeding my ego . . . and feeling sorry for myself . . . That is self-centredness in its highest—or should I say lowest—form.
To me, though undeniably overstated, this is a striking example of the tunnel vision that can characterize many individuals burdened by obsessive rumination. And as with so many other psychological disturbances, there can be no inner peace or contentment for anyone bedeviled by such endlessly recycling thoughts. This so-inverted mental focus can also be understood as actually creating—and sustaining—this painful state of mind and mood, versus merely being one of its regrettable side effects.
The High Cost of Self-Absorption
Here, bulleted, are just a few of the detrimental effects that come from such woeful over-involvement with self:
- According to Catrina McFate, the Dalai Lama—based on a lecture he attended at a New York symposium on Buddhism and meditation—has noted that “people who have the tendency to use more self-referential terms (I, me, myself) tend to have more health problems and earlier deaths.”
- As many writers have noted, our relationships are damaged, sometimes irreparably, by a self-preoccupation that undermines the closeness, or intimacy, that all relationships require if they’re to be nurturing and resilient.
- As already suggested, constant self-absorption undermines our capacity for empathy and true understanding of the thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires of others. It’s extremely difficult to clearly appreciate the world that exists outside ourselves when most of the time our focus is directed inwards.
- As long as we continue, pretty much on a daily basis, to obsess about all things personal, happiness, contentment, and a stable sense of well-being will be impossible to achieve.
There are practical things we can do to overcome what, possibly, may have become a lifelong habit or "curse".
© 2016 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.