Try Self-Help That Isn’t Self-centered

We don’t walk alone in this world, Photo by Christyl Rivers

You just can’t get your point out at the staff meeting. You want to tell you neighbor, “No thanks, I really don’t want to wear your coat.” But you can’t find the words. You volunteered at last month’s charity sale but you are too busy this month. You feel far too conspicuous to make a fuss. It is easier to go along than to protest in any way.

One of the reasons why human beings are so vulnerable is simply because we think people will think badly of us. The sad truth is, people are so engaged with thinking about their own selves that they are rarely thinking anything about you. And when they do think about you it’s usually in comparison to how they would respond to a situation, not how you respond. This human tendency is also why people are so judgmental. They are not thinking at all about your particular and unique circumstances, they are thinking about their own; their own annoyances, their own choices, their own lives.

Another reason for our inability to act confidently is just timing. We often think of the perfect response minutes, or even hours, after the chance to speak up has passed. Also, we usually are not mentally present in any given situation. We try to guess what someone will say next, or what we should say, or what will happen next.

Human beings want certainty, and can’t stop looking for it. Our cognition is wired to remember what mistakes we made before and make every effort to not repeat them, while at the same time we are wired to worry about the future and what we can do or say to improve it.

Here are the hard facts: You can’t have certainty. You are not the same person who made a mistake five years ago. You will not be the same person two years from now, either. We all change continually. We all try to interpret what others say or do from behind the lens of that non-certain and non-constant self. In other words, we each have little choice but to be self-centered in any given situation.

Given all this, what can we do to improve ourselves? The most obvious thing that is said so often it has become a trite cliché is to live in the moment. It is irritating when you are in distress to hear this advice, but in most situations, the person who says it is truly trying to help. Hear their concern, not their words, and respond with something like: “I know I must let go of the past, but as you know, Bob, I am hurting right now and must get through this.” Most situations are about stress rather than crisis, and in those cases, say something like “We humans find it hard to live in the moment because of how our brains are wired. Maybe we should try to be a little more like cats and dogs, sometimes.”

In addition to our efforts to be in the present moment, we all benefit from active and engaged listening skills that allow us to see another person’s perspective more accurately.

Listening to another, or even observing them carefully, allows more data to get through. More concern and trust is built, so over time we get to feel confident enough with others to say yes or no to a proposal. We can also tailor our response to best engage with a specific person as we learn more about him or her. Eventually, we can trust enough to be vulnerable and honest.

Finally, to best get outside the biased self that is our separate perspective, affirm each and every day that you are not alone. You are in fact, a part of a whole which we call society. Society, from the very root word “social” is proof enough that we are a social species, wholly dependent upon one another for everything from the milk on your morning cereal to the pillow you lay your head upon tonight.

Society itself is part of another whole which we call the biosphere. Biology and diversity are what make the world possible, so although our perspective is small, our belonging is undeniable, and can help us see beyond the self.