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Don’t Confuse Self-Absorption with Self-Reflection

Photo by Caroline Veronez on Unsplash

How to make sure that doesn’t happen.


November 13, 2022

Both self-absorption and self-reflection require attention to our inner world. But that’s where the similarity ends.

Self-reflection is about honestly exploring how you behave, not so much about how you feel. Instead, it’s seriously considering your character, actions, and motives, and then telling yourself the truth about yourself.

Self-absorption is more like an over-preoccupation with your own situation — emotions, thoughts, physical sensations, and interests.

I have spent more hours than I can count, living in confusion between the two.

It’s easy to mix them up.

And it’s not surprising. Not too many generations ago, we ignored feelings — if you’re old enough, think Archie Bunker, arranged marriages, and eight-year-old kids working in factories. Nobody’s feelings mattered.

These days it’s different. We’re encouraged to have and share feelings. Sharing feelings benefits our mental and emotional health, enriches our relationships, helps us clarify our thoughts, and release pent-up emotions.

But at times it seems we have sped to the other end of the continuum — from feeling nothing to feeling EVERYTHING. And then talking about it, over, and over, and over.

That’s self-absorption — over-preoccupation with self — and I can relate. I have endless blush-making stories of my own self-absorption.

If you want to reduce the number of cringe-worthy stories in your back-pack, read on.


How do you know if someone is self-absorbed?

Here are some common characteristics of self-absorbed people:

  • They call the shots. They decide when you get together, what you do, and what time you do it.
  • They compete. They either have a more important success story, or their suffering is more intense.
  • They engage in emotional manipulation. They ask how you are and then within two minutes they’re back telling you how they are, without ever bringing the conversation back to you.
  • They minimize your problems or maximize their sympathy. They offer advice with a “you should just do ….” Or they over-do the sympathy, saying all the right things, but somehow, you know something is off with sincerity.
  • They need to be the center of attention. If they’re not, they’ll make it clear they’re somewhat bored or disapproving.
  • They can be charming and charismatic. But they make you feel important to get your attention, and manipulate how you think of them. They don’t really admire you — they want you to admire them.
  • They steal your energy. When you leave, you feel drained and like you didn’t do enough, weren’t quite enough.

How to shift from self-absorption to self-reflection.

If you’re psyched about being more self-reflective and less self-absorbed, here are a few ideas in addition to Stoicism, to get on the right track.

Talk less, listen more.

True listening’ is giving someone else’s every word your full attention.

Unfortunately, the way we usually listen looks like this — as soon as the other person starts talking, we begin listening to our internal self-talk, in which we’re:

  • Agreeing or disagreeing with what they say.
  • Comparing what they say to what we think we already know.
  • Planning what we’re going to say, refining our argument.
  • Listening from a defended position because we have no respect for a different opinion.
  • Being so distracted (by everything else going on) that we don’t hear.
  • Waiting for them to shut up because we’re bored or discount any opinion other than our own.

The goal of effective listening: listen to every word they say, even if they have to ramble a bit to get to the point, to find the gem of wisdom or the truth behind what they’re saying.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

See if you can put yourself in their shoes.

Notice when you judge someone else’s behavior without knowing much about them other than how they look or who they are today. We are all more than our best or worst moment on any given day.

Don’t assume you can put yourself in their shoes if you don’t ask questions. Very few of us are good mind-readers. But we never know it because we don’t ask questions — we assume we already know everything about everybody.

Not so much.

Even better, do unto others as they want you to do unto them.

A great way to get less self-absorbed is to ask others what they want, think, or believe. Being curious and asking questions changes the whole ball game. We shift attention away from being the center of the universe to put someone else in that spot for a moment.

It’s hugely disrespectful to assume that others want what we want. We have to ask.

Remember, you are one hundred percent responsible for creating a satisfying life.

Nobody else (if they’re mentally and emotionally stable) will take on that job because they’re too busy trying to create a satisfying life for themself.

Taking one hundred percent responsibility may be the hardest pill to swallow in moving from self-absorption to self-reflection. Very few of us reached adulthood as perfectly individuated humans. Most of us are still struggling with understanding where we end and others begin, and who’s responsible for what.

Taking responsibility for our happiness is counter-intuitive. At first blush, it seems like it would make us even more self-absorbed. But, instead of making us more self-centered, we become someone who we, and others, can rely on. We manage ourselves rather than trying to manipulate others into changing to make us happy.

When we forget that we are responsible for our happiness, we can easily fall into the self-absorbed habit of blaming others for our misery.

Self-reflection is not without its price.

Self-reflection asks us to make friends with discomfort. But dang! who likes to see through their own delusions, self-righteousness, and BS?

You do! If you want relationships that are rich with different perspectives, true interest in each other’s well-being, and a sincere concern about the impact of your behavior on others.

Self-reflection is the doorway through which we can stop kidding, defending, or hiding from ourselves. And most importantly, stop wasting this short bit of time we’ve been given. Instead, it encourages us to treat every situation and relationship with respect, compassion and a desire to leave the world a kinder place.

Much love,