When Self-Focus Becomes a Hazard
Self-focus sounds like a good thing, right? Particularly in our culture, we often hear of the importance of focusing on ourselves, our well-being, our health, our career, and our relationships. Heck, I even write about these variations of self-focus in this blog. But that's not the kind of self-focus I'm talking about here.
The self-focus I'm interested in right now has to do with mental focus - a concentration of thinking about ourselves that can take a variety of forms. Sometimes, self-focus is a good thing. It allows us to take stock of what we're doing well and where we could improve. It helps us get in touch with the complex thoughts and feelings going on inside of us that can get tangled up if we ignore them.
But sometimes, self-focus can become a hazard. When we spend an inordinate amount of time and energy thinking about ourselves - especially the things we feel we did wrong or the things we'd like to change - self-focus can turn into rumination. If you're not familiar with that term, think of it as brooding (we can all envision characters in movies that are brooding under a dark cloud).
Rumination can trap us in a vicious cycle of overthinking about something, trying to correct what only feels wrong to us (others close to us will most likely not even realize there's a problem), and then creating more self-doubt, inner conflict, and rumination. It's a major contributor to depression and anxiety, sucks our time and spirit, and can lead to unhealthy coping strategies. In other words, while self-focus can be productive, rumination can be downright evil.
A recent study by a group of French researchers distinguished between analytical self-focus and experiential self-focus. Analytical self-focus tends to be evaluative (Did I handle that correctly?) while experiential self-focus is more benign and introspective (What was that experience like for me?). The researchers had participants engage in both kinds of self-focus, measured their tendencies to ruminate, and the measured brain activity during the exercise. They found that those who ruminated (instead of simply engaging in self-focus) had less control over which parts of the brain were activated than those who were able to engage in healthy self-focusing without rumination.
If you find yourself ruminating over the past or your own perceived faults and mistakes, it's important to get a handle on this before it spirals into a more difficult mental health challenge. The good news is that there are strategies we can use to decrease rumination and increase healthy self-focus. In my next post, I'll outline some ways to do that.
Freton, M., Lemogne, C., Deleveau, P., Guionnet, S., Wright, E., et al. (2013). The dark side of self-focus: Brain activity during self-focus in low and high brooders. Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience, Advance Access. doi: 10.1093/scan/nst178