Why Are We So Self-Centered?

January 15, 2021

11 min read

Sonder (from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows) — the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.

I’ve listened to “This Is Water,” by David Foster Wallace four times this week, and with each listen I learn something new. This essay will be my perspective, interpretation, and elaboration of that speech.

Our Default Perspective

I am the center of my own special world, where everything revolves around me. Everyone I know is just a secondary character in my important and unique life. Understandably, this is how most people go about their lives (including me). Our memories and experiences all stem from a first-person perspective, so why wouldn’t we think this way? “I witnessed poverty in that country,” “That autobiography I read about someone else’s life was inspiring (to me),” and so on. Our problems, emotions, and feelings are so immediate and vivid, while others have to convey their pain through words, so we rarely understand the depths of what they’re feeling.

While this mindset is justifiable, given that we experience everything directly, it also becomes a habit. It’s our default setting. Our thoughts form on autopilot, focusing only on how events affect us. Unfortunately, it leads us down a path of negativity. Any fight, argument, and minor inconvenience is an affront to our livelihood. “Someone cut me off in traffic!” “This person hurt me.” Rather than questioning the “why” of someone’s actions, we immediately tie it to how it caused us inconvenience and misfortune. We all need to feel important, which feeds this mindset. Taking things personally helps us feel important.

We rarely pause to realize that everyone holds the same, self-centered perspective as us. We are merely a background character in everyone else’s life, just like they are to us. Although it takes a consistent effort to remind ourselves about this phenomenon, the alternative is much worse. Without this awareness, we become so wrapped up in our own problems that we drastically overemphasize the significance of them.

The main point of this essay is to highlight the fact that we can stop, reflect, and choose our perspective in life. A lack of awareness about choosing our perspective leads us to blindly accept the default reality we form in our heads, even if it may not be true. I would argue that having this awareness is a superpower, and it can be strengthened with practice.

The Power of Choice

First, let’s define choice. I define choice as a conscious decision between at least two perspectives. When we have an initial reaction, like instantly getting mad at a bad driver, that isn’t a choice. That’s our default reality forming on autopilot. It’s habitual. It costs mental energy to be aware and to consciously choose how we perceive our experiences, so a default perspective saves us energy. It’s why generalizations and stereotypes exist in the first place.

But, the cost is that we give up our choice. When that happens, we essentially become a slave to our hard-wired mindset, even when it’s wrong. Sometimes, you may have the same perspective as your default setting, even if you are aware of the choice you make. But the important part is that you would at least be aware of the reality you’re forming for yourself.

I’ll give a recent example, even though it’s small. I go on a daily walk in the evening, and on my usual route, I passed by two empty white claws that were littered on the ground. They were on opposite sides of my neighborhood, so it probably happened with different people. Younger people are known for drinking these, so my instant reaction sounded something like this “That’s so annoying. Young, drunk people piss me off because they can’t even pick up their trash. Why do they completely disregard everyone but themselves?” Luckily, this happened during the time of writing this essay, so I caught myself. Then I told myself “I’m still choosing this perspective because littering sucks and people who litter suck.”

But reflecting back on this, I realized two important things. First off, this highlights my need to feel important. I am most definitely flawed in various ways, but knowing that I don’t litter or currently drink made me feel superior to the people who do litter and look stupid when drunk. The second part was that I noticed my reaction, but I didn’t consider any other slightly plausible alternative, such as a dust storm blowing trash out of someone’s backyard. Given that it happened twice in different areas, I’m fine with my initial reaction. However, along with that, I must admit to myself that I am choosing a negative perspective.

What I took away from that was this: a simple awareness of your reaction is a good first step, but it’s not enough. I still didn’t have a choice because I instantly refocused on my default reaction without considering other possibilities. So don’t tell yourself “I’m choosing this reaction” if you don’t consider at least one other alternative. Otherwise, it’s still not a choice. When you do exercise your choice, tell yourself if you are choosing to perceive reality in a positive or negative light. It will be a helpful reminder that your choice in perspective affects the outcome you want.

We form a reality and go with it to make ourselves feel better and more important. But creating this awareness allows us to pause and reflect, and choose a different path if we want. We must question the assumptions we make so that we realize that not everything is so clear cut. This can improve our empathy and be more forgiving to others.

There’s a philosophical aphorism called Hanlon’s razor, which highlights this well: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” There are additional explanations rather than stupidity, like busy-ness or ignorance, but the overall message is the same — we shouldn’t take things so personally. It’s not saying that malice is nonexistent, but rather that it shouldn’t be our default answer.

