Leary on the Curse of the Self

Mark Leary begins The Curse of the Self by imagining himself giving a commencement address in which he tells the graduates that in their lives ahead, “The primary cause of your unhappiness will be you.” People make themselves unhappy “because of how the human mind is designed.” That design includes an ability to self-reflect which allows us “to plan ahead, reminisce about the past, consider options, innovate, and evaluate ourselves.” But it also “distorts people’s perceptions of the world…prompting them to make bad decisions based on faulty information.” [Leary,2004, p.vi]

Leary’s book is about the self-inflicted suffering and delusions which arise from how human view themselves—a subject familiar to any Buddhist. Although Leary’s views emerge from contemporary Western psychology, Leary is aware of their convergence with those of the Buddha, who had what Leary describes as “a surprisingly modern view of  the self.” 

‘The Self’ Extended in Time

Leary uses the term “self” to mean:

…the mental apparatus that allows people (and a few other species of animals) to think consciously about themselves. …. Only animals with a self…can think deliberately about themselves, form images of what they are like (a self-concept), evaluate themselves (and react emotionally to their self-evaluations), talk to themselves in their own minds, and purposefully control their own behavior with some conscious goal in mind. [Leary,2004, p.5]

The ‘self,’ Leary writes, is an evolutionary latecomer, exclusive to humans and a select few non-human species in which it is partially realized. This is plausible under  a correspondingly exclusive interpretation of  what it means for animals to “think consciously about themselves.” If that includes the level of self-awareness required for mirror-self-recognition, and the ability to act in ways that reflect an understanding of the internal mental states of others, then Leary has drawn the line in the right place. However, drawing a line anywhere across the continuum of evolution makes it harder to notice important continuities that cross that line. The human ‘self’ is a complex entity with many features, some of which are very recent while other go a long way back down the genealogical tree.

My cat Charlie is conscious, in the ordinary sense of the word, when he is awake. He notices what goes on around him, and is sometimes exquisitely attuned to it. When he hunts, he shows every sign of purposefully controlling his own behaviour with a goal in mind–to catch the bird or rat he is fixated upon.  Is Charlie aware of himself when he hunts? He must have internal representations of his body—of its size, position in space, and kinematic state—in order to move through the world at high speed and accomplish his hunting objectives without hurting himself. I’ve seen him let a bird escape, then chase it across the yard in a blur of speed, negotiating the steps to our deck and swerving around a potted plant, then leap and snatch it out of the air with his paws. To succeed in this amazing feat (it really was amazing to watch), Charlie’s brain directed his body with great precision along a complex spatio-temporal path. It could not have done so without accurate internal representations of his body and its local environment.

What I have never seen in Charlie is much awareness of himself (or of anything else) at times and places much removed from the present scene. He stalks a bird; he lies in wait for a rat he suspects is hiding under the piano; but there is no sign that he plans to go hunting again tomorrow or next week.

People stand out sharply from other animals not in having self-representations, but in extending them to times and places far removed from the present scene. Humans can imagine and remember—they can construct mental representations of scenes very different from the ones in which they presently find themselves, and of themselves in those scenes. We are emotionally affected by the fate of our imagined selves in much the same way we are affected by what actually happens to us in the present. Our imagined and remembered selves thereby become a motivational focus that shapes our present behaviour. I’m not hungry now; but I know I’ll be hungry by dinner time; so I shop for food. Perhaps a tiger can achieve that much forethought, prompting it to kill before it is hungry. But my engagement with the future vastly exceeds the tiger’s. I will take advantage of a spring sale to replace my worn-out skis, although summer is coming and I won’t be able to enjoy them until December. Young people fresh out of university can be persuaded to contribute to their retirement savings plans. A young man imagines a future with an old man in it. Perhaps his image of this oldster is vague in many details; nevertheless, the young man’s concern for the retiree is sufficient to motivate him to make a substantial financial sacrifice on the retiree’s behalf. That is because he doesn’t visualize just any senior citizen in the future; that image represents himself. The new-minted graduate is ready to do battle with the world on behalf of the imagined senior in whom he has invested his self-concern.

