Sometimes it helps to realize that you are not the center of the whole world. Not so easy, is it?
In a moment I’ll suggest an exercise that may help, but first a few words on the problem of being too much “in your head.”
We know our own thoughts and feelings directly, from the inside out. With others, we understand them only from the outside, no matter how close we are to them or however much empathy we feel. We see what they look like, what they do and say, and how they describe themselves.
Too much absorption in our own thoughts about ourselves, however, can be a problem. It is easy to feel unique, not just in a way that feels good, like some strutting peacock or narcissistic overlord. We are not talking about self-love, but about something more like self-doubt or concern, and potentially anxiety or depression.
When our sense of uniqueness becomes attached to the idea that few others feel as bad as we do, life can be miserable. That includes the time you spend worrying about what others think of you, as well as all the moments preoccupied with distressing thoughts. An inner life that is spent targeted almost exclusively on one’s own problems can create a life-sucking whirlpool inside your head.
Regrettably, the more we think about our troubles, the worse we sometimes make them. Anxiety, worry, and self-doubt tend to feed on themselves. Downcast thoughts become automatic. Looking down piles up until those ruminations tower over us and block the bright side from our view. It can feel like living alone in a cave with only a hand-held torch providing any light.
Before you get too far down that looming road, here is an exercise that might help give you a little perspective and prevent you from falling into the cycle I’ve just described. Start by taking a walk, or ride a bus or a train.
What I’m suggesting is that you look at some of the cars on the streets and highways, parked or in motion. As you do, ask yourself a few questions.
Who might own that car? Might they own it outright or be paying for it on an installment plan? Might they have had financial problems, present or past?
What could go wrong with that car? What has already been broken and fixed? Don’t nearly all cars need maintenance, repair, and eventual replacement? Don’t cars sometimes get into accidents?
Remember that someone specific owns that car. Try to imagine the life of that person, both the good and the not so good. Might he be out of work? If not, what kind of job or jobs does he have? Is he happy with his boss and co-workers? What might his job be like, both the positive and the negative?
Who has ridden in the car with its owner? People he loved, friends, coworkers, dates, and so forth. Now imagine the range of possible relationships he has and those he has lost, from a very small number to a large one. Might he even be alone more than he wants? Might he desire more social contact, but be afraid of it? Think of the good times and the not so good times, the varieties of human social experiences.
Do you see anyone in a parked car who is reading a newspaper? Think of the news stories and problems involving other people who have nothing to do with you or with the reader. Don’t miss the reported awards and successes either, those that inspire you or fuel your ambition.
By now, I think you’ve got the idea. We endanger ourselves by too much inward focus. Most lives have much in common. The routine events tend not to be a big deal. The surprises, especially when they aren’t welcome, certainly can be a big deal; but, we aren’t as unique or special as we think most of the time. We don’t see more than a little of the lives around us, and people tend to put a good face on their public selves. Still, the laundry needs to be done, the heart will break occasionally, and we all laugh and suffer at one time or another, however much of the latter is hidden.
We live in a world that portrays itself unrealistically on TV and elsewhere. It is far too easy to believe that everyone else is having a better time and a better life — one that we’d grab if only it were offered. But scratch the surface and realize that few lead truly charmed lives, as the poem Richard Cory reminds us. For a wonderfully alive (but realistically) upbeat take on our shared human condition, also read Walt Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.
You probably have more in common with all those people who own all those cars than you might think. If you can take that knowledge and generate some activity that moves your mind away from your own troubles, there is no dishonor in doing so. Even reading out loud to yourself can be active enough to get you out of your head and into someone else’s: the writer’s head and his characters’ heads.
One thing to remember in particular: everything is temporary. All those cars you saw on the road won’t be there forever, nor will most problems feel as they might today. Get on with your life the best you can. That’s what the other drivers are trying to do. The more you try to do it, the less time there will be to think introspective thoughts that might not be helping you.
The roads lead in lots of directions. Explore them, especially those that might aim at something bigger than yourself — outside yourself.
You won’t always succeed. Nobody does. But be sure to keep driving, with your eyes on the road, looking inward only when necessary. The person who taught you how to drive must have told you to keep your eyes wide open and alert to what is happening on the highway. Good advice, too, for the highway of life.
The top image is called Mirror Image and is the work of Amartya5, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Dr. Stein – your timing is impeccable. I’ve been spinning about an issue and reading the above helped tremendously. I hope you are doing well!
Glad it helped, Mike. Thanks for your good wishes. Best to you and the family.
Interesting topic. When faced with a problem, I find it difficult to get out of my head. As you recommend, I find focusing on people around me when walking or using the bus excellent ways to connect with the world and rid myself of self-absorption.
