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Leisure • Self-Knowledge • Psychotherapy

The Problem of Psychological Asymmetry

One of the most basic facts about the human condition is that we know ourselves from the inside, but know others only from what they choose or are able to tell us, a far more limited and edited set of data.

We are continuously and intimately exposed to our own worries, hopes, desires and memories – many of which feel overwhelmingly intense, strange, vulnerable or sad. Yet when it comes to others, we are tightly restricted to knowing them through their public pronouncements, to what they can or choose to reveal. The hints and clues we are left to play with are hugely imperfect guides to the reality of another person’s existence.

The result of this Psychological Asymmetry is that we almost always think of ourselves as far more peculiar, shameful and alarming than other people we run into. Our experiences of anxiety, anger, envy, sex and distress appear to be so much more intense and disturbing than those of anyone in the vicinity. We aren’t, of course, in truth really so odd: we just know a lot more about who we are.

The results of Psychological Asymmetry are loneliness and shyness. We are beset by loneliness because we cannot imagine that others long and desire, envy and hate, crave and weep as we do. We feel ourselves cast out into a world of strangers, inherently different from everyone we live alongside – and potentially fundamentally offensive to all those who might know us properly. It appears, in dark moments, that no one could possibly both know and like us.

We also get shy, easily intimidated by people who we assume cannot share in our vulnerabilities and whom we imagine would be entirely unable to relate to the petty, grand, perverse or idealistic thoughts that pass moment by moment through our minds. If we reach important positions, we feel like impostors, beset by an impression that our quirks separate us from others who have occupied comparable roles in the past. We grow boring and conventional, mimicking the externals of other people on the false assumption that this is what they might truly be like inside.

The solutions to Psychological Asymmetry lie in two places: Art and Love. Art provides us with accurate portrayals of the inner lives of strangers and, with grace and compelling charm, shows us how much they share in troubles and hopes we thought we might be alone in experiencing. And Love gives us an occasional, deeply precious sense of security to reveal who we really are to another person and the opportunity to learn about their reality from a position of extreme proximity.

To overcome the effects of Psychological Asymmetry, we must constantly trust – especially in the absence of any evidence – that everyone is likely to be far closer to what we are (that is, far shyer, more scared, more worried and more incomplete) than they are to resemble the personas they show to the world. We are fortunately not, any of us, quite as odd, or quite as special, as we might assume or fear.

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