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The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life

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Despite its obvious advantages, our ability to be self-reflective comes at a high price. Few people realize how profoundly their lives are affected by self-reflection or how frequently inner chatter interferes with their success, pollutes their relationships with others, and undermines their happiness. By allowing people to ruminate about the past or imagine what might happen in the future, self-reflection conjures up a great deal of personal suffering in the form of depression, anxiety, anger, jealousy, and other negative emotions. A great deal of unhappiness, in the form of addictions, overeating, and domestic violence, is due to people's inability to exert control over their thoughts and behavior. Is it possible to direct our self-reflection in a way that will minimize the disadvantages and maximize the advantages? Is there a way to affect the egotistical self through self-reflection? In this volume, Mark Leary explores the personal and social problems that are created by the capacity for self-reflection, and by drawing upon psychology and other behavioral sciences, offers insights into how these problems can be minimized.

236 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2004

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Mark R. Leary

19 books46 followers

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Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews
Profile Image for Dierregi.
188 reviews4 followers
January 23, 2015
If you read only one book in your life, make it this one. Written in simple but not dull prose, this book tells you what to do to avoid the worst pitfalls of consciousness, and to make your living experience as stress-free and less painful as possible. This is clearly no small achievement and requires your active co-operation.

Even if you are absolutely not into meditation, you will learn that most of our “pastimes” aim at achieving the same result of “losing one’s self” into different activities. Not surprisingly, the state of “flow” (or losing yourself in activities you enjoy) is considered nowadays as one of the top, most blessed states of our existence.

However, this is not a “self-help” manual, but a well-rounded, deep and dispassionate look at our human condition. Most recommended.
Profile Image for Minh Vu.
36 reviews5 followers
December 31, 2018
Self-esteem is not the reason why we strive to success, or the necessary virtue that makes us successful - only does it appear to be resulted from being successful while having moral values. Understanding that, I try to find the right solution for my problems, which is self-compassion, something I could not do for myself.
I learned the important difference between self-compassion and self-esteem from this book, as well as the importance of the first decency to living a happier life. At first, I used to believe that having self-compassion is something similar to Pollyanna principle, that it means being optimistic while ignoring my problems and dodging my responsibilities - but I understand now that it actually means wholeheartedly longing for better things to happen in my life. I realized that being a total asshole to myself is wrong, and causing countless harms to myself needs to come to a conclusion.
What a coincidence to finish this book just days before New Year's Eve.
Profile Image for Maher Razouk.
632 reviews174 followers
January 24, 2021
لو كان الناس يقلقون فقط بشأن الأشياء التي لديها احتمالية معقولة للحدوث ، ولو كان القلق دائمًا يساعدهم على التعامل بشكل أكثر فعالية مع الأحداث المستقبلية ، فإن القدرة على القلق ستكون هدية عظيمة. ولكن الحقيقة هي أن معظم القلق غير ضروري. ربما معظم الأشياء التي يقلق الناس بشأنها لا تحدث أبدًا ، وحتى عندما تحدث ، نادرًا ما يكون القلق بشأنها شيئاً مفيدًا. وعند النظر إلى الماضي ، من المرجح أن يقول الناس : «لم يكن هناك أي سبب لكل ذلك القلق» بدلاً من «كنت أتمنى لو أنني قلقتُ أكثر!»
Mark R. Leary
The Curse of The Self
Translated By #Maher_Razouk
Profile Image for Underconsumed Knowledge.
78 reviews4 followers
September 6, 2021
This is a good book, amongst the best I've read for modern popular psychology books (as a non-psychologist, up there with Haidt, Tavris, Kurzban, Horney). I find it curious how some books catch on and others do not. It is well written and easy to read. Reviews many of the human deficiencies in ways of thinking that lead to struggles in life and society, citing examples and studies, and is an excellent complement to understanding modern civilization and politics

