Self-Consciousness: You Can’t Fool Yourself

Self-ConsciousnessMany years ago we read a book by renowned social psychologist George Herbert Meade entitled Mind, Self and Society. In it Meade wrote about the origins of self-consciousness in childhood experiences.

If you follow the development of children you notice that at first they act as though they and the world are one, with no apparent sense of others (especially parents) as separate individuals whose wishes can be understood. Gradually the developing brain allows the child to internalize a sense of how their parents will behave and what they believe and want.

Meade suggested that self-consciousness develops because of the internalized voices and personalities of “others” (beginning with parents and extending to society as a whole). The sum of all of these experiences comprises the “me”, an aspect of the self that, like the world around, is always watching the action of the “I” which is the original non-self-conscious self.

One implication of that theory that I find useful is the notion that the self-conscious and self-judging aspect of our selves is always a bit removed from our true motives, it looks at what we do and tries to figure out what kind of a person we are.

Fast forward half a century and another social psychologist, Daryl Bem, conducted a series of experiments that seemed to show that if we could be tricked into doing something or saying something that was not compatible with our original values and beliefs, we tended to change our values and beliefs to match the behavior. The  judging part of the self observes our behavior and says, “hmmm… maybe I am not a republican” after we are asked, as part of a psychology experiment, to convince other students of a democratic viewpoint.

How does this relate to mood?

Sometimes when coaching people with depression you get a sense that the person seems to turn to you to “fix” their mood… and seems to have no ability to do anything for themselves.

This is a practically impossible situation precisely because of how we understand ourselves by observing our behavior. If I am not doing anything to take care of myself, then that social “me”, or judging and self-aware part of the brain naturally, concludes “I don’t think I am worth taking care of.” And no amount of cognitive therapy is likely to change that view significantly until the behavior changes a little bit.

A very common situation where this happens is with new mothers – they are so focused on taking care of their child that they neglect themselves, and then they become more and more emotionally depleted and thus unable to really take care of their child. It can be hard to convince a mother that taking care of oneself is sometimes more important than doing more for your child.

So, start small, but try to do one more thing to take care of yourself. And notice that positive change. It can be the beginning of a better mood.