Selfie. How the Perfect Self Became an Obsession

So, I went into that bookstore in Edinburgh to buy a specific book I knew they had. I took it from a shelf and decided to walk around the store and browse some more. Not that I wanted to buy any more books… But then, one title caught my eye: Selfie. How the West Became Self-Obsessed. 

The book had one of the ugliest covers I ever saw: a design that was somewhere between symmetrical and asymmetrical, no focal point, letter sizes that were different but not different enough to achieve contrast, and quotes. Quotes everywhere: ‘Electrifying – Financial Times’; ‘Brilliant – Independent’; ‘So interesting I literally couldn’t put it down – Sunday Times’. Wait a minute, who couldn’t put it down – Sunday Times? And what does that tell me about a book: ‘Brilliant’? 

But I picked it up anyway, and I’m glad I did. Because the inside is not only much better designed and typeset, it’s also one of the most eye-opening books about the Western culture, and culture in general, that I’ve read so far. 

It starts with a discussion of recent rises of suicide rates, and of their causes. The author Will Storr inquisitively searches for answers as to why so many people take their lives. A recurring cause that many researchers notice is feeling like a failure. Not being able to stand up to other people’s expectations. 

To be honest, that beginning did it for me. If someone gave me a book about perfectionism and how it’s a product of our culture, I’d probably shrug it off saying, ‘Yeah, perfectionism. That annoying personality trait. I know a thing or two about it, I don’t need that book’. But Selfie is a book that digs deeper into that, linking perfectionism to suicidality, and then uncovering the historical, scientific and economical turns of events that have made us prone to a fatal kind of perfectionism, and encouraging readers to give some thought to their own feelings of not being good enough, to notice and question the cultural forces that make us feel like that.  

So yeah, after that first chapter, I was in for putting my other activities aside, and coming back from work just to spend evenings reading, for a few weeks. Much like the mysterious, anonymous ‘I’ from Sunday Times quoted on the cover. Did I mention I hate these kinds of quotes?… 

Anyway, since we’re talking about ‘I’… this book does a good job of explaining how it came about that the Western cultures are so centred on the ‘I’, so individualistic when compared to more collective Eastern cultures. Using John Pridmore, the gangster-turned-Christian preacher as a vivid example, it explores the tribal mechanisms that still function within contemporary societies, defining what makes a person a valuable member of a group, how to get along in a group, and how to get ahead of its other members to improve one’s status. Then it jumps right into a discussion of the origins of individualism – the ancient Greek idea that a person is distinct from other objects in the world and, more importantly, that every person is perfectible. 

And so it goes on through centuries, shedding light on various cultural, religious, and economical factors that influenced the contemporary conception of the ‘I’. I am good if I am free. I am good if I am devout. I am good if I am authentic. I am good if I am self-reliant. The author makes a point of keeping in mind that the self is a construct, a story people tell themselves. In itself, it’s never stable or easy to define; even our own feelings aren’t so: 

Since I’d learned about confabulation, it had become almost second nature to watch my feelings as I was experiencing them with a kind of alienated squint. I was aware, and increasingly suspicious, of the separation between the things I felt and the voice that interpreted those feelings. We really are, as people sometimes glibly say, a mystery to ourselves. I’d wake up, every now and then, feeling unaccountably happy and whereas once I’d have confabulated a reason why, I no longer bothered. It was the same when I’d wake feeling down. What’s the matter with me? Why am I in this mood? I have no idea. So I’d just sit in it, gormlessly, like a dog in a puddle. [1]

So we confabulate. We make up stories to help ourselves make sense of what happens and… we compare our stories to the perfect one; the one where the hero always wins, be it by appearing cooler than the other guy, going to heaven, or succeeding financially. We find it hard to believe that life isn’t necessarily a story, or that we’re not heroes. 

