Selfie by Will Storr: Summary & Notes

Front cover of Selfie by Will Storr.

In short

Selfie is a great exploration of personal identity, and specifically tracks the journey of how we became so self-obsessed and individualistic in the 21st century. This journey starts in ancient Greece, and makes stops in the Christian middle ages and with the self-esteem gurus in the late 20th century. Even though Selfie covers a lot of ground – and, as a result, sometimes lacks depth – it’s a very interesting narrative that shows how our thinking on ‘the self’ has changed over the centuries.

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Book Summary & Notes

All text between quotation marks is taken directly from the book.

The dying self

Social perfectionism: “your self-esteem will be dangerously dependent on keeping the roles and responsibilities you believe you have.” It’s not so much about what you expect of yourself, but what you think others expect from you. Not surprisingly, it’s a trait that’s also linked to higher rates of suicide.

“One of the most critical functions of the human self is to make us feel in control of our lives. When people are having perfectionistic thoughts, they’re wanting to feel that they’re in control of their mission of being the great person they imagine they ought to be. The problem comes when the mission’s progress stops, or, worse, goes into reverse. When their plan go badly awry, they’ll strive to get that control back. If they fail and keep on failing, they’ll enter despair. The self will have begun to founder.”

Increased social pressure and stress related to succeeding in school, life, and problems with body image result in a troubling growth of not just suicidal thoughts / suicide, but also depression, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, self-harm, and mental health disorders.

“We’re living in an age of perfectionism, and perfection is the idea that kills. Whether it’s social media or pressure to be impossibly ‘perfect’ twenty-first-century iterations of ourselves, or pressure to have the perfect body, or pressure to be successful in our careers, or any of the other myriad ways in which we place overly high expectations on ourselves and other people, we’re creating a psychological environment that’s toxic.”

The tribal self

“So we’re tribal. We’re preoccupied with status and hierarchy; we’re biased towards our own in-groups and prejudiced against others. It’s automatic. It’s how we think. It’s who we are. To live a human life is to live groupishly.”

An experiment showed that when we meet someone new, the brain records three main points of information about them: age, gender, and race. Babies apparently prefer people from their own race. Consciously everyone understands the problems associated with this, but our brains still divide everything in in-groups and out-groups.

This strive for perfectionism has its roots in our tribal history. Good reputation was not just necessary for not being abandoned, but also for getting ahead in hierarchy of the tribe. The qualities that the tribe demanded and hated were learned through gossip and tales.

“There are, essentially, four parts to the experience [of consciousness]. Firstly, you have the experience of your senses – the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the physical sensations felt by the skin. Secondly, you have your sense of hallucinatory travel – your mind can summon imagines of past, future and fantasy. Thirdly, there is your emotional experience – that constantly churning ocean of fear, excitement, love, desire, hate and so on that writhes and swells beneath your days. Finally, you have your internal monologue, the chatty voice that narrates it all, interpreting everything that is happening to you, discussing it with you, making theories about it, never shutting up.”

The self can also be seen as a story:
“It turns the chaos of the outside and our inner worlds into a highly simplified narrative, which, if we’re mentally healthy, serves to reassure us that we have control and all is well. For a person struggling with perfectionist thinking, of course, that voice can sometimes be more enemy than friend […]. These story-making processes are universal. All humans’ brains are structured in this way, because that’s how they’ve evolved.”

If people have an experience that is perhaps unexplainable, the story we make up usually builds on the cultural elements and ideas in which we grew up. If you’re catholic you’re likely to hear the voice of god, or interpret it that way. But this doesn’t happen if you don’t have a Christian upbringing

The perfectible self

A newborn baby is born with all the neurons in the brain it will ever need, but still it’s brain size increases with > 30% during the first fifteen months. This is due to new connections being formed, and comes with cognitive power – the ability to identify faces from all races, and even monkeys, hear tones in foreign languages, synaesthesia (blending of the senses). But very soon these connections start dying if they’re not used. “They call this ‘neural pruning’, and it works a little like a sculptor carving a face into a block of marble: it’s what taken away, not what’s added, that really makes us who we are.”

“The Greeks, more than any other ancient peoples, and in fact more than most people on the planet today, had a remarkable sense of personal agency – the sense that they were in charge of their ow lives and free to do as they chose. One definition of happiness for the Greeks was that it consisted of being able to exercise their powers in pursuit of excellence in a life free from constraints.”

