This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.
Like it or not, our tendency is to see ourselves as the center of our universe. We perceive events as good or bad based on how they impact us. We interpret other’s actions as a statement of how they feel about us or what they are thinking about us. We act like it’s all about us. The perception that we are the center of our universe is also called egocentrism.
We tend to be most egocentric as young children. I’ve never seen this, but it’s said that if you catch a toddler at exact the right stage of cognitive development, and ask her why the sun rises, she will say, “So I can see.” Then, if you ask her why the sun sets, she will say, “So I can sleep.
As we grow and mature, the tendency lessons, but doesn’t completely go away. Some adults are more egocentric than others, but everyone has moments where they feel that it’s all about them.
The danger of egocentrism is that it can lead us to false and hurtful assumptions. Because we always believe our own assumptions, our thoughts, feelings, and reactions are based on them. The two most common problems associated with egocentrism are (a) perceiving disapproval, and (b) self-blame.
When we are egocentric, we perceive that others are thinking about us more than they actually are. We believe that others are watching us, and often, that they are disapproving of us. We imagine their thoughts about our appearance or our actions. Many people experience social anxiety because they imagine constant scrutiny from others.
The reality is that other people are too busy thinking about themselves and their lives to be focusing much attention on us. As an illustration, I will sometimes ask a student to tell me what their best friend was wearing that morning at school. Even though they spent much of the day with them, they couldn’t recall. Or I might ask an adult to describe the other people who were in the drug store with them, as they shopped that morning. They can’t recall anyone. I then remind them that others don’t notice them either.
A second problem with egocentrism is that a tendency to blame yourself for any negative life event. You feel like you must have done something to create the negative outcome. Of course, this may be true, but often, it is not. One common example is the tendency for a parent to blame himself for his teenager’s negative choices, without recognizing that there are many factors influencing the child. Another example is when someone treats us badly, and we assume we must have done something to deserve it. We may have done something, and should take responsibility when we have, but we may be innocent. When someone treats you badly, it usually says more about who they are, at least in that moment, than it says about who you are.
In Cognitive/Behavioral Therapy, we call our tendencies to blame ourselves personalization. We all do it at times, but it’s rarely healthy. Watch your thinking. Notice how often you assume others are watching you and judging you, even though you have no real evidence. Also notice how often you blame yourself for a negative situation, even though you can’t identify what you might have done wrong. Remembering that it’s not all about you can be a good thing.