And that’s fine, I guess. But… ever since I learned about confabulation, I’m not so confident in my beliefs about myself either. I mean, I still believe certain things to be true about myself, but I’m also aware that these are… just beliefs. I may think of myself as a good friend, but that’s because most of the time, I just don’t think about those few things I did that were anything but friendly towards my friends. You know what I mean? I guess I just construct a sort of cosy idea of myself to feel better about myself, sometimes. 

Back to the book, though. What I appreciated most was the thorough research carried on by the author, the many telephone calls and consultations he had with psychologists, sociologists and other people involved in building and/or analysing the contemporary idea of self, the hours he spent in libraries trying to track down events that have led the Western society to internalize its particular idea of a perfect self. And another thing: that all those people, their lives and ideas, and even places they inhabited, really come to life on the pages of this book. Here are some excerpts describing the Pluscarden Abbey and Father Martin, which I found especially memorable because Scotland: 

It was an early evening in April when my taxi halted outside Pluscarden Abbey, its engine cutting out to silence. My search for the self had had me out of bed before dawn and now, hours later, I’d ended up in a remote Scottish valley, tired and lost. We’d first pulled up outside a low building just off the road that meandered through the landscape, but that had turned out to be the women’s quarters. I was shooed away by a flustered lady in a woolly green jumper. My taxi drove on, at a respectful pace, past ploughed fields that ran with pheasants and rows of simple wooden grave markers, to the main abbey building, where it dropped me off before zooming back to twenty-first-century Elgin. I found myself in the quiet, utterly alone. (…) 

I’d chosen Pluscarden to look for answers because the connection these monks had to this period in our history [Antiquity – note from myself] was extraordinarily direct. There’d been a monastery here since 1290. (…)

Wandering around the abbey grounds, I saw empty benches, beehives along a distant hedge and a pile of torn guts in the grass, presumably left by a cat. Eventually I found a door at a side building that said it was for visitors on retreat. I knocked and stood back, looking up at it. Wondering about calling someone, I pulled out my phone. No reception. The wind barrelled down from pine forests in the hills above me and, huddling into my coat, I decided to approach the abbey itself. It was vast: pale stone with soaring arched windows, the structure itself the shape of a gigantic crucifix, shadows casting long across the grounds. Hearing footsteps behind me, I turned. And there it was, a vision from seven hundred years ago, a hurrying wraith, a phantom from the medieval, in a rough habit and sandals. He was a portly man, perhaps in his sixties, in off-white robes, large cuffs flapping around his arms, a rope around his middle, mud stains on his hem, pale-faced and slightly out of breath. (…)

My eyes flicked back to the crucifix above my bed … there he was, dying Jesus, looking just as he did in the churches of my youth, with his nearly naked perfect body – pecs, abs, pelvic v-line, his thighs and biceps straining with sexy agony. This ‘son of God’ might have been born in the Middle East, but in his nudity, appearance and spectacular display of kalokagathia, he was also as Greek as Hercules. (…)

‘So you’re singing the same psalms again and again and you’re growing veg for fourteen years and you’re never bored?’

Martin looked into the corner of the room, apparently searching for an answer that might prove helpful to me. ‘You … um … you can become distracted,’ he offered. ‘You can get so into something that you lose who it’s for. Unfortunately that can go for even the worship. I sometimes get intrigued by the mechanics of singing. That often distracts me from the praise aspect. It might even, but hopefully doesn’t, nullify it totally. One of the main dangers for those who really get their teeth into the mass and the asceticism and all that is that the Devil has a go at the vanity and vainglory aspect.’

‘So you’re thinking, “I’m the best monk”?’

‘Exactly!’ he said. ‘“I fast more than anybody else.” And when it’s my turn to cook and someone says, “That was really good,” I think, “Oh!”’

‘And that’s the Devil?’

