I am self-centred. I find myself interesting: the way I tick, my responses to what happens, my preferences and how they change, the cumulative reasons for and causes of my current identity.
‘Clever people are more egotistic.’ Discuss.
Everyone is at the centre of her/his own world, of course. I like to think it’s the less analytical who drop the in-depth self-examination earlier. Those of us stuck with a mind that gets into the nitty-gritty of anything are still captivated by our navels into and beyond middle age.
The human mind is indeed fascinating, and an observation I made defensively, in my teens, is no less true for having been defensive. It was this: naturally inclined to psychology, I start with the case study I have best access to. Me.
Drawing out and disposing of the distracting suggestion of ethics
There’s a moral question here. If someone counts being self-absorbed as a negative trait, it has to do with the spectrum between selfishness and altruism. That is an ethical spectrum – and a practical one, meaning it has to do with actions. I’m intrigued by the workings of my own psyche but that doesn’t stop me helping others. If it stopped me seeing that they needed help, that’s when it becomes morally negative. In itself it’s no more negative or positive than obsession with aeroplanes, romantic fiction or bus timetables.
And yes, even though I am still the case study I know best, after getting through adolescence I did branch out to taking an interest in how other people tick. Fearing the label ‘self-centred’ has been part of my motivation for building my understanding of others. Plus finding – once I looked outwards at them as well as inwards at myself – they are equally interesting, in fact more so for being ‘foreign’ to me. Like a doctor who has spent five years on qualifying in medicine starting on a veterinary seven-year course: so many more variations on the theme.
There’s another cause of self-centredness. At the moment it’s at the theoretical stage.
I should explain that my habitual method is to:
- observe this closest-to-home case study;
- note something that seems to be happening;
- hypothesise about cause and effect
- (example: my nervousness about spiders developed into a phobia after (a) moving from a city house with no garden to one with a huge, overgrown garden and (b) being repeatedly told spiders weren’t scary but always removed from experiencing their proximity);
- test that theory by studying others to see if what seemed to be cause and effect in the single case stands up in a wider sample
- (example: seeking in people with phobias (a) comparable changes of circumstances in their past or (b) comparable denial of their fear’s validity by those around them).
Heck, laid out like that it’s complicated. It doesn’t feel like thinking in so many steps when I’m just thinking it.
Shrinking the pseudopoda, for survival
Anyway, this other cause of self-centredness in humans. When an individual is coping with something big, such as physical injury, illness, or mental/emotional stress, they withdraw into themselves. Like a hibernating body reducing the ‘juice’ it supplies to non-essential functions, or a better example would be a body in terror, hypothermia or other threat sacrificing peripherals (bladder control, consciousness) in order to pump up the resources to the stuff it really needs such as keeping the heart beating.
It’s one sign that illness is severe, when a person ‘goes selfish’ – out of line with their usual character* – and you see it in the very old, too, that loss of interest in what’s going on with friends and family. And of course babies, as well, as being only partway through finding out that others are having experience of their own, are also physically as vulnerable as the victims of very serious accidents. (What would it take to make an adult dependent on others for food and drink, moving even a foot across the floor, letting someone know they’re too cold or hot?)
Something for you to have a go at
Anyway. We’re not just talking about being stuck in intensive care, remember emotional stress puts people into this ‘extra-self-centred’ state too. Now here’s a trick you can try at home.
Take a human being and give it emotional stress. We’ve already seen what this does in the simple version, so keep it going over the long term, say a few years non-stop. Do this while the human being is still in the dependent stage of working out which unmet needs don’t matter too much (wanting the bright-coloured, hyper-expensive princess costume) and which could do it significant harm (wanting to be told once in a while that it’s not ugly and a waste of space). Having got that scenario** running nicely, now ask it to come up with a world view.
It’s likely this human being’s world view is going to include a lot about the requirement for self-protection and its habitual way of looking at others will be mainly to gauge how much threat they constitute rather than what those others need. You have produced a person who can validly be described as self-centred.***
(not derived from the above argument)
But on the whole I think that in my own case, which is naturally the most interesting, self-centredness is down to being clever. No doubt about it.
(after an unpredictable interval probably with other blogposts in between)
Look forward to the opposite: instead of making excuses for egotists, I’ll be damning them.
By the way, i have a pretty good idea which one or two people will comment on this. Prove me wrong! 😉 Pick holes in my amoeba metaphor, or something.
* That’s an important point in this section.
** The shorthand for this experiment is ‘damaging childhood’.
*** The shorthand for this result is ‘walking wounded’.