We all have our conceits that help let us feel good about ourselves. Typically, they’re just “little” ones. However, these conceits can also be “big” ones, so big that one’s self-image is simply delusional.
For example, a person might take pride in thinking they’re a really good singer. So what happens when the reality is they aren’t so good (and they’re undeniably confronted with that reality)? The person with the “small” conceit gets their feelings a bit bruised but manages to accept and deal with the real world feedback. However, if the person has their whole self-imaged wrapped up in seeing themselves as a good singer (i.e. It’s a “big” conceit) the person often reacts with total denial and will do things like blame the singing judge for not seeing their great talent. If you’ve ever watched the TV show American Idol you have seen both of the above behaviors.
So what drives all this, especially the more extreme cases where people become simply delusional in their need to psychologically protect their self-image no matter what reality says?
At its most basic level I think people just innately need to see themselves as a good/worthwhile person. It’s built into our DNA. It’s almost a matter of survival. A highly negative self-image can put you on a psychological slippery slope, the bottom of which is such a dark place that it can even lead to suicide.
As a result, people are virtually unable to absorb and internalize doing wrong. Instead, they will protect their self-image and twist the reality they see to conform with their positive self-image (even if that “positive” aspect is way off base). That “twist” can be so extreme that it’s a delusional reality. For example, I remember reading about a mass murderer who saw themselves as doing good for society by only killing prostitutes. Unbelievable. But the murder’s mind just simply had to twist reality around to think well of themselves.
Fortunately, most of the time a person’s good self-image is valid. Most people pretty much follow society’s rules, have genuine concern for others, and the talents they take pride in at least have a decent basis in reality. Having such a good self-image is certainly a healthy state of mind.
BUT this write-up is about the invalid ways people so often protect their self-image. Below are some examples I have personally seen. Let me start with some relatively “little” self-image conceits, starting with myself.
1. The person who thinks they’re good looking.
The (self) observation: I think of myself as a good looking guy. And I still basically think this even though reality somewhat burst my bubble.
The reality: Several years ago when I was single I put a picture of myself on a dating web site. The site let people rate how good looking you are. I was expecting at least an 8 out of 10 rating. Well, the reality was some 100 people rated me as a 5 (just average). Even then, despite this objective reality, I still hold to the self-image that I’m at least a 6 or a 7. But if I’m really honest, I have to own up to my being a bit vain (given how my self-image doesn’t quite square with reality).
2. The overnight teenage vegetarian.
The observation: A 14 year old girl one day announced to her family that she was a vegetarian. Despite five other kids in the family she insisted on her own meat-free meal. She also gladly told family (and any guests, such as me) that meat eaters are morally bad people since they kill animals.
The reality: I see a young teenager struggling with her self-image. Becoming a vegetarian let her see herself as someone who was morally superior to others. In a way it was pathetic. The young teenager had little going for her that could let her think well of herself. So she latched on to something (being a vegetarian) that let her see herself as a superior person (in her high level of morality). Note: getting more attention was also a factor.
3. The person who cares about injured animals to an extreme.
The observation: A 30 year old woman insisted on stopping for any injured animal along the roadway. She would wrap up the animal and take it to a vet. It didn’t even matter if the injured animal was on a busy street such that stopping put her own life at risk (as well as mine as the driver).
The reality: I see a person using their “love of animals” as a way to see themselves as better than others. Her stopping for the injured animal meant she had a heart (whereas those driving by didn’t). Well perhaps she was 25% valid. But I’d say that 75% of her view was nuts, especially when it put people’s lives at risk.
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The above examples mostly fall into the “little” conceit category. Below are two “big” self-image conceits, so big that the person is simple living in their little delusional bubble of false reality.
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4. The spouse who claims their multiple affairs are just something others are envious of.
The observation: An ex-wife of mine had numerous affairs. As she adamantly said to our marriage counselor no less, those who were critical of her were just envious of all the exciting sex she had had. Further, she saw herself as a superior person who was above society’s rules. As for the many people she hurt in her affairs (not just me but also the other marriages she helped blow up), that was their problem, not hers.
The reality: I see a person who is utterly delusional about themselves, however successful they are in creating and living within their bubble of false reality. The facts of the matter show a selfish liar with no conscience. I even see a woman with some kind of a psychological problem that made her need to boost her self-esteem by having guys lust after her. I also see a psychopath (given her utter lack of conscience or empathy).
5. The religious “true believer”.
The observation: Years ago when I was young I ran a hot dog cart in a nice tourist trap in Hawaii. One day a pear shaped middle aged woman walked over and started chatting with me. Out of the blue she asked if I believed in god. I answered “only to a limited extent” (or something like that). She said she had a prayer for agnostics like me. She asked me to repeat after her. I did. (The prayer was about opening my heart to god and seeing the truth.) She smiled, wished me well, and left. Note: She didn’t buy a hot dog.
The reality: As harsh as I know I sound, I see a person walking around in a bubble of reality. The reality was she was a fat and rather unattractive woman well past her prime. But by seeing herself as a “true” Christian believer she had a way to see herself as a good person and even as someone superior to others. … I’m sure that her having me recite a prayer (to be a believer) made her feel good in that she had done her proselytizing good deed for the day. However, she was just taking advantage of someone (me) who was not in a position to protest her proselytizing.