The French philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” It was a simple and profound thought about the nature of boredom, self-awareness, and our endless capacity to distract ourselves with dumb shit.
Try it: sit in a quiet room with no distractions—no phone, no music, no television or podcasts or video games—and do nothing for twenty minutes. Don’t sing. Don’t dance. Don’t see how many push-ups you can do or trim your toenails or count the spackle on the ceiling. Just sit and be alone with your own mind.
Unless you’re experienced with meditation, chances are you would have a hard time doing this. Or, at least, it would be incredibly unpleasant and/or boring for you.
In fact, psychologists have tested this a number of times, and surprise, surprise… people really don’t like doing it. In one experiment, roughly half of a group disliked it so much that they chose to receive an electric shock in order to get out of it and exit the room early.
The Fear of Sitting Alone in a Quiet Room
What is it about sitting alone with our own thoughts that causes us to become so uncomfortable?
Pascal seemed to believe that our inability to allow ourselves to be bored—i.e., our constant need for stimulation and distraction—causes us to do a lot of stupid and harmful things, both to ourselves and others.
But there’s also a slightly deeper, more subtle explanation. There are certain characteristics of our thoughts and feelings that we don’t like about ourselves. Therefore, we likely feel a need to distract ourselves from ourselves in proportion to all of the unsavory stuff rattling around between our ears.
The more we deny or reject our internal world, the more we compulsively look for external things to occupy our attention.
It’s this self-rejection that leads to self-destructive behaviors, thrill-seeking, and addiction. And some of us apparently are so nonplussed with ourselves that we’d rather experience the external pain of electrocution than the internal pain of our own self-reflection.
What a… shocking conclusion.
3 Ideas That Might Change Your Life
How to Stop Being So Self-Conscious
There’s a fine line between healthy self-awareness and (often unhealthy) self-consciousness.
Self-awareness is the simple noticing and acknowledgement of whatever’s rattling around inside your brain.
You notice that you’re feeling angry. You notice that you are having trouble focusing. You notice that you think your co-worker’s story about their weekend is dumb and think to yourself, “Nobody cares.”
Self-awareness is like sitting on the park bench of your own mind, watching the thoughts and feelings and impulses walk by.
Sometimes, it’s a shitshow in our mental park. There’s trash everywhere, a bunch of screaming kids fighting with one another, maybe a crack addict rummaging through the garbage cans.
And this is where self-consciousness comes in…
Self-consciousness is the judgment of what is happening within our minds.
Noticing that we’re irritable on a Monday morning is self-aware. Worrying that we are an asshole for being irritable is self-conscious.
Thinking a co-worker’s story is dumb is self-aware. Believing that you are a horrible co-worker and a bad human being for thinking their story is dumb is self-conscious.
If self-awareness is simply sitting in our mental park and watching our inner hobo take a shit on the children’s slide, self-consciousness is running around the park screaming, “This is all wrong! Stop! Make it stop!”
Self-consciousness makes us more insecure and anxious because it attempts to hold our inner life to some arbitrary standard created by our outer life.
We judge our anger because we believe the world expects us to be happy. We judge our impatience because we believe the world expects us to be considerate. We judge our insecurity because we believe the world expects us to be confident.
The Buddha said that hatred was like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Well, self-consciousness is kind of like stabbing yourself because you think the puncture wounds will make you way more likeable to others.
The remedy to self-consciousness is simply more self-awareness. Just as you notice the irritability as an object of your attention, you then notice the judgment of that irritability as the object of your attention.
There’s the emotion—then there’s the emotion about the emotion, or the “meta-emotion.”
…and then it’s just turtles all the way down.
Boredom Leads to Creativity
There’s another benefit to being able to sit and stew in one’s own boredom: it promotes creativity.
Creativity is an area where people’s assumptions and the actual research couldn’t be more different.
We generally assume that creative people are wild, spontaneous, and a little crazy. It turns out that most of the creative geniuses throughout history have been routine-driven workaholics.
We assume that creativity comes from an exciting life full of hardship and challenges. In fact, it comes from the willingness to spend significant amounts of time thinking and being bored.
One of the ways to be more creative, which I’ve written about before, is to simply become more prolific. When you research the towering creative figures throughout history, it turns out that most of them simply out-produced their contemporaries by a wide margin.
To use a basketball analogy, it wasn’t that they were more accurate shooters, it was mostly that they took way more shots.
History then disregards their misses.