The Curse of the Self (Mark R. Leary): Human society has evolved beyond the evolution of humans, who were adapted to hunter gatherer societies, where they really only needed to plan ahead for the next couple of days, and lived with the protection of a clan. We now have large societies with millions of people, and complex things which require long term planning – something many humans have a hard time with, and are bad at. Says that how people talk to themselves shapes a large part of their lives, and how a lot of self-talk can be completely unproductive, but people do not realize it. “When people act spontaneously, they are responding automatically, with little forethought or conscious attention... the opposite... occurs when people are so self-conscious that they are nearly unable to act... internal chatter impedes their natural ability to respond.” The self should be “just right” -- we don’t want it on all the time, but we also don’t want it to not come on at all, we just need it when conscious thought is best for optimal function. We do not think clearly about ourselves, and our distorted perceptions of the world, both our self and otherwise, are not something we can see well – people all think they are better than average, etc. We tend to subconsciously overvalue things with which we are associated, for example, things which share letters in our names. There is a great human desire to be “special,” leading to egotism and self-inflation; this can set people up for big letdowns when they do not measure up. “People’s perceptions of other people are affected by their views of themselves in several ways.” People overestimate their own behaviors, reactions, attitudes in the general population (I.e. men peeing with their pants partially unbuttoned vs. Fully unbuttoned). This can help people to feel better about themselves if they have negative behaviors; “everyone else” does it too. “The motive to see oneself positively leads to false consensus on negative traits but false uniqueness on positive ones.” The degree to which you value creativity depends on how creative you are; this is reflected in the way supposed liberals value openness and change. Ichheiser “We tend to resolve our perplexity arising out of the experience that other people see the world differently than we see it ourselves by declaring that these others, in consequence of some basic intellectual or moral defect, are unable to see things ‘as they really are... things are in fact as we see them, and that our ways are the normal ways.” “Perhaps the best we can do is to practice attributional charity” which is to say maybe we should be more forgiving. “We may disagree with other people in our interpretations of events without necessarily assuming that we are right and they are wrong.” “...when self-serving illusions blind people to their shortcomings and weaknesses, they are unlikely to try to improve”, instead blaming everyone and everything else except the problem, which is in the mirror. “The most important step in improving oneself and one’s life is to discern where the problems lie.” Carl Rogers said the discrepancy between the held view of reality and reality itself creates anxiety and unhappiness – how things ought (shoulds) to be vs. Truth. “Abraham Maslow, who spent much of his career studying people who functioned unusually well in life, observed that such individuals ‘can take the frailties and sins, weaknesses and evils of human nature in the same unquestioning spirit that one takes or accepts the characteristics of nature.” “...the negative feelings associated with low self-esteem serve to alert us to problems with how we are being perceived and evaluated by other people” due to how we evolved. Human systems, and animal systems in general, are more likely to identify false threat positives, to err on the side of caution; people view the world in a self-serving way to reduce anxiety. “... knowing that we are prone to think that we are more competent, correct, and in control than we really are ought to caution us to be more tentative in our conclusions.” We overestimate responsibility for good things, and underestimate for bad. “The person cannot give up all beliefs... they are essential in order for the person to function... Even so, it is worth striving to hold those beliefs more tentatively.” “My life has been filed with many tragedies, most of which never occurred.” -Mark Twain. We create misery via self-generated thoughts. “...worry serves no noticeable good when nothing can be done to thwart the danger.” “...agriculture brought with it a new set of psychological stresses... [with] uncertain outcomes in the distant future. And, because human beings and their ancestors had spent millions of years in an immediate-return environment, they were ill-prepared to deal with the anxiety of living for the future.” Also people now had to be vigilant about protecting belongings. “...if the situation cannot be changed or escaped (at least for now), one should recognize the absurdity of feeding one’s own unhappiness by dwelling on the fact that one does not wish to be there or that being somewhere else would be better.” “Human beings expend much of their anger on symbolic events that ‘threaten’ something abstract that they hold dear, such as their ideas, opinions, and particularly their egos.” People regard themselves as rivals as members of opposite groups, and sometimes fight just for that. Interesting studies suggest people are happier with bronze medals than silver, because they no longer “just missed” being first. Thus, how we construe outcomes leads to different emotional reactions (I.e. “I won a medal!” vs. “I’m not the best”). People react with great emotion to things that are not part of their lives. “These kind of reactions stem from the fact that people incorporate entities such as organizations, teams, cities, and other individuals into their personal sense of self.” Thus, it is personal. People may choose to not be friends with people who too closely threaten their own identity in some way. How people interpret events, and talk to themselves about them, plays an enormous role in emotional lives (I.e. how one determines they were not hired for a job); characterological self-blame can be more stinging than behavioral (I.e. I am a bad person -> shame, vs. I acted badly in this instance -> guilt). "When people feel shame... they feel dejected and worthless, and focus on their own negative feelings and personal predicament rather than the harm they have caused. Their high level of self-focus interferes with feeling empathic toward those they have hurt, and they typically want to shrink away and feel better about themselves rather than come forward to repair the harm they have done.” Guilty people try to focus on those they have hurt and try to make it better. When people attribute problems to themself, it can create a self fulfilling prophecy, as well as anxiety; I.e. stuttering, or not being able to sleep. “There is a law that man should love his neighbor as himself. In a few hundred years it should be as natural to mankind as breathing or the upright gait; but if he does not learn it he must perish.” -Alfred Adler. People assign categories because it is socially useful, a shortcut; people assume