There are many self-help books suggesting the best way to truly understand yourself is to dive in and monitor our thoughts. Whether it be self-help, yoga, hypnosis or meditation – introspection* has been dubbed as one of the best ways to understand yourself and gain self-knowledge.
This article explains how some self-help books and some elements of meditative theories can actually cause harm through heightened self-awareness and unrealistic expectations.
Psychological research suggests the thoughts we have may not be accurate. This article explores the potential danger in blindly believing our own thoughts, and why we must constantly challenge them.
Psychological research indicates that people often cannot explain the causes of their own behaviour. For example, ask a person what they enjoy. Say their answer is sports. If they were to then play sports, they should seem happy and they should engage in that activity for longer than they would an activity they disliked.
So their behaviour (being happy and doing the task for longer) corresponds with their attitude towards the behaviour (I enjoy sports). So to simplify it, “I enjoy sports which is why, when I do it I am happy, and I do it for a long time”. Makes sense.
In a psychological experiment exploring this phenomena, the participants were asked to explain how they felt after they had engaged in the activity they said they normally enjoy. Suddenly their attitudes (the association between the action and their evaluation) no longer corresponded with their behaviour. So for example, after observing a participant enjoying a sport, when pressed to explain why they found it so enjoyable, the participant may have said, “Oh it’s ok I guess, but my feet are getting dirty. I don’t really enjoy outdoor stuff actually. I’d probably prefer reading”.
Why is this? Why are we inconsistent in our beliefs and thoughts?
Well, our thoughts and behaviour are mostly regulated through non-conscious processes. Which simply means most of our motivations and feelings are occurring without our awareness or influence. Then if we try to understand these processes consciously, we usually mess it up. Plus, we can actually confuse ourselves if we analyse too deeply. So that’s problem number one.
The second is that we tend to overestimate ourselves. We believe our opinions to be more accurate than they actually are. We also believe we are better than average and overestimate our chances of success. This may come across as demotivating. But from a psychological point of view, it is actually easy to see how some self-help books (such as the get-rich-quick type) can actually set a person up for failure, and in the long-term, may actually cause unrealistic expectations and mental anguish. Obviously, high expectations can lead to disappointment.
Lastly, people experience a psychological term known as ‘affective forecasting’, where we incorrectly diagnose how we expect to feel in a given situation. So for example, how happy you think you would be if you won the lottery, or how devastated you would be if you lost your job, are both examples of ‘affective forecasting’.
Psychologists measured the expected responses to life events, then compared those responses to those of individuals actually experiencing these life events. So for example, a group of people were asked, “How do you think you would feel if you won the lottery”. The results were measured. A group of people who actually just won the lottery were asked, “How do you feel?”. The results were not similar. People consistently overestimate how they expect they will feel and for how long, particularly in response to adverse life events.
So what psychology advice can you give us?
How well we think we know ourselves and the accuracy of our very own thoughts can always be challenged. Being too self-aware and analytical actually has the potential to lower our self-esteem and even put you in a bad mood. One way to cope with this is to simply jump ship and stop being so self-aware. Try not to analyse your actions, and even the actions of others. Try not to look too deeply into your own thoughts.
This advice is a little different to what meditation and the self-help books may tell you. But it is based upon scientific psychological research exploring the real-life consequences of self-awareness.
Simply try to take your thoughts on yourself with a grain of salt. Just because your thoughts may be telling you for example, that you’re doing a bad job and you’re always right about these things, doesn’t mean you necessarily have to believe it. Perhaps you’ve always thought the moment I reach this promotion, finally get to live in my dream city, or find the perfect partner, then I’ll truly be happy. Once we obtain our expectations it may actually lead to stronger feelings of failure then if we actually never achieved it in the first place. A phenomena called cognitive dissonance*.
‘introspection’ – monitoring our thoughts, and gaining insight into our own thoughts, motivations and beliefs.
‘cognitive dissonance’ – discrepancy between an attitude and a behaviour. Or an attitude and a new piece of information.
Burton, L., Westen, D., & Kowalski, R. (2015). Psychology: 4th Australian and New Zealand edition. Milton, Qld: John Wiley & Sons Australia.