The Self-Awareness Paradox
It’s very grey outside, and there is no wind. These tentative moments before a storm always seem to induce a particular kind of anxiety within me, as though my sentiment has temporarily bound to my environment, stagnating in uncomfortable silence as awaiting resolution in the form of rain or thunder, thought or emotion. Although not a sufferer myself, I hear that this climate is a common instigator of migraines. Whether that adds credibility to the hypothesis that anxiety is a tangible chemical reaction triggered by surroundings and not merely psychosomania, or coincidence, I do not know. But to be tilted so easily from homeostasis in the presence of something as impartial as the weather is to be vulnerable, and in a generation of stiff upper lips, it is a humbling reminder of the fragility of human existence.
The purpose of my writing today is to discuss self-awareness, and the paradoxical results that often succeed or accompany it. By self-awareness I am referring to a conscious and deliberate inner-dialogue or documentation of states of mind and body, such as my acknowledging anxiety in the calm before a storm. From the outset, such acknowledgements do have therapeutic value, for instance by priming the mind to embrace and control an uncomfortable yet familiar state of affairs, as opposed to allowing it to flood with panic through suppression or outright denial of emotive state, until overwhelm sets in and painful confrontation with reality is inevitable.
In our generation, we are trained to apply self-awareness to many aspects of life, ironically often without actually realizing it. For instance, the availability of free healthcare has provided the freedom to have symptoms monitored at our convenience, often for preventative rather than curative measures, allowing our inner hypochondriacs to emerge on a regular basis. This is further perpetuated by the internet, which facilitates not only the tracking, diagnosis and management of symptoms, but also offers micro-management in the form of fitness and calorie counting, social diary scheduling, and many other tech-driven life ‘hacks.’ Recently, these industrial miracles have become available as wrist-wear, requiring no more than a simple glance down so as to convey steps counted, calories burned, time spent moving, cardiovascular condition, sleep quality, and even emotional well-being. A simple ‘how are you’ has become a very complex question indeed.
The contrast between the acknowledgement of an unpleasant mental state and the micro-management of all mental and physical states combined is stark, revealing the potential for obsession and hysteria in the latter case, and probable collateral damage in the long term. Yet there is a potential negative that both have in common, and that may have subtly gone unnoticed: the element of comparison. In the first case, by becoming self-aware in the context of prevailing mental state for therapeutic purposes, one is either working towards an imagined ideal, or striving for an alleged, previous, superior state of being. One is therefore required to establish a standard to which all future states will be compared. Clearly it is risky business to pine after a fictional utopia, and I would not recommend wasting time in doing so. But what about evoking a state of mind modeled on an idealized previous state? Again, risky business. Neuroskeptic recently wrote a brilliant article outlining the tendency of human memory to have a pervasive emotional bias, meaning, in simpler terms, that one views the past with rose-tinted spectacles. Moreover, to pine after a previous state is to act out of questionable rationale, since self-awareness was likely not being practiced in that previous state, thus a concern that did not exist in that past state is now inevitable in the present, and consequently the two states can never equate, regardless of how much time elapses.
In the second case, by becoming self-aware through the cataloguing consolidated by an external medium, one is also lumbered with the comparison problem. As in the first case, a measurable idealized standard will need to be established, however the standard will not be self-imposed, but will be subject to the whims of others, if not subject to indifferent algorithms. In addition to this problem, one will also be burdened by comparison with other individuals, and may even be encouraged to use such comparisons as motivations to persevere with cataloguing. Worse still, one will be inundated with perpetually fluctuating comparisons between variables, where, for instance, sleep quality will be compared with fitness quality, or diet quality with social status. Simply put, in this context the goal of perfection is a near impossibility – variables are either unbalanced or inadequate and in need of improvement, or adequate, and therefore only able to deteriorate. Perhaps we have underestimated the value of naivety.
I have outlined the problem of comparison as a negative potential consequence of excessive self-awareness, but there are many others. The problem of guilt is another, for any time that a state is perceived as less than ideal one is inclined to question the actions and decisions conducted in the lead up to it. Perhaps the worst problem of all is that of empathetic capacity, which will inevitably decrease as less energy is spent in contribution to the well-being of others, and more on the well-being of the individual. Again, the reputation of naivety seems to have been unduly compromised in today’s world. The self-awareness paradox is, therefore, as follows: as one becomes increasingly self-aware (by my original definition) for therapeutic purposes, the potential for failure increases, which carries negative psychological value.
The solution? I would like to suggest that naivety has a hormetic value akin to endotoxin in the human body – it poisons its host enough to illicit a positive adaptive response, but is unwelcome in excessive measure. In other words, a certain degree of ignorance is bliss. How does this translate into prescriptive form? The answer requires another post, so stay tuned for an exposition of cultivating ignorance in the perfect measure. And don’t think too hard in the mean time.
By Emma Langley