the other categories are inferior to their own. “This tendency to overvalue one’s own groups leads most people to think that their own race, religion, country, and assorted groups are better than most, if not all, other races, religions, countries, and groups.” People can even selectively focus or distort the story to view their own group as better. People always see the other side as the provocateur, as in a study of Princeton and Dartmouth football supporters watching an aggressive game. “... you are probably less similar to the other members of your groups than you assume, as well as more similar to the members of rival groups. This bias can lead people to perceive greater distance between themselves and others than is, in fact, the case... fuel[ing] distrust, discrimination, and conflict.” Boys in the “Robbers Cave” study saw conflict erode once they had problems to solve together, seeing themselves as part of a common identity—how, the, to emphasize our common “group” with other people? “When we incorporate other people into our sense of self, we infuse those individuals with power to affect how we feel about ourselves... we are no longer indifferent to what they do or what happens to them.” Thus, the spoiled screaming child embarrasses the parents, etc. People choose and maintain relationships in accord with their desire to feel good about themself. “...because we believe our own inflated views of ourselves, we don’t stop to consider the possibility that other people will regard us as conceited or arrogant.” Regarding road rage, “He had beliefs about who he is and how he ought to be treated, and something about the other drivers not letting him into line violated those beliefs, sending him into a fit of rage”; expectations of what should be. We tend to err on the side of over-interpreting others’ actions personally, inferring disrespect or malice, when others are inconsiderate to us. People treat their self image in their mind as something that must be defended. Those with “high self-esteem" can react negatively due to the discrepancy between their self-image and that of others; thus, these people do not really have actual high self-esteem, it is just a mask (Horney). “We let our reputation and good name depend upon the judgment of other men... Merely in order to make them decide in our favour we imperil our peace of mind and way of life in countless ways.” -de La Rochefoucauld. Tells the story of how suntans became associated with those who had time for leisure (as opposed to staying inside, as was formerly prized because aristocrats were indoors); now people get skin cancer to preserve a perfect tan, to the end of impressing others. Regarding alcoholism, “alcohol produces a cognitive narrowing of attention in which people’s awareness becomes focused primarily on whatever is most salient to them, and other things are more or less ignored. When intoxicated, people cannot spread their attention around as easily as when they are sober and instead focus on only a small number of things. This effect, which is called alcohol myopia, can produce quite different effects depending on the person’s psychological state.” Thus, some people drink to forget, and studies show that alcohol can successfully quiet some people’s self chatter, and they can become distracted with other things. But, some people are so self-focused that alcohol (especially coupled with solace), can make self-talk worse. Negative life events and alcohol relapse are closely correlated. People do all sorts of things to avoid self-reflection and awareness; suicide attempts, masochism, etc. People’s lives today chronically overwhelm them; suggests a little escape of television may not in fact be so bad for these people. “The very purpose of religion is to control yourself, not to criticize others.” -Dalai Lama 14. Anatman, “no-self,” is the idea of letting go of clinging to the idea of a self which needs protection and preservation. Jesus’ words to not “swear not at all” actually referred to not making blanket promises, which is “self-imposed rule restrict[ing] the person’s ability to be influenced by changing circumstances and divine will.” The ego stands in the way of wisdom, which remains when the self is dismantled, people’s inherent spiritual nature. “[W]hoever shall exalt himself shall be abased [brought down]; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted [raised up].” -Jesus. Western religions try to transform sinful selves through moral commandments and obedience/faith; Eastern religions try to dismantle the egocentric self, and the moral person remains. “Your me is in the way.” -Zen master Hui-Hai. Zen means realizing self-thoughts are not reality; quiet awareness, without comment or judgment, can result. “The perception of oneness often changes people’s sense of identity from that of a self-contained individual to part of a larger cosmic whole.” “... some studies showed that people with diametrically opposing attitudes would behave in precisely the same way when they were not self-aware. People do not purposefully control their behavior in ways that are consistent with their attitudes, values, and goals unless they are self-focused and monitoring themselves. Self-control requires self-awareness.” Thus, when people hold political values according to one set of ideas, and act according to another, a suboptimal process can result. “Deindividuation” is when people are distanced from their conscious self, and are left to unconscious processes and impulses, as in a riot, or in losing awareness and devouring ice cream. This can also cut the other way when someone behaves more pro-socially when their self breaks down, but usually there is more harm done from a lack of good self-monitoring. People’s goals may conflict, and this can cause issues with self-regulation, when people are aware; wanting to enjoy a party, but also not wanting to get fat. Too much self awareness can produce inertia. Oftentimes long-term goals take a back seat to what someone wants in the present, in a breakdown of “self control.” “...people who are trying to exercise self-control should focus their efforts on the first line of defense. It is far easier for a person with a sweet tooth to avoid buying goodies than to resist eating them once purchased...” So, if you are on a diet, don’t hang out by the ice cream parlor. “[The Self] did not evolve to handle the decisions, choices, and acts of unnatural self-control that we require of it. Perhaps the surprising thing is that self-control works for us as well as it does.” “Because virtually everyone’s mind runs along in this fashion, most people regard this obsessive thinking as normal and do not realize how unnecessary and harmful much it [sic] really is.” We should know that we are fallible, but act in accordance with our best judgment; we do not have to insist we are always correct.
Profile Image for Leonardo.
1,975 reviews58 followers
Shelved as 'to-keep-reference'
September 14, 2018
In The Curse of the Self the social psychologist Mark Leary points out that many other animals can think, but none, so far as we know, spend much time thinking about themselves. Only a few other primates (and perhaps dolphins) can even learn that the image in a mirror belongs to them.