“In many ways, we can’t help but experience our lives as story. And it’s not only the work of the confabulating interpreter that’s responsible for this. Because of the way our brains function, our sense of ‘me’ naturally runs in narrative mode: we feel as if we’re the hero of the steadily unfolding plot of our lives, one that’s complete with allies, villains, sudden reversals of fortune, and difficult quests for happiness and prizes. Our tribal brains cast haloes around our friends and plant horns on the heads of our enemies. Our ‘episodic memory’ means we experience our lives as a consequence of scenes – a simplistic chain of cause and effect. Our ‘autobiographical memory’ helps imbue these scenes with subtextual themes and moral lessons. We’re constantly moving forward, pursuing our goals, on an active quest to make our lives, and perhaps the lives of others, somehow better. To have a self is to feel as if we are, in the words of neuroscientist Professor Chris Frith, the ‘invisible actor at the centre of the world’.”

And this invisible actor, ourselves, is inevitably good – we feel that our values and opinions are correct, and that we are slowly moving towards perfection. We overestimate our skills, think we are smarter, wiser, and kinder than we really are.

“So the brain is a storyteller and it’s also a hero-maker – and the hero that it makes is you. But the hero it makes and the plot it shapes your life around are not created in a void. The brain is plagiarist, stealing ideas from the stories that surround it, then incorporating them into its self.” Meaning: the culture we grew up in, the ideas and religions we were exposed to. We use that to “help us figure out who we are and who we want to be. We use them to construct our ‘narrative identity’.”

“Scholars such as Richard Nisbett argue that the flat and fertile landscape of China gave his ideas a kind of pre-destiny. In contrast to the Greeks, with their islands and city states, and their concomitant view of reality as a collection of individual objects, China’s rolling, isolated, conquerable plains and hills produced a species of self that worked best as part of a group. It resulted in them viewing reality not as a mass of objects, but as a realm of interconnected forces. For the Confucian everything in the universe was not separate, but one. It followed from this that they should seek, not individual success, but harmony.”

This difference between East and West is also characterized in the stories we tell. In the west, in Greek myths for example, it’s the individual hero striving towards perfection. If they win they achieve great power and could change the world. In the east, since ‘the selves’ are different, stories are also different – it’s all about harmony. For example: stories that are told from multiple perspectives, with a twist that makes sense to all actors. Not a single perspective prevails.

The bad self

Prestige cues is how we can identify things of social importance. One interesting discovery was the human vocal band of 500 hertz, which is outside our awareness. But one interpretation is that this hum is actually a unconscious social instrument – the dominant person in the conversation sets the ‘level of the hum’ and the others match theirs to it.

Professor Brian Little on personal projects: everyone has around 15 going on at the same time. These projects can be very mundane (teaching a dog a trick), or full of meaning (achieving world peace), and in essence the combination of all projects is our sense of self (they are our self). And in order to be happy we need to make some progress in this story, in these projects or goals.

The good self

The first “self-help” book was published in 1859 by Samuel Smiles aptly named Self Help, and promised readers to: “to stimulate youths to apply themselves diligently to right pursuits – sparing neither labour, pains, nor self-denial in prosecuting them – and to rely upon their own efforts in life, rather than depend upon the help or patronage of others.”

“What Carl Rogers and the intronauts of Esalen couldn’t know is that many of today’s experts claim there is no authentic self. Rather than there being a pure and godlike centre to us all, we actually contain a collection of bickering and competing selves, some of whom, as we’ll see, are quite disgusting. Different versions of ‘us’ become dominant in different environments. It’s now often claimed the human self cannot be reduced to some ‘innermost core’. The ‘I’ is not one, it is many.”

“Our minds are just one perception or thought after another, one piled on another. You, the person, is not separate from these thoughts.” – Philosopher Julian Baggini

This lack of an authentic self, or a core self, means that we become where we are, what we’re doing, and who we’re with. For example, in doing a job, we start to behave like a model version of a worker in that job.

“It seems to me that self-loathing is what happens when our brain’s hero-making capacities become defective. When we’re happy, we feel good about ourselves, successfully pursuing our meaningful projects, making our lives and the world around us better. We’re distracted from the truth of our situation, which is that we have personal flaws that are deep and many, that our lives are ultimately pointless, that we live in a realm of chaos and injustice, and that we and everyone we love are going to die. When our minds fail to distract us sufficiently, all this can seem very close. It can sometimes feel as if we might turn our heads too quickly and actually see the darkness. Even in our most mundane moments […] the hopelessness of it all breathes heavy.”

“What the science of social pain beings to reveal is the dark error at the heart of individualism. We’re not solitary apes of cliché but a species so highly social that psychologist Professor Jonathan Haidt call us ‘10 per cent bee’. We evolved to thrive in communities, not out there on the plains alone […]. But when our cultural ancestors in Greece decided that the world, including people, was made up of individual objects, they unwittingly averted their gaze from our natural state of interconnectedness. The American self brought with it a wildly magnified emphasis on the power of the individual. The self was inherently heroic, now, and if you failed to live up to the heroism that was already inside you, you were categorically a failure. The age of perfectionism was coming.”

