Monday, August 24, 2015

On Self-Centredness

Sometimes people are surprised when I say that I consider my biggest personality fault to be that I'm too self-centred.*

Okay, not everyone is surprised. Many just agree that I'm a piece of $#!7, and find this formulation to to be yet one more variation on expressing the same widely-agreed-on sentiment.

When people describe their own faults or characteristics in a way that surprises others, sometimes this comes from the fact that the traits they are remarking on are things they have observed in themselves for a long time, and worked on in some form for a long time too. This tends to happen when I tell people I consider myself introverted. I was only moderately introverted to start with, and I've worked on becoming more sociable with strangers for quite some time. If you saw 5 year old Shylock, or 12 year old Shylock, the description would not seem nearly as discordant.

Small talk with strangers may take effort, but it is not conceptually a particularly hard problem. Any problem that can be routinely solved by people of average intelligence simply cannot be that cognitively difficult - the obstacles must lie elsewhere, probably in the implementation and the psychology. But if one isn't born with the instinct for the talent, one has to work on it, just like everything else. The gratifying sign that one's work has been successful is if the extent of one's innate tendency in the other direction is not easy to spot by new acquaintances.

But I don't think that's what's going on with self-centredness.

I think the first mistake people make is that they mentally substitute the phrase 'selfishness', a concept which is generally is better understood. They then often substitute related terms like 'greedy' or 'stingy', which sneaks in the wrong connotation, namely that the metric of evaluation over which greediness is measured is money or material possessions.

I'm not particularly greedy for money. While I don't have a huge amount of it, at the risk of sounding extraordinarily presumptuous, I always just assumed that absent some big catastrophe, money would mostly take care of itself in my life. I suspect this attitude comes from the good fortune of growing up in an upper-middle class family and being of reasonable talents. It also helps that I don't have particularly extravagant tastes.

At least for me, the biggest benefit of having some money is not having to worry about it. The next benefit is buying one's way out of inconvenience and hardship. The next biggest is getting to do nice things for friends, family, and causes one supports. Add all that up, and I don't fit the classic stereotype of Scrooge McDuck.

Of course, attachment can be for plenty of things other than money. One of the things that's appealing about Buddhism is the much broader conception of the attachment to be uprooted. "My beautiful body". "My clever thoughts". You can probably guess from this august periodical which of those two I score badly on, and why I do worse on attachment, broadly defined, than greed, narrowly defined. These parts of attachment don't tend to get lumped in with greediness, which seems more concerned with the social aspects of morality. Thinking oneself clever seems to have a more indirect route to social harm (e.g. mocking others as stupid) than attachment to money (e.g. outright theft). That distinction matters less to Buddhism, which isn't primarily interested in social harm, but rather with one's own mental development.

But even this broader conception of attachment doesn't quite cover self-centredness.

I remember once reading that a self-centred person always thinks of themselves as the protagonist in their own play, and everyone else as the supporting cast. They never stop to consider that everyone else is the protagonist in his own play, too.

In other words, it comes from only thinking of things from one's own point of view.

A selfish person will hurt someone deliberately in order to get what they want. They will probably also construct a narrative that the other person deserved it (or indeed was being selfish themselves, for refusing to yield to their demands). A selfish person is just reluctant to give others things, especially if they impose some personal cost. They will still give things to people, especially loved ones. But the gifts will only be things that make both people happy. They will rarely be gifts that cause the giver to have to renounce something important.

A self-centred person, by contrast, will hurt people accidently, carelessly. Often they won't realise that their actions were going to upset people, and may not even know afterwards unless it's made quite plain to them. A self-centred person is not opposed to giving. They just tend to get presents that they themselves would like to get, not necessarily what the other person would actually want.

While I was growing up, when I would do some inconsiderate thing that upset someone in my family, I would often protest to Mama Holmes that 'I didn't think it would upset them.' 'That's the point', she would reply. 'You didn't actually think about it.'

So how does a self-centred person think of other people?