This vast extension of the self-model in time gives human experience the unique features that Leary draw to our attention as the curse (and the blessings) of the human self. The words “consciously” and “deliberately” in Leary’s definition are not very helpful descriptors. The phrase “evaluate themselves and respond emotionally to their evaluations” is more definite, as is the self-talk. “Purposely control their own behavior with a conscious goal in mind,” doesn’t obviously exclude Charlie’s hunting; in fact, it suggests it. Planning for the future and ruminating about one’s past, both core features of the ‘self’ emphasized throughout Leary’s book, are what mainly separate the human self-model from the self-representations of other species..

A Terminological Quibble

Leary follows the usage of several other writers for whom the word “self” refers to a specific function, mental construct, or set of attributes typical of human beings. Leary’s ‘self’ is actually part of oneself – the part responsible for self-awareness and self-directed emotions.

There is another sense of “self” in which everything has one, as a matter of logic, as in, “The engine overheated and destroyed itself.”  This simple reflexive use of “self” is a useful bit of language which is not going to go away, and is our default interpretation of the word. “She embarrassed herself,” means that her embarrassment was caused by her own actions, not that some part of her (her ‘self’) was mortified by the actions of the whole person. The reflexive use makes the word “self” awkward, if not entirely unsuitable, for describing human self-representations and the motivational system. When Leary says things like, “Perhaps the most important consequence of having a self is the ability to plan,” it’s hard to avoid a double-take. On first reading, it sounds like nonsense, and the analytical philosopher in me cringes.

Yet Leary is swimming with the tide. Philosopher Galen Strawson, after acknowledging that “the substantival phrase, ‘the self,’ is very unnatural in most speech contexts in most languages” goes on to defend it:

[A]ll languages have words which lend themselves naturally to playing the role that ‘the self’ plays in English. The phrase certainly means something to most people. It has a natural use in religious, philosophical, and psychological contexts, which are very natural contexts of discussion for human beings. [Strawson, 1997, p 336]

Thomas Metzinger also uses “self” in the substantive sense, which leads him to say paradoxical things like, “Nobody ever was or had a self.” [Metzinger, 2004, p 1]  VS Ramachandran does too, in proposing “to examine the unity—and disunity—of the self.” [Ramachadran, 2011,  p 266], as does Antonio Damasio (“Removing the Self and Keeping the Mind”) [Damasio, 2010,p 162] In the face of these precedents from authors I respect, why should I buck the trend? Because the usage does not lend itself to clarity. Not only does it suggest paradox—which invites a shallow dismissal of the whole subject by those who want to dismiss it—but there is no consensus about what entity “the self” actually refers to. This leads writers on the subject to fruitlessly talk past one another, apparently disagreeing (or agreeing!) while actually talking about different things. To make progress, we need more precise terms; and to that end, I try to avoid the substantive use of  “self.”

The term I prefer for most of what we are talking about is “self-model.” An animal’s self-model consists of its representations of itself to itself. “Self-model,” in my sense, has a broader meaning than Leary attaches to “self.” Leary’s ‘self’ is (or is close to) my ‘extended self-model’—a self-representation extended in imagination and memory to times and places far removed from the present scene.

If qualified terms like “self-representation,” “self-model,” and “extended self-model,” are clearer than “self,” why is the latter so popular? Perhaps because it emphasizes our intimate relationship with this alleged entity, a relationship often said to foster illusions. The “self,” whatever it is (or isn’t), is something with which we are strongly inclined to ‘identify.’  ‘Identify’ connotes not only a deep emotional attachment, but a lack of distinction. If your ‘self’ is indeed only a part or an aspect of what you are, it is difficult or impossible for you to realize that fact (so say thinkers as diverse as Metzinger, Ramachandran, and the Buddha) because of the way your mind is constructed. (All the more difficult, I must add, if you insist on calling it your ‘self.’)

The self-model is the exclusive target of the emotional attitudes I group under the term “self-concern.” We ‘identify with’ our self-models, and ‘own’ their attributes.. Most of the time, we lack the necessary detachment to see the model as a set of attributes (partly inherited, partly contructed during our lifetimes), in the way we have come to see our inherited DNA and our acquired superfluous body fat. Calling the model “self,” without qualification, gives appropriate emphasis to the emotional identification, but makes it harder to see that there is an alternative. In fact, we don’t have to identify with our models in the way we do; we can imagine what life would be like without a self-model, or with a weaker (or stronger!) one, or with quite a different one from what we have. And it behooves us to do so, if we want to understand how the self-model works and influences our lives. “Self-model” does a better job than “self” of bridging between these two points of view—emphasizing attachment (“self”) but also introducing a detached standpoint with the word “model.”