‘Yes! Yes! He’s nullifying the whole thing!’ (…)

If the job of the self is to give us a feeling of control over our unpredictable selves and our chaotic environment, it sounded as if there was something in Father Martin’s character that needed this feeling especially badly. He seemed like a person who was unusually fearful of change. I wondered it that was why he’d been so powerfully drawn to this life of maximum predictability.

I wondered, too, about the ultimate point of his lifetime of self-obsession. During my week at the abbey, I’d detected the presence of the Greeks in Christianity’s inherent belief in reason and progress, in its struggle towards personal perfection and in its near-naked, kalokagathia-filled images of its top celebrity, Jesus Christ. But I also had a growing suspicion that Christianity and the monastic life might be more badly, Greekly individualistic than even that. For thinkers like Aristotle, the ultimate point of self-pursuit was that a person would be of more value to their community. But didn’t these monks essentially believe that by doing the right thing they’d earn a fabulous future reward for themselves? Could it really be true that beneath all the outward humility and subservience there was a cold, steel heart of self-interest?

‘Are your activities here a kind of attempt to prepare for the afterlife?’ I asked, before I left.

‘Yes, indeed.’ He pointed upwards. ‘It’s a school for there.’

‘So you struggle and sacrifice here in order to obtain a better life in the future?’

‘That’s right,’ he said. ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ [2]

The book also touches on the issue of improving oneself through therapy, which I think is important for anyone who, like me, sought to address their imperfections in this way. Having read and interviewed psychologists from the field of personality studies, the author learned that personality traits, to some extent, are stable, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change anything about ourselves. On the contrary, there are ways of improving our relationships with ourselves and with others, learning healthier behaviours and putting in effort to achieve reasonable dreams. But some dreams just aren’t reasonable. Says behavioural scientist Daniel Nettle: 

’We have this culture in which you beat yourself up if you’re not perfect (…) We endorse the supposed effectiveness of therapy. Everyone thinks they can sort themselves out. But I think there is a naivety about that. If you’re a more introverted person, or more neurotic, let yourself off the hook. Give yourself a break. It’s bad enough, all this shit we have to take responsibility for, without also taking responsibility for being screwed up. I’m not advocating the kind of fatalism of, “I find it difficult getting to work on time so I’m not going to try.” It’s worth getting to work on time. But imagining you’re going to be the kind of person who’s going to get up three hours before work and bake wholemeal bread is kind of senseless.’ [3]

So yeah. Overall, lots to chew on. Go read this book. But before you do, I’ll leave you with two final quotes that say it all, this time from the author: 

One of the dictums that defines our culture is that we can be anything we want to be – to win the neoliberal game we just have to dream, to put our minds to it, to want it badly enough. This message leaks out to us from seemingly everywhere in our environment: at the cinema, in heart-warming and inspiring stories we read in the news and social media, in advertising, in self-help books, in the classroom, on television. We internalize it, incorporating it into our sense of self. But it’s not true. It is, in fact, the dark lie at the heart of the age of perfectionism. It’s the cause, I believe, of an incalculable quotient of misery. Here’s the truth that no million-selling self-help book, famous motivational speaker, happiness guru or blockbusting Hollywood screenwriter seems to want you to know. You’re limited. Imperfect. And there’s nothing you can do about it. [4]

This isn’t a message of hopelessness. On the contrary, what it actually leads us towards is a better way of finding happiness. The first step is to stop believing the tribal propaganda. Once you realize that it’s all just an act of coercion, that it’s your culture trying to turn you into someone you can’t really be, you can begin to free yourself from its demands. Since I learned that low agreeableness and high neuroticism are relatively stable facets of my personality, rather than signs of some shameful psychological impurity, I’ve stopped berating myself so frequently. My head is now a much calmer place to be. I’ve even, perhaps ironically, become happier. [5]