This isn’t to say that we should be forgiving all the time and that we shouldn’t feel personally attacked. If someone cheats on you or hurts you, you have every right to be angry, upset, and sad. But, we tend to be on autopilot with our reactions, and giving ourselves time to pause and reflect will help us make conscious decisions about how we perceive reality, and how that, in turn, can help us feel happier.

Tim Ferriss, whom I greatly admire, recently spoke about the trauma he experienced as a child. He went through a great deal of pain throughout his life because of it, and he created coping mechanisms like dissociation. He had every right to feel angry and hurt, but that didn’t help him recover. He mentions how at this point in his life he’s never felt more connected or happier, and it’s due to his journey of reframing his experience. He discusses how he reframed his trauma as a reason he can connect and help so many people, which he may not have been able to do without experiencing that trauma. He doesn’t view it as a gift or anything like that, because it was a horrible thing to go through. But reframing it in a positive light helped him overcome the negative emotions he faces. It was a clear example to me of how powerful changing your perspective can be.

Why It’s Useful

Many root issues can stem from not choosing what we pay attention to. We may start to judge others to feel better, or turn down ideas with pessimism to feel complacent with where we are in life, or even fall into self-hatred because we focus on the negative aspects of our personality, body, and actions.

Stoics focus on what they can change rather than what they cannot. Choice and perspective are two things we can change. It’s a constant decision we can make in our lives. We can perceive different experiences through different lenses. I strongly believe that if you take an optimistic view in life, you’ll be more likely to change your situation.

If you are dealing with a negative situation, you can either wallow in self-pity and self-hatred, or you can tell yourself that you’ll overcome it and start acting in ways that will change your circumstance. Some days it’s too hard and you’ll feel down (I’m not immune to this either). But the more days you can frame it optimistically, the more chances you’ll get at making change.

Everyone has ups and downs. That’s inevitable. And when we get in a depressive or angry state, it’s hard to get out of it. Sometimes we must let it take its course. But if we can build the practice of awareness and choosing a positive perspective, it will allow us to decrease the emotional toll when we have our downs. I view it as figuring out ways to increase the frequency of optimistic thoughts and decrease the frequency of pessimistic thoughts. You can’t make the pessimistic thoughts go down to zero. But the more you practice this awareness, the easier it’ll be to change those frequencies.

If you’re stuck in a rut, you can find ways to frame it that this is a learning experience or that this is what you need to boost your motivation. This doesn’t mean the framing will always be accurate. Sometimes, life is actually unfair to you. But fretting over how life is unfair doesn’t help you in any way. Being optimistic is useful because it has a higher chance of leading to action, and action is the only thing that can lead to change. So we must dial between truly understanding reality while also balancing the perspective of optimism. Some circumstances may need different perspectives, but the point is that we must try to be aware so that we have real choices in our lives.

If you choose what to pay attention to and how you derive meaning from your experiences and “misfortunes” it will incite tremendous change in your life.

Lacking awareness of our perspective also interferes with our ability to think for ourselves. Blind certainty prevents us from freedom of choice. When we are so far down a path, so adamant that we are right about our opinion, we cannot choose to think differently. We gave it up. The best thing about removing ego and pride is that we can then accept when we are wrong and freely change our minds. We gain a choice between different modes of thinking. “Strong convictions, loosely held.” This quote can only be embodied when you remove ego and view opposite perspectives.

There’s a short story that highlights this well.

A farmer and his son had a beloved horse who helped the family earn a living. One day, the horse ran away and their neighbors exclaimed, “Your horse ran away, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not.”

A few days later, the horse returned home, leading a few wild horses back to the farm as well. The neighbors shouted out, “Your horse has returned, and brought several horses home with him. What great luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not.”

Later that week, the farmer’s son was trying to break one of the horses and she threw him to the ground, breaking his leg. The neighbors cried, “Your son broke his leg, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not.”

A few weeks later, soldiers from the national army marched through town, recruiting all boys for the army. They did not take the farmer’s son, because he had a broken leg. The neighbors shouted, “Your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!” To which the farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”

The farmer chooses to have an open mind and a shifting perspective, while the neighbors are certain that their perspective on the matter is correct. The farmer chose his reality, his neighbors did not.

Final Thoughts

Is our default setting based around negativity and hopelessness? For some, if not most, it is. We tend to judge others and find their flaws. If someone acts out or does something we consider wrong, we instantly jump to conclusions without pausing to think about it. Why? Because it’s easy. Consciously choosing our decisions, which requires awareness for it to be a choice, is hard. It’s not an easy task. Nothing valuable is. But it is worthy of attempt.