“He who loves himself too much will have no rivals.” — Benjamin Franklin
Self-inflation is a major problem in our culture and an impediment to personal growth and recovery. It is the exaggerated belief in our own exceptionalism—that we are a cut above others with little or no evidence to support our belief. It involves unrealistic views and fantasies of ourselves, our successes and our social standing. It puts us on pedestals in an imaginary way despite the absence of actual supportive evidence. We may see ourselves as strong and deserving of leadership roles. But actually, just the opposite is true. People with grandiosity are in effect quite insecure, they are immature and cannot see strengths in others, which are so necessary for true leadership. They get misled by their own self-exaggeration and mistakenly think they can solve problems all on their own. Often, but not always, grandiosity remains hidden to ourselves but is so apparent to other people, who typically are put off by how we behave.
Normal grandiosity occurs in early childhood and adolescence but is problematic in later years. We are all expected to grow up and realize our limitations and how we are unique but not all that special.
When grandiosity is not something we grow out of, it becomes a defense against the disowned, hated parts of ourselves. It interferes with our ability to receive love from and give love to others. It gets in the way of our having compassion for others and ourselves.
People in recovery who are grandiose never get the full benefit of peer relationships and have much higher risk of losing sobriety. It is a way of staying in permanent isolation with our addict self as a “using” buddy. People with this problem are living in solitary confinement. They need to be kindly challenged and held in our compassion. They also ought to be approached carefully as they are experts at manipulating others and sucking them dry. Most of us dislike people who are above others.
How to recognize grandiosity
Most of the time it’s easy to see self-inflation when it occurs in people. Generally, most of us dislike people who are know-it-all’s, are exclusively self-promoting or see their way as the only way to see things, or continually one-up others on what they’ve accomplished or which vacations they’ve taken. More subtle clues of this difficulty include:
- doing all the talking and never asking others what their experiences are
- continually bragging or fantasizing about imagined personal successes
- chronic lying or omitting of the whole truth
- exaggeration of personal accomplishments
- displays of indignation and verbal abuse when confronted with the truth
- casting a spell on admiring others
- excessive deference and oblivious fawning reactions by collaterals
- inability to be humble, like others and be ordinary
- feeling that they have some special gift and are the answer to everyone’s prayers
- unwillingness to admit fault or apologize for any wrongs committed
- others feel demeaned in their presence.
You know tonight is my lucky night. I can feel it in my bones! Let’s go to the casino after our meeting tonight. I’m gonna hit it big. Come with me. Some of us just have it. Some of us don’t. I’ll show you how to do it.
You’re just lying to yourself all over again. Look I’ve been in the program for over 30 years and I can spot a liar from 40 yards away. When are you going to get real with your recovery?! If you’re not going to walk the walk, don’t talk the talk. I know more about you than you do about yourself. I know exactly what you need. So, give it up fellow!
Social epidemic of grandiosity
Part of the reason we don’t see our own self-exaggerations is because our culture is swimming in narcissism. Too many of us are taking selfies and trying to be stars in some pathetic way. Being self-preoccupied seems normal. We don’t see ourselves enough from other people’s point of view and we glamorize stardom. We look down on leading a stable ordinary life or having a job with less social status. We are more interested in self-promotion than in enjoying the actual scenery of life and being with others in real time. Some of us would rather live in a world of make-believe and instantaneous screen time of social media, just to have some quick thrills. Unfortunately, such joys are short-lived and rather shallow. Too many of us have grown up with emotional deprivation and don’t know what we are really missing or how to get it. We opt to live in a two-dimensional world where only appearances matter. We may not realize that our own grandiosity is actually perpetuating the emotional loneliness of our youth and making us depressed.
The ordinary and profound fellowship of a good 12-Step group may seem on the surface rather uninspiring and threatening to us. Especially when people are admitting their own failings and lack social status. Paradoxically it is in the accepting of our own ordinariness and failings, and sharing them with concerned others, that our life opens up to a whole new vista of deep meaning and profound fellowship. Being ordinary with others is a “crazy” way to find fellowship, recovery and happiness. It puts us outside the box in a rather magical way. It works.