Thank you, Rosaliene. It is much easier to get self-absorbed than to escape it. As someone who is a writer and a lover of writing, I hope you do read the Whitman poem I mentioned. I think it will resonate with you.
I have just read the poem you mentioned. Trust the poet to see what we take for granted in our day-to-day lives! We are separate individuals yet sharing common space and experiences. All that’s missing is the connection between us – strangers caught up in our own lives.
First, I want to thank you for all the excellent guidance you give. I first became aware of you somehow because we share a great love of classical music.
This current email from you seems to have struck a chord with me.
I admit I am self-absorbed– self-absorbed with the suffering my mother caused by telling me my entire life I was nobody, nothing I said mattered, I was ugly, fat, looked horrible- you name anything negative or repulsive- that was me. My mother completely alienated her two brothers and spoke horribly about my father’s family.
Yet, at the same time I became so concerned about suffering- not only my own but the suffering of all creatures. (I am a long time vegetarian and have taken in a number of rescues over the years. I presently have two dogs and three cats- two of which are handicapped.) After finishing my undergrad degree (with honors), I was so very fortunate to receive a full fellowship to grad school. I spent over 30 years attempting to help others and, despite what my mother’s recurring messages, had a very successful and respected career. I was a very dedicated school social worker- choosing social work as a career is probably not a surprise after what I’ve written!
I am retired now and do volunteer work I love. I choose to do what I do pretty much under the radar so to speak. Over two weeks ago a fellow volunteer insisted I accompany him to a yearly breakfast where city dignitaries would be present- something I always skipped. I reluctantly went. To my complete amazement and surprise I was awarded an enormous plaque with my name on it as “Volunteer of the Year.” After the breakfast I was given the box to transport my plaque home. To this day I cannot bear to take the plaque out of the box. I just can’t. My mother would scream I’m not worthy!
My mother died in 2003 yet her decades of venomous words towards me still live in my head.
I do not know exactly what I am trying to say except perhaps sometimes our own very private and personal pain may be what compels us to help others- to use our personal awareness of suffering in an honest and sincere attempt to mitigate the suffering of others.
Mare, thank you for your comment; so much more than a comment really, that I can’t easily find the words that would do it adequate justice. I agree entirely with your last paragraph as to the motivation to help others. The exercise in my post is, I’m afraid, not adequate to your situation. Your training and experience — indeed, your wonderful career — suggest you know lots about possible personal remedies. One you might want to research is ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), it you haven’t already done so. I wish you all the best in escaping your mom’s very long reach. I am grateful to have readers like you.
Mare, thanks so much for sharing your story. Be proud of the award given to you by the people you work with. It’s their way of saying that they appreciate the difference you make in their lives. To leave the plaque in the box is to reject their love for you.
I, too, have a mother who takes every opportunity to put me down. She’s the reason I became a writer: a form of therapy to counterbalance her rancor. Negative emotions are great for creating compelling stories 🙂
Thank you for your personal response to Mare. I’m also pleased that you enjoyed the Whitman poem.
whoa. re: richard cory. Thank you Dr. Stein for your insightful blogs. You are a great writer, as you are
clinician. Hope all is well with you!!!
Thanks for your good wishes and kind words, Michelle. I hope you are doing well, too. Yes, Richard Cory does show that we don’t always know the dark places in which people live inside themselves. But do read the Whitman poem. Much more uplifting.
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The ideas are there for everyone and I most appreciate the acknowledgment of the blogs and links to them. Modest quotations from them are also considered “fair use” if you indicate where the quotes come from. Where you take the ideas from there is, of course, up to your own research, knowledge, and imagination. Good luck and thanks for visiting! If you have further questions or comments, don’t hesitate to ask. I appreciate the courtesy of your request.
I never understood what it meant to be “in your head” until now nor considered it an indication of self-absorption, but that is absolutely right. I have a lot of work to do…:-\
We are, if we are paying attention, all travelers on a never-ending road to learn more about the world and about ourselves. Put differently, we all have a lot of work to do, but it can be an interesting and fulfilling sort of work.
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I have numerous cognitive compulsions, patterns and rituals going on and on in my head all the time. This has (though there are other reasons too of course) caused me to become VERY “inside my head”. Indeed, I’ve complained to my therapist a few times that I feel very narcissistic, self-obsessed, even though I hate it. Thank you for the good post. It emphasizes and nicely frames things that I’ve been trying to work on for a while now.
You are welcome, Ri. I’ve known lots of people who spend much time inside their heads. Some are university professors. You could have worse company.