5 Things We Do Unconsciously To Make Ourselves Feel Better

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Last week my father walked into the house, carrying two long, thin light brown cardboard boxes. Yep, he just came back from Ikea, again.

He opened them up excitedly and took out a tiny little package of screws and a couple of long pieces of wood that would make a cute little bookcase. As always, he threw the instructions booklet to a corner and started setting up the bookcase by himself, (or at least made an attempt to do so).

As you may expect, he gave up halfway through setting up the bookcase. He disassembled the whole thing and started fresh using the instructions.

What my father doesn’t realize is that he overestimates his ability on assembling Ikea furniture time after time. He doesn’t want to admit that he’s not good at doing it without help, because it makes him feel bad. And it’s not just him; we all overestimate our abilities on a regular basis. However, we are not consciously aware of it.

This is called the self-enhancement bias. We want to avoid feeling incompetent, so we do everything we can to feel good about ourselves.

But what happens if you think you’re already amazing at everything? You won’t try as hard as you can to get further in life. You won’t see why you should make goals and plan for your future if you’re already great at everything. So I think it’s useful to be mindful of things we do unconsciously.

Here are 5 ways we enhance how we feel about ourselves:

  1. We only pay attention to information that benefits us.

Honest opinions don’t come that often. When we ask our friends and family to tell us truly what they think of us, we know deep down that they tell us positive things because they don’t want to hurt our feelings. However, when someone finally decides to give us their honest opinion, we seem to block out any unflattering remarks, and focus on their positive comments instead.

Every time my dad attempts to assemble Ikea furniture, I always remind him of the last time he tried to do it by himself and failed. Remember the TV stand dad? But it’s like he doesn’t even hear me. What I say goes right in one ear and out the other.

When he finally does finish setting everything up (using the instructions) I thank him and say great job. He does pay attention to my compliment and does in fact provide a response. Thank you, dear!

Social psychologist, Jeffrey Green, calls this error mnemic neglect. We avoid listening to negative remarks made about us, choosing instead to only pay attention to the positive things. So later on when we do try to remember what someone said, we mostly remember his or her positive remarks. How convenient.

  1. We selectively remember our strengths, rather than our weaknesses.

My dad’s insistence on doing tasks all by himself is not limited to Ikea furniture.

Is there an issue with plumbing? Don’t you dare call a plumber! I can fix it myself.

The fridge stopped working? Bring me my tools.

When I insist on asking a professional to fix the issue, I have to listen to him tell stories about how he wanted to be a mechanical engineer when he was young and how great he thinks he is at hands-on work, etc.

This is called selective recall. Our memory seems to work in favour of our good qualities and forget our bad qualities, in order to protect us from negative feelings. So if someone asks us to describe ourselves, we have many positive personality traits to list and may be a few negative ones, if any. My dad remembers the times he has proven himself competent at fixing stuff, but he doesn’t remember that time he ruined the vacuum cleaner.

I’m not saying he’s not great. He is a great handyman. But is he capable of fixing the fridge? Not likely. Do we want risk it? Not really.

  1. We take compliments as facts and refute criticism.

When we’re given a compliment, we don’t question it. But if we’re criticized, we get upset. This makes sense because being criticized makes us feel bad, and we don’t want the criticism to be true. So we look for proof to discredit the criticism.

One time my dad “fixed” the vacuum cleaner and he actually managed to make it even worse. When we told him that, he got upset and sought out different methods to discredit it. He emptied half a box of Cheerios on the carpet and tried to clean it up with the vacuum cleaner to see if it worked as bad as we said. He couldn’t even start it up.

Talk about sensitive.

  1. We deny responsibility for our failures, but claim credit for our successes.

Last winter I got in a not-so-serious car accident. The road was icy, and as a first-time car owner I had downplayed the importance of winter tires. My car slipped and I hit another car. For the next few weeks, whenever I told the story of the accident, I blamed the road for being icy, instead of blaming myself for forgetting to install winter tires.

Psychologist James Larson calls this error self-serving bias. Our shortcomings seem to be the result of another person’s mistakes or the world plotting against us. And our accomplishments are solely due to our own hard work and great wits. We can rest easier at night, thinking we’re not likely to do anything wrong.

  1. We criticize others to make ourselves feel better in comparison.

Although we don’t like criticism ourselves, we think it’s okay to criticize others. It’s funny how we are willing to make ourselves feel better at the expense of others.

This is another example of the self-serving bias. We attribute other people’s failures to their lack of insight, to bring up our own self-esteem. I must confess that I’m guilty of this. There have been times when I criticized people in financial trouble for their own shortcomings. I realize now that it can be easy to blame someone’s financial problems on their laziness to find work. But how about the circumstances that brought them to that point? Maybe they never had parents who supported them, or maybe certain life events left them in financial ruin.

Not only do we see other people responsible for their failures, but we also attribute other people’s successes to sheer luck, to prove we’re better than them. There have been many other times when I have witnessed someone in a great financial position. I automatically considered luck to be responsible for their success, and not their own hard work. How nice of me.

Being optimistic about our capabilities can prevent us from seeing the truth. Sometimes we need to realize that we’re not the best at certain tasks. Just as we need to realize our capabilities, we also need to acknowledge the skills we lack.

We need to be aware of our capabilities, to know which ones need to be enhanced or stopped, to be able to lead happier lives.

Please take a minute and use the comment section below and tell me about an ability/task/skill that you think you should give up or work on after reading this post.


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