When one is immersed in self-concern (as we all are at times), it’s easy to forget that there is any other way to be. Leary does a good job of reminding us that most people are not driven exclusively by self-concern; they are often quite free of it. He describes humans as “living in two worlds.”  One is the present scene, a shared, public environment. The other world is that of memory and imagination, the narrative each one of us invents, the saga of one’s own life.

Functions of the Self

Although Leary’s stated focus is on dysfunction, The Curse of the Self contains more about the benefits of having a self-model than its title suggests. The dysfunctional aspects of the self-model are what require explanation; most of its desirable features can readily be explained as the product of natural selection. Our self-models are what they are because they helped our ancestors compete successfully in the evolutionary competition with other species—just as did our opposable thumbs, our superior performance in endurance running, and our outstanding ability to communicate through language. The self-model’s failures must remain mysterious until we understand how they flow from the adaptive functions that enabled our species to thrive. Leary’s discussion of benefits illuminates the subject greatly.

As almost everyone who reflects on the ‘self’ has observed, one of its basic shortcomings is to make us unhappy. The human self-model is an engine of discontent. Yet from an evolutionary point of view, this is not a failure at all. Natural selection selects traits that promote survival and reproduction, not ones that make their bearers happy. Mother Nature wants healthy babies; if the parents are always worried, she doesn’t care. The price worriers pay for being winners in the Darwinian struggle is having to keep their guard up, and maintain the serious-minded vigilance which society praises as ‘being responsible.’ They must entertain images of disaster—their child getting into the medicine drawer or drowning in the pool; the hazards of losing their own livelihoods or getting over their heads in debt.  Evolutionary success is not about happiness, for our own or any other species.

Other animals, who lack the capacity to engage with the future as we do, can at times enjoy the bliss of complete relaxation and forgetfulness. When things are going well for them, they fall sound asleep in a warm place without a troubling thought. (My cat Charlie does this every day.) Humans are different. When our bellies are full and our children are safe, we go to work. In the midst of harvest plenty, we obsess about how to survive the exigencies of the coming winter, and we carefully reserve and preserve seed for next spring’s planting.

Is human worrying adaptive? Studies published after The Curse of the Self paint a confused picture. The Longevity Project, by Friedman and Martin, reports on the Terman study which began to monitor 1500 American school-age children in 1921, and has followed them ever since—most, by now, to their graves. Terman’s children are not representative of the general population, because Terman’s interest was in high IQ; all participants scored at least 135 on the Stanford-Binet test. For this select sample, Friedman and Martin report that the outstanding childhood predictor of longevity is conscientiousness.

The findings clearly revealed that the best childhood predictor of longevity was conscientiousness—the qualities of a prudent, persistent, well-organized person, like a scientist-professor—somewhat obsessive and not at all carefree. [Friedman and Martin, 2011, p 9]

Conscientiousness, which was the best predictor of longevity when measured in childhood, also turned out to be the best personality predictor of long life when measured in adulthood. The young adults who were thrifty, persistent, detail oriented, and responsible lived the longest. [Friedman and Martin, 2011, p 15]

Conscientiousness is a hallmark of a human self-model that is well-developed and extended in time. Attributes of prudence, persistence, thriftiness, and responsibility indicate an active engagement with the future.

Worry and conscientiousness are not independent, but are imperfectly correlated. In their study of the Terman children, Friedman and Martin found that men who were worriers in young adulthood lived longer than average, but young women who worried had shorter lives. Conscientiousness in women countered the negative impact of worrying on longevity, and enhanced the positive effect in men. Another study, by Mroczek and Spiro, shows a less salutary relationship between worry and longevity in men, finding that older men with above average, and increasing, levels of neurotic worry have shorter-than-average lifespans.

Although the picture is incomplete, these findings suggest that Leary is right in recognizing a pathological element in the human worry that flows from self-concern. In contrast, conscientiousness and prudence are, generally speaking, healthy and adaptive, however we may chafe under them.

Is the Human Self-Model Anachronistic?