The special self

The literature on self-esteem – thought to be so essential in the decades after Esalen – turned out to be mostly faulty. Efforts to boost self-esteem did not increase school performance, or in other types of performance, did not help people’s likeability, relationships, and did not help to stop drugs or alcohol use.

What did increase over time was narcissism, measured through Narcissism Personality Index. In the year Vasco’s report on self-esteem had been published (1990), the scores were ate 14.65, but after that they kept increasing; in 1999 the score was 19.37, and in 2006 21.54. As the researchers, Twenge and Campbell, wrote: “Narcissism causes almost all of the things that Americans hoped high self-esteem would prevent, including aggression, materialism, lack of caring for others, and shallow values. In trying to build a society that celebrates high self-esteem, self-expression, and “loving yourself,” Americans have inadvertently created more narcissists.”

“If we are what other people think we are, and other people keep telling us they think we’re unique, talented and special winners, then that’s what many of us are going to believe […]” This is especially true for younger people, since their ‘self’ is still in the making. Research shows that parental overpraise leads to narcissism, while in contrast parental warmth of affection does not lead to narcissism.

The digital self

“We live in a time where market rhetoric, for better or for worse, and probably more for worse, has become almost pop cultural. People are interested in entrepreneurship as a general social value. They’re admiring celebrities for their hustle, avidly following things like which album or movie makes the most money or who’s the most highly paid. There’s a sense you go after corporate money, and that way you’re independent and no one can tell you anything. But what that really means is we’re allowing the norms and values of corporations to dictate how we behave in our daily lives.” – Professor Alice Marwick

This is dangerous since it continues the move towards individualism where a larger organism (government, companies) don’t take care of their people anymore. Plus, we look down on people who don’t make it, or judge ourselves harshly when we fail.

Inequality and its consequences might not be fully known, but we’ve now entered a period of change. Both left and right wing voters look at the economic situations and conclude that the neoliberal era & globalization is ending. “A voter with a right-wing brain […] is likely to instinctively blame immigration and welfare beggars. A voter with a left-wing brain will look at the same mess and see the consequences of shrinking government and an under-regulated corporate-banking complex.”

“One remarkable feature of this new discord is the language students are using to denote injury. They speak of challenges to their points of view as acts of ‘violence’ or ‘abuse’ which leave them ‘unsafe’ and ‘traumatized’. It’s as if their inner self, their ‘soul’, is so precious as to be sacrosanct. Also notable is the me-focused direction of much of their political activity. Whereas older generations protested in empathy with distant peoples […] today’s privileged, angry students seem far more preoccupied with changing the world for themselves and those near them.”

How to stay alive in the age of perfectionism

A big issue in the age of perfectionism is the immediate and harsh backlash against those who make mistakes (especially if they are public). This is cancel culture. And, as a consequence, people are more afraid of making a mistake leading to a vicious cycle.

“Our personalities help define the texture and temperature of our social worlds. The experience of everyday life is often completely different for people who are living side by side.”

“Personality is like a prevailing wind that pushes the little daily events that make up a life in a certain direction.”

“We have this very foolish idea that people who are successful are happy and people who are happy are successful. I don’t think either of those two things hold. It’s a great hubris to imagine we have any idea what it’s like to be anyone else.” – Daniel Nettle

“Storytelling is a form of tribal propaganda. Just as our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ gossip about selfish and selfless people helped control the tribe, by teaching its members to be selfless heroes, rather than the beaten, ostracized villains, so the same mechanisms exert powerful social pressures today. The stories of our neoliberal tribe insidiously persuade us that there’s an ideal form of self and then defines it for us. We internalize this story and this hero. We make our tribe’s story our story. We spread it around, in our own gossip and storytelling, becoming unconsciously complicit in the conspiracy. And then we try to become this hero – forcing ourselves into its shape, in the gym, in the office, on the therapist’s couch. All too often, we fail. When the plots of our lives stall – when they ‘fall short of standards and expectations’ – and we can’t see a way back to feeling heroic, then dangerous perfectionistic thinking can be triggered. We decide that we’re losers at the game. We feel self-loathing. We might even find ourselves contributing to the already terrible statistics on suicide, self-harm and eating disorder. But what these stories don’t tell us is that it’s all a lie. None of us are heroes, not really. We’re just us.”

“This isn’t a message of hopelessness. On the contrary, what it actually leads us towards is a better way of finding happiness. The first step is to stop believing the tribal propaganda. Once you realize that it’s all just an act of coercion, that it’s your culture trying to turn you into someone you can’t really be, you can begin to free yourself from its demands.”

“All we ever wanted was the illusion of control. But we have none, not really. And neither do the people around us who seem so intimidating in all their radiant perfection. Ultimately, we can all take comfort in the understanding that they’re not actually perfect, and that none of us ever will be. We’re not, as we’ve been promised, ‘as gods’. On the contrary, we’re animals but we think we’re not animals. We’re products of the mud.”

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