Reflections on self-obsession

By Kevin Delaney (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-12-20 10:10
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Reflections on self-obsession

"I suffer from accurate self-esteem," a miserable drunk announced in a New Yorker cartoon.

He may be in the minority. For if some recent psychological studies are to be believed, few people are qualified to judge themselves objectively.

Think you look good? Think again. A study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin revealed that most people, when comparing Photoshopped and unenhanced images of themselves, judge themselves to be about 20 percent better-looking than they really are.

"Although we do indeed see ourselves in the mirror every day, we don't look exactly the same every time," Nicholas Epley, an author of the study, told The Times. "Which image is you? Our research shows that people, on average, resolve that ambiguity in their favor, forming a representation of their image that is more attractive than they actually are."

So that stranger with the bedraggled hair, pallid complexion and bloodshot eyes who shows up in the mirror some mornings may be you after all. Of course, looks aren't everything. Moral principles are far more important. But before you congratulate yourself for your high-minded ideals and deeds, there are studies to show how we delude ourselves about that as well.

As Benedict Carey reported in The Times, "Psychologists have exposed the many ways that people subconsciously maintain and massage their moral self-image.

They rate themselves as morally superior to the next person; overestimate the likelihood that they will act virtuously in the future; see their own good intentions as praiseworthy while dismissing others' as inconsequential. And they soften their moral principles when doing a truly dirty job, like carrying out orders to exploit uninformed customers."

Memory, Mr. Carey wrote, plays a particular role. Research shows that we tend to lessen the import of our moral lapses as time passes, while accentuating our propensity for performing good deeds.

Of course, such benign self-delusions can grow into a more malignant form of narcissism. Nearly everyone has shared a workplace or family gathering with someone so pompous and self-aggrandizing as to be utterly insufferable. But when does such annoying behavior constitute a true personality disorder? The American Psychiatric Association isn't sure. As The Times reported, the organization is debating whether to drop its diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. The problem, unfortunately, is not a lack of narcissism.

"There's a lot of self-centeredness in the world, and narcissist has become an instantly recognizable type," Dr. Andrew E. Skodol II, a research professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, told The Times. Extreme cases of narcissism, he stressed, compensate for deep inadequacies and require a complex diagnosis, hence the call for a distinction from the all-too-common variety.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from narcissism is the malady known as body dysmorphic disorder.

Those who suffer from it so obsess on a perceived physical flaw that they often refuse to leave the house without covering their faces. Others turn to drugs, alcohol or compulsive cosmetic surgery, although when one imagined flaw is "corrected" another often arises to take its place. The best treatment, The Times reported, is a combination of cognitive behavior therapy and serotonin-enhancing drugs. In the therapy, patients learn to incorporate the imagined defect into a more complete view of themselves.

They might also be wise to heed the advice of an old adage: When looking in the mirror we are looking at the problem. But also, the solution.

The New York Times