Self is an intervening fantasy that masks reality. What does this mean?
Perhaps one eats too much chocolate. One feels a bit sick. One learns not to eat so much of it at one go. Simple.
However, what may happen is that after eating too much chocolate and starting to feel a bit sick one feels bad about oneself. One passes a self-judgement. One’s attention is now no longer on the simple situation, but upon a question of self-worth. Self is an abstraction, whereas chocolate is concrete. Lost in the abstraction, one does not learn the lesson.
This is why the Buddha says that attachment and aversion are root problems, but conceit, which is a secondary superstructure built upon them, does far more damage and is more difficult to deal with.
Thinking that what matters is to raise one’s self-worth score distracts one from the concrete affairs of life. The reality is that one’s self worth, high or low, is really of no importance. It does nothing useful. Focussing on self-worth is a form of self hypnosis, an anaesthetic worse than chocolate. Why be afraid of real life?
Chocolate is a mild example. Self can intervene in all and any of our dealings with real life - interpersonal encounters, how we use money, work challenges and routines, many things great and small that make up the activity of life.
In simple life, action is followed by experience and experience by learning. However, if one is conditioned into interposing “What does this say about me?” somewhere in this simple sequence, the next step is disrupted. One is distracted into abstraction and the learning never takes place.
Another example simple to understand occurs in public speaking. One has something to say. One says it. People listen or not, are interested or not. That's all. If one is a good speaker one's attention is mostly on two things, firstly the content and importance of what one is talking about and secondly the needs of the people one is talking to. So far so good, however, as soon as self comes in and one starts being concerned about how well one is doing, one tends to lose one's thread, dry up, or even fall into a state of deep panic. Self-consciousness is the enemy of performance.
One is led into delusion. One starts to believe that one can or cannot manipulate self-worth and. either way, one becomes immersed in self-deception or self-recrimination. This can consume a vast amount of energy that is then withdrawn from real life. One can pore over the vast popular literature upon what to do about one’s self-esteem quotient, all to no avail. It really isn't important.
Addiction to chocolate is a bit troublesome, but addiction to self is a much bigger problem. Eating chocolate is somewhat self-regulating, whereas addiction to self has no limits and can be all-consuming.
Not only that, but when one is so addicted, one automatically becomes critical of others. One cannot help projecting the obsession with personal worth onto others and judging them, usually badly, for characteristics that one observes. Thus, if self is a secondary formation, judgement and blame is a tertiary one that not only causes trouble to one person but sows discord in communities and between groups, to the harm and detriment of all.
Concern with self may often have become exaggerated through the experience of being shamed. Shame is painful and one tries to avoid it. One may think that one can avoid the judgement of others by passing judgement upon oneself first. It only works to a very limited degree. Manipulating what others think, unless you are planning a surprise party, is a game that seldom works out well.
Simple is best. Such is the psychology of self that Buddha points out.
When life is simple, we do things and reap consequences. We do not pass self-judgements, we register results. Registering results we adjust behaviour. Seeing the behaviour of others, we notice that it is not always the same as our own. Sometimes we learn vicariously from observation. Sometimes we conclude that the other person simply has a different style from oneself and probably gets results a different way. There is no problem. There is room in the world. Isn’t it wonderful?
When life is simple one has a lot more available energy and in this great space there is joy. When one falls into the distraction of self and notices, the best remedy is to laugh. I laugh a lot. Buddha is probably laughing too - he always seems to have a wry smile on his lips. Let's laugh together.