The Happiness Hypothesis Pág.206-207
Profile Image for Yules.
136 reviews9 followers
September 15, 2022
We know that the self (if it exists) is responsible for much of our unhappiness. Self-consciousness entails unwanted thoughts and emotions (i.e. obsessions, shame, self-blame, self-pity, etc), not to mention the worst aspect of the human condition – the awareness of our own mortality. Adam and Eve were cursed with self-consciousness for their sins, and people have been envying non-human animals ever since.

Like every other person ever, I’m often confused by this extremely flawed mechanism we call “the self,” and I picked up this book hoping for some in-depth arguments about how and why self-consciousness malfunctions. Unfortunately, many of Leary’s points here are either entirely speculative or much too generalized. Though I would have liked to see him tackle this subject from a more complex perspective, he does acknowledge that this book is for lay readers, so any other expectations I may have had of it are entirely my fault.
Profile Image for Neil H.
178 reviews10 followers
September 7, 2020
If I have learnt anything from living close to less than a century of a life. Its this. I have no idea what to make of myself and those I see around me. A vast hoch poch of contradictions, misnomers and poppy cocking. This book makes the psychedelics of living life lean a little more to a spectrum which we can view ourselves. As ego, self love (too much) hence all the worries about what happens tomorrow, yesterday and how that bastard on the street took my cab. A preservation of self image to the detriment of enjoying life in the present. We are the products of survival, of evolutionary experiments. Question is can we learn to sidestep what can cause us so much hurt and anguish.
Profile Image for Gau Guedes.
1 review
August 24, 2020
Simply the best psychology book I’ve ever read! Self-quieting, self-control, diminishing ego defensiveness and fostering ego-skepticism, makes so sense and it feels so logic as a path to achieve a better human being that I find it extremely hard to prove otherwise. A scientific perspective of what religions and philosophical doctrines have been teaching us for millenniums. This is definitely a book to revisit on a regular basis. 5 stars!
1,565 reviews16 followers
February 10, 2022
The last chapter is very essential and provides the solutions for bring the best of ourselves:
Solution 1: Quieting the Self
Solution 2: Fostering Ego-Skepticism
Solution 3: Reducing Egotism and Ego-Defensiveness
- to recognize that the ego is really nothing more than a mental idea or image we have of ourselves.
- to foster an ongoing attitude of self-compassion. People benefit from adopting a kind,
Solution 4: Optimizing Self-control
3 reviews
March 3, 2022
Important book. Explains the unfortunate problems of a hunter-gather brain in a highly evolved world where its programming is often no longer useful and, because it hasn't kept pace, is now harmful in many ways.
Profile Image for Scott Cinsavich.
41 reviews3 followers
April 23, 2021
Generally a good book on the subject with some excellent object lessons in the final chapter. Best understood by those who have taken an undergraduate course in psychology but accessible to the rest.
Profile Image for Eric Abin.
30 reviews
October 25, 2021
Very interesting look at how our self can sabatoge but also save us. Well worth the read.
12 reviews
January 17, 2022

This book is interesting, informative, and thought provoking! I highly recommend this book! I will use this book as a reference for a long time.
3 reviews
September 5, 2022
I really don't understand, how this book isn't mandatory reading. If it happens somehow, the "self-help" market will reduce remarkably.
September 11, 2020
Simply the best psychology book I’ve ever read! Self-quieting, self-control, diminishing ego defensiveness and fostering ego-skepticism, makes so sense and it feels so logic as a path to achieve a better human being that I find it extremely hard to prove otherwise. A scientific perspective of what religions and philosophical doctrines have been teaching us for millenniums. This is definitely a book to revisit on a regular basis. 5 stars!
Profile Image for Natasha.
35 reviews3 followers
February 23, 2017
this is a very interesting and thought provoking book. It's not an easy read, it's very dense with descriptions of research experiments and feels like a college class study material. I'm very glad I read it. I learned a lot and will practice new things I learned. If you struggle, like I did, to finish this book, don't put it away until you read at least the last chapter.
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