Psychological origins of self-inflation
Some of us have a genetic predisposition to bragging, self-promotion and charm, all of which increase our risk for this disorder, especially when coupled with low self-esteem. Others of us have had some outstanding real success in life but for lack of self-confidence have gotten lost in the false identity of stardom, which becomes our prison. We have forgotten our humble roots and all the people who have contributed to our success. Some of us are so isolated in life that we take a “sour grapes” attitude of pretending that we don’t need anyone else. We become self-preoccupied in a culturally sanctioned way. Others of us have never had anything bad happen to us in life and we feel we can walk on water. Generally, the roots of grandiosity originate in a childhood where we were either emotionally ignored or continuously over praised by parents even when such adulation wasn’t justified. The self-esteem movement in this country has produced more adults who over rate their worth and live exclusively for adulation from others. Children who are over protected, never expected to behave or contribute to others because they are fragile or special, are likely candidates for grandiosity.
Grandiosity’s twin sibling: Self-devaluation
Deflation is the other side of inflation. It’s another way we hide from ourselves. It looks like the twin sister or twin brother of grandiosity. When we say, “I can’t do anything right” or “I will never be able to do what you do” we are self-devaluing. It’s really an indirect way of bragging how messed up we are. All the pity from others will not compensate us enough to offset running ourselves down. Perhaps we have learned this pattern by being around a grandiose person too much. We make excuses for our self by mistakenly believing we are not good enough for success and don’t need to try to succeed. Some of us can be quite grandiose in blaming our self for all the failings in our loved ones. We really are not all that important in other people’s failings. They are.
The folly of hero worshiping
Sheldon Kopp, a famous psychoanalyst and writer, once took a photo of a man sitting naked on a toilet. Under the photo he wrote the caption, “There are no great men.” It is startling for me to see just how prone we are as a society to idealize people around us and exaggerate what they’ve accomplished even when they haven’t delivered on the goods. Pro-athletes get paid obscene bonuses at the onset of their careers and often don’t pan out in the long run. Music heroes are said to be legendary, but their music lacks any depth and is easily forgotten after they pass from public view. Our own children are treated like little geniuses when in reality they are only “pretty good” and not particularly unique in their accomplishments. Our society relishes making people special when actually we are all pretty ordinary. Clearly there is nothing wrong about recognizing true accomplishments in any of us. But we are all not heroes. We are all fallible human beings having our moment of glory. If anything is heroic in us it is the fact that we care about others, have good character and are realistic enough to know we are not heroes. When we worship heroes, we put ourselves down, we lose touch with reality and we do no favors to people who do good things. True heroes already know what they’ve accomplished and don’t need adulation from others. That’s why policemen and firemen after saving people’s lives say, “We are not heroes. We are just doing our job.”
Being less grandiose
Having a less exaggerated identity can be quite a project even when it is attainable. If you’re questioning your own possible lack of humility, look within and ask trusted others if you are coming across as all that important. Perhaps you dominate conversations, don’t listen to what others are saying, see no need to show your vulnerability, prefer not getting help from others, are too concerned about appearances or have a habit of telling little white lies to promote yourself. Take the risk of seeing how others see you, particularly if they are honest and unbiased. Group settings or a relationship with a trusted professional may be great for getting an accurate view of yourself. You may get deflated and discouraged by what you hear but having an accurate picture of yourself will allow you to work on your shortcomings. Embrace the truth and it will set you free.
You may be surprised that you don’t need to be a hero to be genuinely loved and that you are already good enough and don’t need to brag. The greatest gift of losing grandiosity is making genuine intimate relationships with others that last a lifetime and accepting yourself as you already are.
If you’re good at something, say nothing. Afterall, what needs to be said? Besides, what you’ve accomplished is mostly because you are standing on the shoulders of people who were bigger than you. Be a bright speck in the universe but realize you are only a speck in the bigger scheme of things. Study astronomy and you will see just how small you really are in the universe. You are important but not heroic. Seeing our correct size will make us all confident and wise. And much more likable.us don’t. I’ll show you how to do it.
John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.