In western cultures and increasingly in many other cultures in the world, individualism is the norm, where independence is celebrated. What we gain from this approach is a sense of autonomy and confidence which serves one well in a capitalist world where wealth is an important foundation for a prosperous standard of living. But our commitment to ourselves often goes too far, resulting in excessively high opinions of oneself and an indifference towards others, even those we supposedly love. We lose what psychologists call social capital in pursuit of personal success.
If we look more closely at how an imbalanced relationship between self and others might manifest, we see high levels of depression and anxiety, which have been exacerbated by social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. I feel that in our personal and work lives we also experience oversensitivity, reactivity, judgement and ultimately arrogant and destructive attitudes and behaviour, and I will aim to address a basic understanding of how this happens and what we can do to avoid the pain and destruction that goes along with these attitudes.
Anxiety, reactivity, judgement and arrogance are not necessarily a new part of culture, but I would argue that globally, an obsession with one’s self image seems to be more pervasive than in the recent past and also seems to be accelerated by certain social media platforms. Through excessive thinking about ourselves, our ideas and our justifications, we build a rigid and narrow point of view that decreases our ability to understand, feel and connect with others as we aggressively defend our personal world from any perceived attacks. I have experienced all of this on a personal level, taking comments personally where it does not serve me to do so, reacting defensively, speaking my mind too quickly, putting myself in a weak position and feeling a sense of guilt and shame later on. By spending a significant amount of time and energy building this personal world and viewpoint, we develop a tendency to quickly judge others when they don’t meet our standards, which limits our ability to consider alternative ideas and incorporate them into our own perspective. We become so entrenched in and identified with our own reasoning that it feels too risky to let it go and consider the perspective of others. I believe that this creates an inner world dominated by anxiety and an outer culture of ignorance, arrogance, entitlement and hostility.
If any of this resonates with you, I have found that the following tools are very effective in dealing with these tendencies of anxiety, oversensitivity leasing to reactivity and judgement;
By simply sitting in silence and stillness, using your breath to help you relax and to embrace relaxation, you can infuse your life with a sense of nonreactivity. By sitting in a state of stillness, you slowly become aware of a deeper dimension of yourself. These are neurobiological changes that take place without the need to understand, analyse or ‘be right’. In this state, overstimulation from technology, work, stressful conversations and events, as well as thoughts about past and future begin to slow down. Your body feels a sense of relief as you are able to let go of some of the intensity and heaviness of your thoughts, and as a result, things and people become less threatening because your internal world is not so elaborate, defined, delicate and temperamental. Arising from this tranquility is the realisation that there’s no need to take insults to heart, to rush to defend yourself, to quickly and preemptively respond to criticism, because it is OK to let things be and to allow yourself to relax. It is here where you remember who you truly are, what feels good to you and what you are aiming to achieve.
It is here where you can grow a true sense of self worth and humility, and where you feel confident in yourself and clear on your ambitions. You are also able to see the value in discussion and collaborative problem solving, instead of dismissing someone else’s reasoning because you refuse to accept an alternate possibility. Your acceptance opens up new possibilities. You become grounded in what is real – your body, your breath, your humanity. If you spend enough time melting away the distractions and the abstractions, you may become more aware of and grateful for the value of your experiences, people and comforts around you and for life itself. Over time, if you commit to a practice of calmness, you will feel more at ease with yourself, and as you come to know yourself through honesty and integrity, other people will sense this, as you present a more true and complete version of yourself.
Another tool you can use is a slightly more active form of self reflection, involving thinking. Here, your self awareness translates into a practical plan of how to move forward with certain aspects of your life. This should reduce anxiety and reduce the chance that you will be oversensitive and overreact to negative comments or attitudes, because you have a clearer understanding of what you want and how you might achieve this. Comments and opinions which do not validate your carefully considered sense of self and your plan become irrelevant. They are not aligned with who you know you are and so do not have power to hurt you. One theory of how anxiety operates states that it is closely related to tension arising from excessive worrying without the necessary action to alleviate the worry. Having a plan should serve to greatly reduce your anxiety, no matter how small or incremental your objective is.
You can also use your own insights to help others, leading to a third very powerful tool; compassion. By putting yourself in the shoes of others, you can understand why someone would behave in certain ways. You have now understood how you made a mistake, and thus you can feel for others when they make similar mistakes and even develop the desire to help others avoid such outcomes.
The ultimate result of practicing meditation, self-reflection and compassion puts you in a position to know yourself more accurately and make decisions that are aligned to your wellbeing, and the wellbeing of others. It may well provide you with the rest, clarity or inspiration needed to overcome your obstacles.
Many of my articles tend to converge in similar themes which promote physical and mental health, with the goal of increasing harmony and peace in your life, the life of your friends and family and in society. This is what I promote in my yoga classes through conscious movement, release of tension, deep breathing and self expression. The goal is for this to lead to a sense of purpose in everyday life, giving you more energy and clarity to achieve your goals and feel alive. I hope that this article has been useful and has meaning for you.