Lately, I’ve been increasingly wary of the words “self” and “myself.” I finally wondered, “how could I replace those words in my internal and external dialogue?”
I thought, well, it’s not possible to get away from first-person pronouns. “I” and “me” are unavoidable, so why not use those words instead of “self”?
Just as an experiment, I tried for a day to remove “self” in the first-person context. It’s surprisingly hard.
For instance, “I’m doing this for myself” vs. “I’m doing this for me.”
“I don’t know what to do with myself” vs. “I don’t know what to do” or “I don’t know what I’ll do to keep busy.”
Emphasis is placed on the self: “I, myself, have a habit of hitting the snooze button” vs. “I, too, have a habit of hitting the snooze button.”
“I’m getting myself a glass of water” vs. “I’m getting a glass of water.”
The word popped up when I thought of defining who I am: “I feel like myself again” vs. “I feel right again.”
Grammatically speaking, it’s difficult if not impossible to get away from “self.” We need the word in the first-person context in order to communicate. Psychologically speaking, it’s hard to think away from it. So much of our popular conversation revolves around the love, care, improvement, maintenance, scrutiny, reflection, actualization, esteem, and empowerment of the self that the idea of it has become ingrained in how we imagine we should perceive and move through the world. Pseudo-psychologists have been spawned, and they have written books (and made millions): “Self-help” has become a genre. We’re a culture obsessed with our selves. We are self-centered.
Self-importance and self-hood. Is it possible to be an individual without being selfish?
“Love yourself.” “Pamper yourself.” “Be kind to yourself.” “Value yourself.” “Do something nice for yourself.”
The problem is that such commands have the opposite effect of what they’re supposed to achieve. In being encouraged to wonder why we’re not doing these things, we’re being called upon to focus on ourselves relentlessly. Those self-help gurus have made fortunes off of the insecurities they’ve managed to establish in us (so that we’ll buy their books/tapes/retreat admission tickets/etc.).
“If you (insert action), you’ll improve your self-esteem.” Self-esteem! So much focus has been concentrated on self-esteem that we’ve almost stopped looking beyond that, as if self-esteem is the end-all, be-all of our collective existence. Would it be possible to navigate life detached from our esteem of our selves? It seems that the more esteem and concern for esteem we direct onto ourselves, the less we remember to place value elsewhere.
The exercise of replacing “self” in the first-person led me to realize the extent of the importance we’ve allocated to the self: we’re hyper-aware of ourselves, and I, for one, am keenly cognizant of this. I’m socially awkward, which I think is partially because I tend to be self-conscious. Self-consciousness is almost never used with a positive connotation; it almost always refers to an uncomfortable state of being.
Self-consciousness and self-confidence aren’t mutually exclusive, though, fortunately. Self-confidence is critical. We need it to live in society with assurance; we need it to be successful. We even need self-confidence to stay safe. Predators looking for victims watch for indications of an absence of self-confidence.
In art, the self-portrait has been a genre since antiquity, and an important genre, at that. The selfies we take today fall in a sub-category of the self-portrait. Vanity notwithstanding, many of us enjoy documenting and sharing photos we take of ourselves with those who find value in them.
I’ve been revisiting this train of thought not as an armchair psychologist, but as a life-long Buddhist, pondering the subject again following the recent death of my cat. The Buddhist service I did for her prompted me to think back on the Buddhist teachings I’ve learned from the time I started attending Dharma school at seven years old.
Because of the teachings of the Buddha, I grew up knowing that an ideal endeavor in life is to strive for selflessness, but I never made earnest attempts to live in accordance with the principle. Such an endeavor has never seemed more important than now, in this time wherein self-esteem and emphasis on the self has been given highest importance.
We are all out for ourselves. We feel that we have to be in order to survive.
The Buddhist principle of the Middle Path is that “both extremes, self-affirmation and self-denial, are simply forms of self-preoccupation and self-attachment.”
This is what I would like to try to avoid.
Coming back to my exercise: it’s good to be “self-reliant,” I thought, but being “independently capable” is the same thing. I started to see that making an effort to direct my thinking away from terms of self might allow me an unexpected measure of peace. It’s a starting point, at least.