Self-referencing is our hard-wired cognitive tendency to use ourselves as the benchmark or foundation for understanding our experiences. We more easily encode information that we interpret as relevant to ourselves because this can help us attend to and remember what is most important to our survival. In addition, since we can’t get inside others’ heads, it makes sense that we start with our own perspective of the world.
You can check this phenomena out for yourself by bringing mindful awareness to your everyday experiences. When we observe our inner landscape closely, we begin to notice that we are almost asking ourselves a variety of “I, me, and mine” questions such as:
- What does this have to do with me or mine? Is this about me? Am I responsible in some way?
- How does this affect me or mine? Does this matter for me? Will this harm or benefit me?
- What does this mean about me or mine? Does this define me or change how people might view me?
- Does this make sense to me? Have I seen this before? Does this resonate with my own lived experience?
Self-referencing can be useful when it’s crucial for us to be aware of and attend to our own needs, so that we can show up in the world in a beneficial way. It can also help us feel empathy when someone is suffering around something similar to what we ourselves have experienced.
Like many of our amazing human mental capabilities, unexamined self-referencing can become a habit. It can become reflexive rather than reflective, such that we’re no longer responding to experience with discernment or wisdom. As the saying goes, when all we’re working with is a hammer, we tend to treat every task as if it were a nail.
The law of the instrument is a cognitive bias that causes us to over-rely on a familiar strategy. A real life example of this is in the 1950s, when antipsychotics were the only psychotropic medication we had available to treat mental illness, psychiatrists tended to treat their patients with these medications, even if they weren’t suffering from psychosis. As with many of our other habitual reactions, indiscriminate self-referencing is like playing the slot machines – only very occasionally do we get a big payoff. The rest of the time there is a cost.
Being overly self-referential can create unnecessary suffering in a number of ways. It can close us off to important information we deem irrelevant to us or that contradicts our own lived experience. Our dismissal of what feels unfamiliar to us can hurt our relationships with others. Elevating the self above all else can make us overly self-conscious and defensive when we worry about a risk to our reputation or take responsibility for things that aren’t really ours to own.
We probably can’t completely stop the arising of these hardwired survival reflexes – and since we live in a conventional world where self-referencing is useful, it might not be a good idea to try to do so. But, we certainly can learn to make space to respond to self-referencing with greater choicefulness through the practice of mindfulness. We can also train our minds to include the wellbeing of others whenever self-referencing arises, through practices such as lovingkindness and tonglen, in order to balance this potentially consciousness narrowing tendency with a more expansive view.
Hamami, A., Serbun, S. J., & Gutchess, A. H. (2011). Self-referencing enhances memory specificity with age. Psychology and aging, 26(3), 636–646. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022626