Leary puts the origin of ‘the human self’ in the so-called “cultural big bang”—the period culminating around 40,000 years ago when the archaeological record shows an explosion of sophisticated tools and cultural inventions: well-shaped cutting tools and points fitted for hafts, boats, body adornment, representational art, the first burials with grave goods, and possibly also (this is harder to date) the first productive language: a communication system based on components (words) which can be combined into constructions (sentences) with brand-new semantic content which, even when uttered for the first time, can be understood.

Given that much of self-focused thought involves “talking to oneself” in one’s mind, there may be a direct link between language and the self. [Leary,2004, p.18]

Leary thinks the human self-model is poorly adapted to the environment in which it now finds itself today—an environment consisting largely of human artifacts, profoundly shaped by that very self-model.

…we modern humans are living in the 21st century with a mental self that evolved to suit the needs of people who lived in small nomadic bands on the prehistoric plains. Partly because the self was so good at what it did, we have created a cultural and technological environment that has rendered the self less functional than it once was. The new and very unnatural environment that human beings have created is so recent (at least in the span of human evolution) that the self has not had nearly enough time to catch up. [Leary,2004, p.197]

The self-model is adaptive, Leary argues, but not nearly as adaptive as it might be. He offers many examples of maladaptivity: including systematic cognitive bias leading to unrealistic self-assessments and consequent failure, impaired performance due to an excess of self-consciousness, obsession with future possibilities causing neglect of present realities, self-induced misery triggering self-destructive behaviour.

Is the self-model we have today actually better suited to the lives of paleolithic hunter-gatherers than to the lives we have recently created for ourselves? Leary thinks the ‘self’ was less of a burden back then, because hunter-gatherers can only engage with a proximal future of a few days, not the decades which modern humans set out to manage. He suggests that its dysfunctional side may be due to differences between our current environment and the world in which those representations evolved. With a lifestyle of hunting, gathering, and scavenging, our ancestors would have benefited from being able to look a few days into the future, but “had little reason” to look further. Nomadic early humans did not worry about the future ‘further out’ because there was nothing they could do about it. [Leary,2004, pp 21-22]

It was with the advent of agriculture that humans began to engage seriously with the longer term, settling and erecting ‘permanent’ structures, clearing and enriching arable land, always aware of the full annual cycle of planting, tending, harvesting, storing and protecting food until the next harvest, and preserving seed stock for the next one. When we started to farm, the window of our engagement suddenly expanded from a few days to a year or longer. After that, it was easy (and probably irresistible) to enlarge the window further. We started planning for decades, for generations. And although human plans often didn’t work out, they were successful often enough to give our species a marked adaptive edge.

But along with the ability to plan to secure a food supply for the foreseeable future came other, more troubling thoughts. Awareness of a timespan of decades led even young people inevitably to contemplate their own deaths—a familiar shadow over human lives, which falls on every four- or five-year-old who asks its parent, “Will you die? Will I die?” The first time we imagine our own death—or the equally threatening prospect of the death of parents on whom, as young children, we utterly depend—we as children feel much as we would feel if we were suddenly surrounded by a pack of hungry wolves; that is, terrified. If there is a moment when we cross the threshold of the human condition, that is it.

The human self-model drapes itself in the twin shadows of awareness of death and the threat of future privation. In his poem, “To A Mouse,” Robbie Burns expressed envy of the simpler experience of other animals. Although the rodent he addressed was in a state of abject terror, having had its nest destroyed, Burns knew it would recover.

Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But, och! I backward cast my e’e
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!

If we, like the nomadic early humans Leary imagines, only worried about the next couple of days, then our psychological load would surely be lighter—at least until we depleted our bank accounts! Then we’d have the kind of problems faced by the mouse whose nest got in the way of Burns’ plow—and given the specialized talents and consequent limitations of modern humans, and our now-enormous population, we would not solve those problems easily. Human existence has come to depend on our complex and committed engagement with the future. Leary knows this, of course. His claim that our self-models are maladaptive is not a criticism of the fact of our involvement with the future, but of its nature, which, he thinks, may be better suited to the simpler life of hunter-gatherers.

Leary leaves it to the final chapter to spell out how our self-models could be improved. We engage in self-talk—thinking about one’s own life—to excess.  While he admits that “the self evolved because projecting oneself into the past and future had adaptive value,” Leary thinks it has gone too far.

