By Will Storr, Abrams Press, March 27, 2018, 1468315897

The title is clever but a bit misleading. The book starts off about about suicide (dysfunction of self), then on to a story about an reformed enforcer for the mob (deluded himself), and many other stories about history and people. It’s fascinating stuff. Storr is a great science writer.

I walked away with a better understanding of how the self came about in evolutionary terms. It fits in with a lot of other psychology I’ve read.

Will Storr was interviewed by David McRaney’s multiple times. This book was the topic of You Are Not So Smart #127: How we became self obsessed.

[k131] Today, over a twelve-month period, between 8 and 10 per cent of the entire adult population of the US and UK uses antidepressants. There exists the strong possibility that our suicide statistics might look considerably worse if the millions suffering from serious psychological maladies hadn’t been offered this help. And those statistics are pretty dire already. Today more people die by suicide than in all the wars, terrorist attacks, murders and government executions combined. According to the World Health Organisation, in 2012, 11.4 people out of every 100,000 died by self-harm versus 8.8 people as a result of interpersonal violence, collective violence and legal intervention.

[k163] If you’re prone to social perfectionism, your self-esteem will be dangerously dependent on keeping the roles and responsibilities you believe you have.

[k189] Another risky trait he admits to suffering is brooding rumination – continual thoughts about thoughts.

[k198] The self then blames itself for these failures, and loses faith in its ability to repair what’s gone wrong. ‘We believe it’s a feeling of being defeated and humiliated from which you cannot escape,’ said Rory.

[k207] 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.

[k225] Since the emergence of social media, the incidence of eating disorders and body dysmorphia in the US and the UK has risen by around 30 per cent.

[k246] All of us, male and female, are apparently feeling increasing pressure to be perfect.

[k352] So there’s self and then there’s culture. Two separate things. It’s the self that wants to become perfect, and it’s our culture that tells it what ‘perfect’ actually is.

[k533] Children start attempting to manage their reputations at around the age of five. Of course, in our hunter-gatherer days, it was critically important that we maintained a good reputation. Those who earned bad ones could easily be beaten, killed or ostracized – which would, in that environment, have been a likely death sentence. And still today, a core activity of the human self is maintaining a deep interest in, and trying to control, what others think of us.

[k590] What we’re doing is trying to control the selfishness of others, thereby maintaining the smooth running of the tribe.

[k596] Remember those toddlers who just naturally expected members of their group to share with each other? They weren’t surprised that a person would refuse to share with someone from a different group. Selfless acts are most often made on behalf of our people.

[k605] Because of our tribal roots, all humans share the basic principle that a good person is selfless.

[k617] As anyone who’s suffered from painful perfectionistic thinking can testify, we don’t only crave a good reputation amongst others, we also crave it with ourselves.

[k691] To begin to understand what happened to John, we need to consider just one facet of what psychologists and neuroscientists mean when they talk about this idea of the self as a ‘story’. Doing so reveals something important and disturbing about the human self: that it is built to tell us a story of who we are, and that that story is a lie.

[k735] The discomforting truth is that we all have interpreters narrating our lives, and they’re all just guessing. We all confabulate, all the time.

[k747] ‘When we set out to explain our actions, they are all post-hoc explanations using post-hoc observations with no access to nonconscious processing,’ writes Gazzaniga. Any inconvenient facts that don’t fit with the interpreter’s story are ignored or suppressed. ‘That “you” that you’re so proud of is a story woven together by your interpreter module to account for as much of your behaviour as it can incorporate, and it denies and rationalizes the rest.’ All this means that ‘listening to people’s explanations for their actions is interesting but often a waste of time.’

[k766] For the person struggling with perfectionist thinking, of course, that voice can sometimes be more enemy than friend: you’re feeling anxious and sad because you’re not good enough, you’re a failure, you’re a prick, you’re fat and ugly and you always will be.

[k1530] In order to be happy, then, we really ought to be living our lives as story. We should have a goal and feel like we’re at least somewhat successful in our pursuit of it. Suicide is what happens when the progress halts, robbing us of our hero status.

