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In Swedish there is a term called självdistans, which would be directly translated to "self-distance", which means possessing a certain objectivity towards yourself, to be ego-less or not taking yourself too seriously. In other words, it's a quality in a person that would be modest and not too egoistic. Important thing to stress here is that an apparent lack of "self-distance" is a negative thing while too much self-distance can also be seen as a negative trait as it would been that you are actively trying to avoid giving yourself credit for something you have done, or dismiss any praise you might get from others.

I am not sure if what I am trying to get at is clear enough or if I should try to explain it better. At any rate, I am trying to find a word or expression to express the same quality but I can't seem to find "self-distance" in any English dictionary. Is there a good, semi-formal word that fits in this context?

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I suggest the word "meekness." Meekness is not weakness, but strength under control. Meek people have an inner strength enabling them to pick the battles worth fighting. Insults directed at them they merely shrug off. Insults directed at the helpless and the weak they counter with righteous indignation. Hubristic people try to gain the whole world but lose their souls in the process. Meek people, on the other hand, "will inherit the earth." We can exalt ourselves now and be humbled later, or we can humble ourselves now and be exalted later. The choice is ours. –  rhetorician Mar 30 '13 at 4:54

5 Answers 5

up vote 4 down vote accepted

You should consider words such as modesty and humility. These are both seen as being positive traits but could be taken to an extreme where a person doesn't take appropriate credit for their accomplishments or abilities.

Another word to consider would be objectivity. This captures the sense of lack of egotism, but it isn't necessarily understood to be reflexive.

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"Reserved" seems to fit in as well. –  dotsamuelswan Mar 29 '13 at 14:34

The problem here is that although there's a Swedish word that can be used in certain contexts, I suspect it's quite likely different Swedes would interpret even that word differently.

For example, a person might be said to have the självdistans attribute if he acts in an objective manner (because he's deliberately being equitable, evenhanded, impartial, impersonal). These meanings all tend towards a general concept of fairness.

But another Swede may say a person has the självdistans attribute if they lack a strong sense of personal identity. Clinically speaking, people with autism/Asperger's syndrome fall into that category (the link says they 'lack brain signal linked to sense of self'). That's an extreme case, but there are a whole host of words in that general area (egoless, detached, unengaged, etc.).

There are also plenty of words involving spirituality, serenity, unworldliness, etc.

And if a person lacks the ability to protect their own interests, they're naive, gullible, artless, etc.

All such words will come with connotations, but probably OP's own objectivity would be the best word for most contexts, if he wants to minimise positive/negative associations.

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interesting points.. –  posdef Mar 30 '13 at 9:10

Balanced ego might fit your need. As the phrase suggests, a person with a balanced ego has one that is optimum, neither too strong (bad) nor too weak (also bad), but in the middle (good).

A similar phrase is balanced personality.

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self-possession

Merriam-Webster: control of one's emotions or reactions especially when under stress : presence of mind, composure

Oxford: the state or feeling of being calm, confident, and in control of one’s feelings; composure: an air of self-possession

FreeDictionary: Full command of one's faculties, feelings, and behavior. See Synonyms at confidence: ... Self-possession implies composure arising from control over one's own reactions: "In life courtesy and self-possession . . . are the sensible impressions of the free mind, for both arise . . . from never being swept away, whatever the emotion, into confusion or dullness" (William Butler Yeats).

Although less literal a match than the other answers, I think you may want to consider this term for the purpose you intended, or the person you intended. It seems självdistans emphasizes inner perspective while self-possession is about inner behavior, but they may converge on the same character trait: not being ruled by one's own emotions. After all, which emotion is more remarkable to be free of than self love? I wonder if this distinction may reflect culture, Swedish emphasizing self-image, English self-control. Almost thought versus action.

Whomever deserves this description in your book, I like them already.

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Self-aware is commonly used to describe a healthy objectivity toward oneself, though the formal definition is more limited.

Self-effacing captures the idea of modesty, potentially to a fault.

I don't know of an English word that combines both concepts in the way your Swedish term does.

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