As a psychologist and fellow human being, I have seen firsthand (and personally experienced) how harsh self-evaluation and fear of how others might judge us become a major source of pain. Can mindfulness help free us from the discomfort of self-consciousness?
In a previous post about the Foundations of Mindfulness, we explored the idea that all emotions arise from three possible perceptions of inner or outer experience. We call these perceptions “feeling tones” and label them: 1) pleasant, 2) unpleasant, and 3) neutral. A pleasant feeling tone may be correlated with happiness, satisfaction, pleasure, desire, enjoyment, or comfort, an unpleasant feeling tone might be translated as fear, irritation, frustration, anger, confusion, or sadness, and a neutral feeling tone is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. The neutral state might be embraced as contentment or sufficiency by some, or rejected as boredom, restlessness, apathy, or emptiness by others.
There is a special category of more complex emotions that tend to emerge a little later in our development and involve attentional focus on the self. They require us to have developed a sense of the self as a separate entity and the ability to self-reflect. We call them the self-conscious emotions and they include:
Just looking at the labels for these emotions, we can imagine that they can cause quite a bit of suffering. But, this doesn’t necessarily mean they are all bad. Experiencing these emotions can be helpful in motivating us to engage in prosocial behavior. Feeling guilt can compel us to make amends, correct a mistake or right a wrong. Under certain conditions, people who lack the ability to feel guilt due to a difference in their brains have trouble controlling their baser appetites and tend to act in antisocial ways.
Like too much alcohol, self-consciousness makes us see ourselves double… – Alan Watts
The self-conscious emotions can indeed cause quite a bit of pain when they are out of balance and we react to them unskillfully. Excessive self-focused attention or being overly self-absorbed plays a role in a number of mental health disorders. So, a question we might ask ourselves is, are the self-conscious emotions absolutely necessary for prosocial behavior? Could we live well as a society without them? Or might it be enough to be more mindful of them and transform our relationship with them?
Cultivating mindfulness increases awareness of our tendencies, patterns and habits. If we can observe these proclivities with self-compassion and radical self-acceptance, we are afforded an opportunity to live more authentically. Authenticity has been described as letting go of safety behaviors (actions that serve to protect the ego) or “dismantling the caricature of defendedness” (per Frank Ostaseski and Roshi Joan Halifax). Behaving more authentically is associated in the research with greater wellbeing and relationship satisfaction. So, perhaps self-conscious emotions such as shame and pride aren’t actually necessary for a civil society, so long as we are mindful and respond with wisdom. You can check this out for yourself through experimenting with a number of practices:
- Reflect on a time you felt proud of yourself and notice what happens in the body, what thoughts and associated emotions arise, and whether there are any urges to action. How does this play out?
- Reflect on a time when you felt ashamed of yourself and again notice what happens in your internal experience of body sensations, thoughts, emotions, and urges. What is your response?
- Finally, pay attention to what happens when you take your “self” out of certain experiences – what is it like when you notice and then set aside self-referencing thoughts like comparing, self-judgment, self-blaming, and claiming ownership? How do things unfold when you suspend “I, me and mine”?
I release my parents from the feeling that they have already failed me.
I release my children from the need to bring pride to me; that they may write their own ways according to their hearts, that whispers all the time in their ears.
I release my partner from the obligation to complete my self. I do not lack anything, I learn with all beings all the time.
I thank my grandparents & forefathers who have gathered so that I can breathe life today.
I release them from past failures & unfulfilled desires, aware that they have done their best to resolve their situations within the consciousness they had at that moment. I honor you, I love you & I recognize you as innocent.
I am transparent before your eyes, so they know that I do not hide or owe anything other than being true to myself & to my very existence, that walking with the wisdom of the heart, I am aware that I fulfill my life project, free from invisible & visible family loyalties that might disturb my Peace & Happiness, which are my only responsibilities.
I renounce the role of savior, of being one who unites or fulfills the expectations of others.
Learning through, & only through, LOVE, I bless my essence, my way of expressing, even though somebody may not understand me.
I understand myself, because I alone have lived & experienced my history; because I know myself, I know who I am, what I feel, what I do & why I do it.
I respect & approve myself.
I honor the [sacred] in me & in you.
We are free.
– Ancient Nahuatl Blessing