Teaching and Learning Self-forgetfulness

by | Sep 25, 2020 | Self-Transformation | 0 comments

“There is joy in self-forgetfulness. So I try to make the light in others’ eyes my sun, the music in others’ ears my symphony, the smile on others’ lips my happiness”–Helen Keller (1966).

Self-forgetfulness, defined as the ability to put the interests of the good of others before one’s own immediate gratifications and wants (Bohlke, 2004), leads to the development of the self in relation to others and assumes an integral role in the development of higher order consciousness. Developing self-forgetfulness leads toward discovery of the individual self through connecting with and for others. We become our more fulfilled and engaged selves by developing that aspect of the self that is of and for others. Self-categorization theory defines this social identity as our collective self-asserting that group–level processes mediate self-categorization and cognition (Turner, Oakes, & Haslam, 1994).

The promotion of self-forgetfulness does not deny the role of personal identity, that unique set of characteristics, thoughts, feelings, and actions that make us all different from one another. The promotion of self-forgetfulness acknowledges one’s social identity as a formative component of class, race, culture, language, values and beliefs, those structures and rituals in our lives that constitute life meaning.

Self-forgetfulness does not imply weakness nor a nullification of the self. Contrary to what one might think, few link timidity, unassertiveness or quietness to self-forgetfulness (Bolt, 2004). Self-forgetfulness provides a foundation for engagement in meaningful and productive living. It is developed and nurtured in the context of taking responsibility for others and for the self. In so far as one is able to recognize the contributions, merits and value of another, one is developing self-forgetfulness. As this shared social identity becomes more salient, the sense of the individual self is let go (Turner, Oakes, & Haslam, 1994).

Humility facilitates the capacity to develop self-forgetfulness (Bolt, 2004a). Research shows that humility is generally seen as a human strength allied with positive characteristics such as kindness or caring toward others, self-sacrifice, competence, and intelligence (Bolt, 2004). It is generally viewed as an admirable and cherished characteristic in leadership, with a somewhat elusive nature. In Bolt’s (2004b) work on human strengths, he noted that once we think we have achieved a degree of humility, or the capacity to forget oneself, by definition, we have to one degree or another violated its attainment. Self-forgetfulness makes way for an objective understanding of one’s own strengths and weaknesses.

The evolution of the human species reveals mankind’s predisposition to move in the direction of creating community. Human nature is inclined to cooperate in the context of shared social tasks (Gintis, Henrich, Bowles, Boyd, & Fehr, 2008). Non-cooperation is an aberration from the historical evolutionary context of human experience. Human morality is a key evolutionary adaptation on which human social behavior has taken shape (Gintis, et al, 2008).  Ethical behavior is not inherently tied toward personal gain. Higher order consciousness moves us away from instant gratification and short term happiness and into acts associated with delayed gratifications and long lasting happiness (Spitzer & Bernhoft, 2000). As a species, we take joy in acting ethically, in “doing the right thing”. Acting unethically towards others evokes pain and a sense of harm (Gintis, et al, 2008).

Central to the social change efforts of Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent action are practices embodying self-forgetfulness and renunciation (Mahatma & Fischer, 2002). Many social justice initiatives deploy nonviolence as a powerful tool to confront injustice and develop individual and collective capacity to work on behalf of interests benefiting common welfare. Self-forgetfulness makes way for the development of these and other related other virtues. It serves as a resource in assisting students in developing power and influence to make changes. This is particularly relevant in settings where inequities have silenced students of color, or of low income, or immigrant backgrounds within a school or community setting.

In order to more fully understand the value of self-forgetfulness as a human strength, it may be helpful to visualize its opposite. Someone who is lacking in self-forgetfulness finds it hard to enter into relationship with others without themselves center stage. Conversations revolve around their needs, wants, and reference points. They may be seen as arrogant, annoying, defensive, egotistical, or simply not a good listener (Bolt, 2004). Often their conduct is immodest; they are prone to take responsibility for achievements of others, and generally do not make good team members.

Human nature upholds the propensity to cooperate in the context of a shared social task (Gintis, Henrich, Bowles, Boyd and Fehr, 2008). In so far as we are developing the capacity to care for and think of others, we are developing self-forgetfulness. Non-cooperation is as aberration from the historical evolutionary context of our human experience. Human morality is a key evolutionary adaptation on which human social behavior has taken shape (Gintis, Henrich, Bowles, Boyd& Fehr, 2008). Many philosophers contend that the significance and meaning of life is found in one’s capacity to connect to a reason for being larger than and outside of the self (Frankl, 2006). Many religions and cultural teachings have roots in the concept of going unto others as you would have others do unto you. We take joy in acting ethically, doing the right thing, taking the high road.

Being of service and having a meaningful role in life connects us to purpose. Many students feel alienated in school because they cannot identify any relevance or purpose.  Focusing on our self that is of others and on the impact we can have on others invites us into relationships where our thoughts, feelings and actions have meaning. Good teachers base their teaching practice on positive relationships that communicate affirmative belief and high expectations. Teachers who develop caring and connecting relationships with their students find that their students have increased interest in subject matter, enhanced self-esteem and greater concern for others (Bingham and Sidorkin, 2004).

As we become of and for others, we experience the dignity and importance of interconnection. In the discovery of ways to develop our self that is of others selves, we discover who we are, and we experience power, motivation and purpose. Many cultures pay tribute in organized ceremonies honoring being of and for others (Horn & C. Horn, 2005). Being of and for others opens us up to the possibility of creating profound change in the world. We are invited into our more noble or moral self, that self that cares for and takes responsibility for others. Through self-forgetfulness the student lets the unique-self go relatively unattended while focusing on relationships that characterize the self that is of other selves thus opening the door to develop attributes of respect, empathy, honesty, sincerity, service, and good will.


Bingham, C., & Sidorkin, A. (2004). No education without relation (Vol. 259). New York, NY:

Bohlke, K. (2004). How does self-forgetfulness assist in the development of a collectivist worldview? (Master’s thesis). Antioch University, Seattle, WA.

Bolt, M. (2004). Pursuing human strengths: A positive psychology guide. New York, NY:

Frankl, V. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Gintis, H., Henrich, J., Bowles, S., Boyd, R., & Fehr, E. (2008). Strong reciprocity and the roots of human morality. Social Justice Research, 21(2), 241-253.

Horn, G., & Horn, C. (2005). The book of ceremonies: A native way of honoring and living the sacred. Novato, CA: New World Library.

Keller, H. (1966). The Story of My Life, edited by John Albert Macy, Doubleday, 1903. London:

Mahatma, G., & Fischer, L. (2002). The essential Gandhi: an anthology of his writings on his life, work and ideas. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Spitzer, R. & Bernhoft, R. (2000). Healing the culture: a commonsense philosophy of happiness, freedom, and the life issues. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press.

Turner, J., Oakes, P., & Haslam, S. (1994). Self and collective: Cognition and social context. Society for Personality and Social Psychology, 20(5), 454-463.

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