Other people's pain and suffering is viewed mostly as an emotion one experiences empathetically, but usually only when it is actually presented.

Self-centredness is not the same as being on the spectrum of autism, where one is simply unable to judge responses and thought processes in other people.

It's also not the same as sociopathy, where one feels no empathy when one witnesses others who are in pain.

Seeing other people in pain brings a self-centred person pain too. And so he tried to avoid that pain. Often this comes by lessening that other person's pain, which is a good thing. But sometimes it just comes by avoiding having to see the pain - not wanting to visit an elderly relative in a decrepit state, because you 'don't want to remember them like that', for instance. A truly empathetic person (which is the opposite of self-centredness) is likely to reflect on the other person's pain even when not in their presence.

I suspect that this is perhaps part of the test - how often do you think about the wellbeing of others in your life when the question is not specifically presented by direct circumstances? How often does the thought occur to you to randomly get someone a small present? Okay, now how often does it occur to you when the person isn't in front of you? Okay, now how often does it occur when not also prompted by seeing something that you know they like? In other words, how often does the bare thought 'I should do something nice for that person' occur in advance of you deciding what to get or seeing that person?

How often do you think to wonder about how a friend is doing that you haven't heard from for a while? Or do they mostly just drop out of mind?

A self-centred person is liable to assume that if they've done something a particular way and nobody has complained about it up to now, it must be fine. They very rarely stop and think explicitly, 'Gee, I wonder how this would make the person feel? I wonder if this action that benefits me might not be nice, even if they haven't complained about it'. In other words, because they don't think much about other people's feelings, unless prompted by the immediate impact they have one one's own feelings, they are relatively poor at judging the emotional impact of situations in which they haven't had the consequences made plain to them before.

When I first moved away to this great country, I would return home to Oz for holidays and have lots of people I wanted to see. I also needed to see my family too, partly just because I wanted to, partly out of a sense of familial duty (in the good sense of the term), partly out of a desire to not make them upset by my absence since they presumably would want to spend time with me too. So I made sure to schedule time with them.

But because there were so many friends to try to catch up with too, I was always trying to squeeze them in here and there where they were available, and where it was most convenient. To me. As you can imagine, this meant that I was forever trying to schedule an hour or two of "quality time" with Mum and Dad before racing out to meet my friends. At some point, Mama Holmes pointed out that I was always doing this chiseling. Once she'd pointed it out, it became obvious that it wasn't a very nice thing to do - the person always feels like they're on the clock, and being slotted into your busy schedule, which is the opposite of what you were trying to do. But of course, the fact that my actions might cause people to feel like this hadn't occurred to me.

The limited action in response, which is still useful, is to take the specific lesson - don't be stingy with one's time, especially with family. Don't schedule zillions of back to back appointments unless you're okay with people knowing that you're slotting them in. One more lesson in the rule of polite behaviour. Add them all up, work at it long enough, and you'll end up approaching the behaviour of a genuinely considerate person by the application of a lot of rules of thumb and general advice.

But the ultimate goal is the harder training - to explicitly think, in advance, 'I wonder how my choices are impacting the people around me.'

That's the only way to come across the nice things you could be doing for other people that you simply hadn't thought of.

And I don't think there's any shortcut to this, other than just getting in the habit of contemplating the welfare of people around you, especially those for whom it wouldn't occur to you naturally. You probably will naturally think of your parents. You may not naturally think of your secretary, or your janitor, or the guy you sit next to on the bus.

Writing or thinking about the necessity of it won't do. As the Last Psychiatrist put it :
<doing awesome>
is better than
<feeling terrible about yourself>
is better than
<the mental work of change>
You should memorize this, it is running your life. 
God, I miss that guy's blog.

I think that's enough writing as a substitute for the hard work for today.


*Postscript. I recognise the irony of writing about self-centredness in an article filled mostly with personal examples and self-indulgent self-criticism. Unfortunately, the examples I know best here and can speak of are my own.