Scenario: Leaving the house for work, you walk outside and into an amazing sunrise. The sky is painted with splashes of bright orange, crimson and pink. You pause and drink it in for a few moments, astounded by its brilliance [awe]. At the bus stop you pull out your phone. What messages might there be for you? [self-referential thinking] The bus pulls up and you notice a mother with 2 children carrying several packages. You offer her a hand and she smiles in thanks. The smile touches you [kindness]. On the bus, you start thinking about the meeting that is coming up later that morning, not sure how your proposal is going to be received by the boss and your colleagues. Switching to the phone you check emails, FB and Instagram – noticing a twitch of envy when you see photos of a “friend” in Barcelona… [self-referential thinking].
It has been said that we are living in a narcissism epidemic. If that is true, the content of this blog is a bit counter-cultural, and perhaps, all the more needed.
Throughout the day our attention moves from one thing, to the next, to the next. It seems that quite often, we are focused on ourselves, our agenda, comparing ourselves with others, feeling recognised or ignored, happy with our lot or dissatisfied, worrying about how something will affect me! Our thoughts, plans and intentions tend to centre on I, me and mine. Our minds spend a lot of time caught in self-referential thought. Just sit for 10 minutes and watch the dozens of thoughts that will arise – nearly all related to you! And it would appear that too much focus on oneself doesn’t make us happy.
All this self-referential thinking is not because we are morally bad and selfish. Developing a secure sense of self is a healthy part of human development. Learning how to manage the self that develops, and not be too identified with our thoughts, emotions and experiences, is the next step in healthy development.
Self-referential thinking activates a network of regions in the brain called the Default Mode Network. This is the same network that is involved in mind wandering and rumination (repetitively going over and over a thought or problem). What is interesting about self-referential thinking/mind wandering, is that it appears to be the mind’s default position. It is where the mind goes when we aren’t doing anything in particular. People who experience anxiety, depression and OCD have higher levels of activation in parts of the DMN. This is hardly a surprise. You have probably noticed that that a good proportion of self-referential thinking is unhelpful: “I’ve got so much to do. Get me out of here!” “I wish I wasn’t going bald.” “Why can’t I just…?” “Why don’t I have (good looks, courage, boat, promotion)?” “How can (s)he do that to me.” etc. This kind of thinking can be very painful.
So, here’s the good news. Even though that the mind is exceptionally good at self-referential thinking, we can train ourselves to get out of the way. Training ourselves to get out of the way doesn’t mean decreasing your sense of who you are – thinking you are less important than others. It simply means spending less time thinking about ourselves – whether in a positive, negative or neutral manner.
How can we get out of the way?
A starting point is to accept that self-referential thinking is a normal process and will occur from time to time. We don’t want to start a war with it, because as they say, what you resist persists.
Here are a couple of good ways to help move the focus from the self:
- Cultivate social emotions
- Practice mindfulness meditation
Feelings like gratitude, kindness, compassion, connection and generosity – those emotions that support us to interact well in groups – have been shown to move us out of experiencing the world from the narrow perspective of how everything relates to I, me, mine. And there is now a good research base showing that they are associated with increased happiness and well-being. To have more of these experiences, a good starting point is to increase how you value these emotions. Recognising them a valuable helps us to identify more opportunities to engage in the activities that produce them. Whenever you experience such a state, pause and recognise it as a valuable experience, maintain the experience for as long as you can. This strengthens the neural pathways connected with the emotion, strengthening it and making it more likely that you return there in the future. Meditation on these positive emotions is another good way to enhance them. Interestingly, awe is another emotion that moves us away from self-referential thinking.
One of the key skills learnt through mindfulness meditation is the ability to move the attention from self-referential thinking to the present moment. This is often done using an anchor for the attention such as body sensations, the breath, sounds – something in the present moment. Learning to observe thoughts and emotions as they come and go, without getting caught in the mini-dramas we create, is good mental health. Through mindfulness meditation we develop awareness that is not so self-focused (check out this research).
It is reassuring that “getting out of the way” is a skill that we can learn. With regular practice we can more easily see when we are caught in self-referential thinking and choose a different approach. This is good for us and good for those around us. Why wouldn’t you?
Kathryn Choules (PhD)
Dr Choules is a certified instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction from the Medical School of the University of Massachusetts and a Senior Teacher of Meditation (Meditation Association of Australia). She has been offering mindfulness programs, workshops, training and retreats in Perth, Western Australia since 2013. With many years’ experience in government, academia and the community sector, both in Australia and overseas, she understands the challenges and benefits of finding calm amidst the storm of modern living and the modern workplace.