Most of people’s inner self-talk does not help them to anticipate problems, cope with difficulties, or improve the quality of their lives. [Leary,2004, p.187]

Leary recommends mind-quieting techniques such as meditation to turn off self-talk when it grows too loud. We can overcome self-flattering cognitive bias and become better attuned to reality by fostering healthy ‘ego-skepticism’—recognizing “that one does not always have an accurate view of the world” and being “skeptical of one’s own interpretations of events.” [Leary,2004, p.190]   We should also try to curb the knee-jerk tendency to defend our egos, blaming anything but ourselves when things take a bad turn. For that, Leary recommends developing an “attitude of self-compassion.”

Just as people may have compassion toward other people, to whom they react in a caring, kind, and responsive fashion, they may also have compassion towards themselves. ….  When  unhappy times arrive, self-compassion involves being gentle with oneself—acknowledging and addressing one’s shortcomings without undue self-criticism. [Leary,2004, p.193]

A good attitude towards others is the best attitude to have towards oneself. People who are not inclined to be tolerant of others, Leary says earlier, are probably afflicted with an inflated ego.

Leary’s final recommendation for taming the ‘self’ is to optimize self-control, keeping unwanted impulses in check not by exerting more will-power (which is exhausting, and doesn’t work well), but by defusing their triggers.

A man who has trouble controlling his temper may not realize that he often creates his own anger by thinking about situations in particular ways. Taking preemptive steps to quiet or change his self-talk, reduce the demands of his ego, or interpret events in more benign ways would be a far more effective remedy for a bad temper than trying to contain his hotheaded reactions after he is already enraged. [Leary,2004, pp 194-195]

If we “train the self to behave” this way:

…we are redressing the fact that we modern humans are living in the 21st century with a mental self that evolved to suit the needs of people who lived in small nomadic bands on the prehistoric plains. Partly because the self was so good at what it did, we have created a cultural and technological environment that has rendered the self less functional than it once was. The new and very unnatural environment that human beings have created is so recent (at least in the span of human evolution) that the self has not had nearly enough time to catch up. [Leary,2004, p.197]

Leary is undoubtedly right that the apparatus of self is primitive, and poorly adapted to contemporary life. The amount of energy we members of richer societies expend on narrow concerns about our personal futures has grown disproportionate to the real threats individuals face, while our concern for the world outside our backyards and the future beyond our lifetimes barely registers.

It is not the self-model, I think, that lacks sophistication but its emotional underpinnings. The human self-model—especially as it is extended into times and places far removed from the present scene—benefits from the most up-to-date  features of the brain, the cognitive abilities of the prefrontal cortex. Running a business, planning a career, and managing one’s investments are demanding actitivies requiring complex reasoning that utilizes a vast array of knowledge—the same cognitive resources scientists use when they make headway in physics, and engineers draw on to design the latest tablet computer. What’s primitive about the self-model is the emotional apparatus that powers it—fear, aggression, and greed. The fight-or-flight responses, the urges to dominate the group, feed, and mate, that motivate wolves, boa constrictors and peacocks, also push our own efforts, albeit along what are often more sublimated channels. People frequently buy houses that are too large and cars that are too expensive, whether they can afford to or not, in self-aggrandizing competitions with their neighbours that impede friendship. The emotional drivers of the self-model are what steer it in dysfunctional directions. Worry is fear that has become a habit—that is what drives obsession with a significant upcoming event past the point of productive thinking, producing fatigue, insomnia, and impaired performance. Pride gets in the way of our success, and alienates those who might help us. Self-consciousness causes paralysis and impairs performance. Feelings of shame, although unpleasant, are ineffective motivators for reform. Inflated concern for one’s own life alienates us from others and the wider world. The baggage of ‘the self’ is always its emotional burden; that is the obsolete anachronism which is overdue to be replaced by something better.


Damasio, Antonio (2010) Self Comes to Mind, Random House.

Friedman and Martin (2011) The Longevity Project, Penguin Group.

Leary, Mark R (2004) The Curse of the Self, Oxford University Press

Metzinger, T. (2004)  Being No One, MIT Press.

Mroczek and Spiro (2007) “Personality Change Influences Mortality in Older Men,” Psychological Science 2007 May; 18(5): 371-376

Ramachandran, VS (2011) The Tell-Tale Brain, W.W.Norton

Strawson, Galen (1997) “The Self”, in Martin and Barressi, ed. (2003) Personal Identity


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One Response to “Leary on the Curse of the Self”

  1. susan kahn says:

    This is such an excellent article!!!

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