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An Achilles Heel of Humanity: Egocentrism in Adulthood

A detrimental “Achilles' heel” of man-kind is egocentrisim.

Key points

  • Egocentrism is defined as the inability to accurately assume or understand any perspective other than one's own.
  • Egocentrism considers that “if I am wronged, then it must be that I am being intentionally, maliciously, unfairly mistreated or attacked."
  • In adulthood, egocentrism is a cognitive distortion harmful to mental health, physical health, and interpersonal relationships.

In Greek mythology, an “Achilles' heel” refers to a weakness despite overall strength, leading to downfall. As a life-long observer and student of human psychology, I have concluded that one of the most detrimental “Achilles' heels” of humankind is egocentrism.

Egocentrism is defined as the inability to accurately assume or understand any perspective other than one's own. Furthermore, egocentrism believes that “if I am wronged, then it must mean that I am being intentionally, maliciously, and unfairly targeted, attacked, or mistreated.”

To make a long explanation short, egocentrism interprets life’s experiences personally. This means that, if I experience something unpleasant, I take it as a personal offense instead of considering the multitude of other possible moving parts (factors/variables) influencing any given experience. Although some moving parts may be identifiable, many remain less obvious.

Egocentrism is a hallmark of childhood years. This reflects the human's limited cognitive capacity during the childhood stage of human development. While often inconvenient, the presence of egocentrism during childhood is less concerning. This is due, in part, to the expectation that misperceptions of children will be readily corrected by their parents or caregivers and that the child will eventually grow out of such limiting cognitive capacities.

Although all people mature in chronological age, many people find themselves wondering into adulthood, operating with some of the same limited social, emotional, and cognitive capacities expected in childhood. There are many theories as to why some people enter adulthood underdeveloped in certain areas of human development, but I digress back to the main point.

I would argue that egocentrism beyond childhood years is at minimum inappropriate, and at the very worst, is a counterproductive or destructive way of thinking. This way of thinking, without correction (which is often not as readily available in adulthood as in childhood), can be harmful to one's overall life quality. I would even go so far as to assert that egocentrism in adulthood is a cognitive distortion that is harmful to one's mental health, physical health, and interpersonal relationships.

Cognitive distortions are distorted patterns of thinking that skew objective events. This way of thinking emboldens negative emotions. Thus, reducing one's perceived life satisfaction. Cognitive distortions are harmful because they can make us believe that life is actually worse than what it is or that "the world is out to get me." If you've ever heard Biblical teachings or read a neuroscience publication that emphasized the importance of being mindful of your thoughts, this is why.

As a practicing licensed therapist, I have witnessed this particular cognitive distortion in adult clients, frequently. As humans, we seldomly pause to consider that maybe my interpretation of this situation is not the full story, but perhaps the thought that I am having about this is experience is yet one perspective out of many, and I have failed to consider the numerous other factors influencing my present experience.

David Foster Wallace illustrated egocentrism as an “Achilles' heel” of humankind in a college graduation commencement speech entitled, “This is water.” He urged the audience to pause at every opportunity to take offense, to consider that perhaps what they are experiencing is not a reflection of an intentional, malicious, and unfair, targeted personal attack, but perhaps this experience is being influenced by a multitude of factors (seen and unseen) that one has failed to take into consideration.

For example, if someone cuts you off in traffic, instead of thinking, "What a selfish ______," perhaps considering that maybe that person suffers from severe driving-related anxiety, that influenced him to make an abrupt decision to switch lanes, as an attempt to avoid his fear that he will miss his upcoming interstate exit, miss his flight home, and ultimately miss witnessing the birth of his first child. The former perspective assumes that someone is being rude to me, just for the sake of being rude to me (personal attack). The latter considers additional factors at play that might be influencing your current traffic frustration.

When we graduate the way we think about life’s experiences, we can transform our lives and relationships. When we consider that maybe what is happening to us is not personal but rather a reflection of accumulated factors, we can reduce elevated distress related to defensiveness, increase empathy and compassion for the world around us, and ultimately improve our mental and physical health.

You may be skeptical of this assertion, wondering can you positively impact so many life outcomes by simply shifting the way we think. The answer to your question is yes. Although, admittedly, shifting our thinking is not always easy but certainly doable.

So the next time that you feel wronged, I challenge you to take a brief moment and ask yourself, "I know that this experience is happening to me (personally), but what if….just maybe...that this experience is not all about harming me? What if there are millions of reasons as to why this is happening? Perhaps reasons that reach far beyond me?"