[k1709] From what we know now about the left-brain interpreter we can wonder if the play acted as a kind of ready made confabulation for Sigi, a makes-sense story that fitted so perfectly over the traumatic, shameful muddle that happened to exist in his head, and made him feel better about it. As historian Professor Peter Rudnytsky has observed, ‘The coincidence between his biographical accidents of birth and the Oedipus drama is staggering.’ And as the man himself was to write, ‘I have found love of the mother and jealousy of the father in my own case too, and now believe it to be a general phenomenon of early childhood … If that is the case, the gripping power of Oedipus Rex … becomes intelligible.’

[k1860] Adherents of what psychologist William James termed ‘the mind-cure movement’ thought similarly. James defined mind-cure as the ‘intuitive belief in the all-saving power of healthy-minded attitudes’. Mind-cure’s forefather was a clockmaker from New England named Phineas Quimby who’d become fascinated by ‘magnetic healers’ who claimed to have access to quasi-magical powers. But Quimby decided that, actually, their patients only felt better because they believed in the authority of the healer. ‘The cure is not in the medicine,’ he wrote, ‘but in the confidence of the doctor or medium.’ He began testing his ideas on the unwell. Writes Mitch Horowitz, ‘Quimby’s method was to sympathetically sit face-to-face with a patient, never denying that the subject was sick but rather encouraging him to “understand how disease originates in the mind and to fully believe it.” If the patient’s confidence in this idea was complete, Quimby would then urge the patient to ask: “Why cannot I cure myself?”’ In 1862 Quimby treated Mary Baker Eddy, who went on to found the Christian Science movement, which located the source of all sickness and misery in the mind. Twenty-six years later, a British-born suffragette named Frances Lord, who’d become entranced with the Christian Science scene on a visit to the US, published what Horowitz describes as ‘the prosperity gospel’.

[k2147] 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.

[k2156] ‘At its very simplest, a self is a way that we can make sense of the things that happen to us,’ he told me, leaning back in his chair with his legs crossed out in front of him. ‘You need to have a sense of self in order to organize your life events into a meaningful story.’

[k2181] Our lack of true authenticity means that who we are and how we behave tends to shift, somewhat, depending on where we are and who we’re with.

[k2229] The study didn’t only suggest we have radically different moral codes depending on our shifting states of self. More unsettlingly, it showed how poor we can be at predicting our own behaviour. We’re not one person, then, but many, and the people we are can be strangers to each other.

[k2237] What all this work suggests is that a foundational idea of the Humanistic Psychologists is simply wrong – there is no authentic core to us, no essential, happy and perfect version of the self that can be exposed by stripping back the repressing expectations of society.

[k2320] The problem with all this, I’ve found, is that the more you choose to be alone, the more everyone else wants to leave you alone. Isolation makes you paranoid.

[k2348] neurotic perfectionism. We’re those worried and anxious people who have a ‘massive discrepancy’ between who we are and who we need to be. We make these sweeping generalizations, about ourselves, so if we’re not efficient at a particular thing, it’s a failure of the entire self. And with this comes a lot of self-loathing.

[k3592] Following the self-esteem revolution, parents and teachers increasingly sought to protect children’s esteem by artificially cocooning them from natural consequences. One manifestation of this is the grade inflation that’s been reported in educational institutions in America and Britain. Between 1968 and 2004, SAT scores for college applicants in US schools fell – and yet the proportion of college freshmen claiming an A average in high school still somehow managed to rise from 18 per cent to 48 per cent.

[k3933] Every third photograph taken by an eighteen-to twenty-four-year-old was of themselves. ‘You’ had arrived.

[k5154] 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.

[k5164] Stopping the war of perfection that’s happening in your head is just the first step. Once you’ve quit trying to be who you’re not, you can make an assessment of the things you’re doing with your life. Professor Little, in his study of ‘personal projects’, argues that it’s crucial to understand our limitations so that we can pursue goals that recognize them.

[k5182] 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.