March 6, 2008
So the other night I got accused of being incredibly self-absorbed.
(The irony of taking the time to write up a big blog entry on protesting being called self-absorbed is not lost on me.)
This isn't the first time I've been accused of this. And it is a vexing accusation! To some extent it's of course true, but... I mean, are there really people out there so selfless as to put themselves way behind their interest in everyone else? That seems unlikely. Is the implication, then, that I lack the ability to be appropriately concerned for and interested in other people? That seems an unfair accusation! Or deficient in interest about things in general, I dunno, politics, pop culture, science, etc? That seems blatantly untrue. And despite all this, I'm willing to accept that there's a problem here.
So what is it? Previously I've heard it put that I have trouble talking without sentences that begin with "I" or "Me". I would say that to whatever extent the I/Me thing is valid, this aspect is going to be exaggerated by my rhetorical caution; I hardly ever assert something to be objectively true, I tend to couch things with things like "I think" or "It seems to me that". But that's probably beside the point, the issue is: I talk about myself a lot. (Like, that's what brought this up last night: it was a discussion where I tangented to mentioning playing tuba in church during a poignant pause (actually in response to an observation that something went over "like a fart in church" in a serious conversation. I was trying to be funny, but admittedly it was a story about me.) )
So yeah I talk about myself! I have stories to tell. But I want to hear every one else's stories too! In my interpersonal relationships I tend to have three goals:
A. I want to tell you my stories
B. I want to hear your stories.
C. I want to experience things with you that we can tell stories about.
To me this is a central part of the human condition.
Richard Feynman said that he didn't mind dying so much because "...When you get as old as I am, you start to realize that you've told most of the good stuff you know to other people anyway." Story- and Anecdote-related interaction is a side effect of my "Interestingness-as-Moral-Good" escape from the existential "why bother" hell I might other wise be in. You want to see cool stuff, and then through the power of communication, you can hear about other cool stuff you haven't seen, and return the favor.
But still -- some people, including people I care about, and whose opinions I care about -- see this as a problem. Even to the point of suggesting therapy! Which, as a way of fixing a problem of being self-absorbed, reminds me a bit of California fire fighters setting fires to try to preempt a larger firestorm, but I guess that's why you shell out the big bucks to be able to do in that magic 50-minute span.
As far as I can tell, this isn't a universally recognized problem; I believe that I have an OK relationship with others of my friends, possibly story tellers themselves, they seem to cope with how much I talk about myself and in turn believe in my legitimate interest in them. So is the issue in recognizing people who don't share this brand of mutual extroversion? And how then should I act? Try to tone down the quantity of anecdotes? Be more proactive in expressing my interest in what's going on with them? Just shut up for a change?
Would therapy be able to answer this question? Or is this just the symptom anyway, and therapy should somehow break me free of an underlying condition of needing attention the way fish need water?
I do value candid feedback on this, especially from people who know me in real life. (That I think is one of my positive character traits: I freely admit my flaws even as I consider triaging them into things I like the way they are, things I can change, and things that I don't like but know are here to stay.)