***

Will Storr is a longform journalist and novelist. His features have appeared in various publications, including Guardian Weekend, The Times Magazine, Observer Magazine, GQ, Marie Claire and the Sydney Morning Herald. He is a contributing editor at Esquire magazine. He has been named New Journalist of the Year and Feature Writer of the Year, and has won a National Press Club award for excellence. In 2012 he was presented with the One World Press award and the Amnesty International award for his work on sexual violence against men. In 2013, his BBC radio series ‘An Unspeakable Act’ won the AIB award for best investigative documentary. [6]

*** 

[1] Will Storr, Selfie. How the West Became Self-Obsessed. Picador, 2018. Pages 89-90.
[2] Op. cit. Chapter “The Bad Self”, pages 87-109.
[3] Op. cit. Page 326.
[4] Op. cit. Page 317.
[5] Op. cit. Page 332.
[6] Op. cit. The author’s bio.

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Someone Unlike You

In my recent post, I recommended reading Laney’s The Introvert Advantage. The book offers advice and support to the “temperamental minority” of introverts, who make up roughly a quarter of the general population. It emphasizes that the western culture puts introverts at a disadvantage because it’s the extrovert traits that are promoted and encouraged everywhere. It brings to light the prejudice and misunderstanding that surrounds introversy, the shaming and rejection of introvert traits by the extroverted majority.

It’s all true enough but it got me thinking about the other prejudice that you can see some introverts hold: that directed against the extroverted majority. It’s barely noticeable among people – after all, it’s only held by a portion of a minority. But when an introvert talks to another introvert, you may hear critical remarks about extroverted people. “Why are they so loud? Why can’t they stop talking? Why don’t they think properly before doing something? And what’s with this habit of ‘thinking out loud’, why on earth can’t they think like normal people?”

And when the phrase “normal people” enters the stage, it’s usually a sign of some kind of prejudice. Don’t take me wrong: prejudice is just a thing that happens when we don’t know enough about the Other to empathize with them. It’s about a lack of understanding, and it’s about taking the shortest path to classifying the Other somehow. The introverts who don’t understand, criticize, or even reject extrovert traits (I’ve never met with shaming in this context), do this because they never put any effort into trying to understand introvert behaviour, or they did but found it too hard.

Photo of snow flakes by Aaron Burder
Photo by Aaron Burder

And it’s fine! We are different, and differences are sometimes really hard to get one’s head around. I wouldn’t blame another introvert for failing to acknowledge the benefits of thinking out loud – damnit, I can’t grasp this concept myself. But I wouldn’t blame a more extroverted person for thinking it weird to “keep so quiet all the time,” either. Everyone has their limitations when it comes to understanding otherness, and having a prejudice in the first place doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. We hold prejudices because they’re helpful in going about our lives without stopping and thinking about everything that surprises us about other people. In a way, prejudices help us make sense of the human world.

Most of the time they are wrong, though, because we came by them in ways that were too easy: we inherited them from our parents; we took them over from friends who travel abroad more often; we heard them on the radio from a guy whose voice always seemed trustworthy to us; or we formed them ourselves from what little experience we had with a particular group of people. Still, it’s not a crime to have prejudices. It’s just such a shame not to examine them when presented with contrary information, and to hold on to them when confronted with people as they are – in all their beautiful variety.

Because when you stand by your prejudices like they’re some holy text, you shut your mind off from innumerable possibilities to understand more of the world. And you also get really, really, really difficult to listen to.

I have more prejudices than just the prejudice against extroverted people, and I think I’m more or less aware of each. I could write pages and pages about them, but it’s not the point. The point is that life gives us opportunities to learn new facts, think and re-think whatever prejudices we hold, and change our minds if we decide to do so. For example, by reading The Introvert Advantage, I learned something about differences in human temperament, and started to shift from the kind of outlook on extroversy where “extroverts just sort of do stupid things for no reason” to one where… everybody’s different, and that’s fine.

I encourage you to use your opportunities. So go out and talk to someone, or stay in and watch a documentary, or read a book about somone unlike you. It’s worthwhile. I promise.