Self-Awareness and Inner-Turmoil

For the most part, I’ve lived by myself since Summer 2019, with a few several-month stints living with my parents, on farms, or in hostels interspersed.

I was on my own for the entirety of the initial phase of the Covid outbreak from early Feb 2020 through May 2020. During this stretch was when I first began practicing Qigong regularly, taking inventory of my faculties and abilities, and working on improving myself.

One thing that could probably go without saying is that your self-awareness usually increases when you spend so much time in solitude reflecting. However, what I want to draw attention to with this post, is that this self-awareness can quickly become self-rumination, especially when living in seclusion.

The Caveat of Self-Awareness

The seminal 1972 book, A theory of objective self awareness by Duval and Wicklund, the fathers of self-awareness theory, explains that when we focus our attention on ourselves, we evaluate and compare our current behavior to our internal standards and values. 

Thus, we can draw the conclusion that when we are made aware of our behaviors and conduct, particularly the poor ones, they are likely to improve, in order to align with our standards, morals, and worldview.

Individuals will be negatively affected if they don’t live up to their personal standards or in accordance with their morals, subjecting themselves to negative outcomes or feelings like shame (external or internal), guilt, or depression/anxiety. Therefore, they are more likely to engage in a particular positive behavior to avoid or alleviate a negative outcome, feeling, or trait—this is known as negative reinforcement.

However, as improving behavior or conduct is something exclusively up to the individual, the likelihood they will take the measures needed is situational, and depends on the motivations (or lack thereof) of the particular person. There is no guarantee that even someone who is highly self-aware will take the initiative needed for self-improvement.

When you live as a recluse and can hide away from society, it is extremely easy to avoid putting yourself in the public domain in an attempt to lower the probability of being exposed to social shame or guilt. Thus, making yourself only susceptible to your own self-loathing.

And when you spend so much time in your own head, chances are good you also can become the center of your own world. Though you remove the potential of exposure to negative outcomes from situations, or public shame, guilt, or depression/anxiety.

We must consider that there are two forms of internal analysis that self-awareness can improve one’s tendency towards—self-reflection and self-rumination. These distinct mechanisms for evaluation can be observed through the lens of a particular self-awareness phenomenon, the self-absorption paradox.

The Self-Absorption Paradox

This term coined by Trapnell and Campbell details the contradictory association in which higher levels of self-awareness are positively correlated with both higher levels of psychological distress and well-being. The determining factor for which of these results comes from the distinction between self-reflection and self-rumination.

In 1999, Trapnell and Campbell explored the self-absorption paradox in relation to private self-consciousness or attention to internal aspects of the self. They concluded that the relationship of self- awareness to psychological distress derived from a ruminative aspect of private self-consciousness, whereas the relationship of self-awareness to psychological well-being was attributed to self-contemplative reflection.

Lorraine E. Fleckhammer, Insight into the Self-Absorption Paradox

More recent studies which further explored this concept demonstrated a positive correlation between self-reflection and empathy and perspective taking, and a negative correlation between self-rumination and perspective taking. Self-rumination was also again shown to be positively correlated with personal distress.

You are probably at least vaguely familiar with the concept of self-reflection. This is the process of actively taking a mental inventory of past occurrences, thoughts, and emotions for the sake of learning about ourselves and attaining inner growth. It’s an excellent tool for determining if our expectations matched our experiences, and what we need to do to bring them into congruence.

On the other hand, self-rumination is incessantly mulling over past events, primarily those associated with negative emotions. But, rather than pinpointing where our expectations differed from our reality or how things actually played out (and making changes to align them), when ruminating the individual primarily imagines “what if” scenarios for their past experiences.

Self-rumination is the ugly cousin of self-reflection. It focuses only on the causes and consequences of problems, stopping short of identifying ways to remedy them. Thus, we are stuck in a carousel of negative self-talk, with no perceived tool at our disposal to stop the ride.

Rather than taking stock of and discerning the factors in our control that created the disconnect between expectations and reality, and what potential actions we can take to better match our expectations with the outcome in the future (self-reflection), fretting over or romanticizing how things could be different with no plan of action only creates stress and anxiety. Which I know firsthand can lead to depression.

The key, obviously, is to engage yourself in self-reflection, rather than rumination. But, how do we achieve this?

How to Tip the Scale From Rumination Towards Self-Reflection

Recognition is essential to pivot from the tendency of rumination towards reflection. Though they may be largely self-aware, for these individuals it is difficult to identify when they are in a state of turmoil. One thing that can really help lead to the realization you are tolling over your thoughts is a mindfulness practice.

Meditation also assists in being present, rather than second-guessing the past or romanticizing the future. And when you can be fully immersed in the moment, you become more conscious of your thoughts and actions.

It helps you detach—from both a particularly stressful situation or event, and probably, more importantly, your thoughts from your awareness, which are just creations of your sensory perceptions. Regular practice can strengthen this dissociation between emotions and awareness, and lead to the insight that your ruminating is irrational.

The positive benefits of self-awareness and isolation may certainly outweigh the drawbacks. But increased personal distress is also likely, depending on the individual, and is thus something to be self-aware of. 😉

– CC


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