Self-Knowledge • Fear & Insecurity
Why Grandiosity is a Symptom of Self-Hatred
If we are looking to understand self-hatred, we should take a moment to consider a subsection of people who seem distinctly and miraculously pleased with everything they are and do. They radiate self-contentment and pride — even if it isn’t always apparent on what their extreme satisfaction with themselves rests. They dominate conversations, they walk with their heads held high, they let everyone know that they have arrived in the building. They aren’t great listeners of course, your stories and dilemmas understandably have to be relegated when there is so much that is glorious and intriguing about their own lives. If ever they suffer a shortfall in respect (for example, in a restaurant or in a shop), they don’t hesitate to correct the problem; they furiously bang the airline business class check-in desk or ask the terrified waiter — who may have brought them the wrong kind of mustard — if they know whom they are dealing with. Those of meeker temperament can only look on with a mixture of envy, admiration and a touch of horror — and wonder how such characters could ever have come to harbour such relentless faith in themselves.
The answer is not exactly what one might expect. However much self-hatred may be responsible for instances of low self-confidence, it appears that even greater amounts of self-hatred tend to be at play in the pattern of behaviour we term grandiose. One needs to hate oneself to a truly uncommon degree in order to insist that everyone must listen to what one has to say, that no one can disagree and that one is always the most important person in the room. Outsized regard for oneself is not the outcome of boundless self-love, it is the diseased flower of a terrified, self-doubting mind.
In the childhood of the grandiose person, one can expect to find a confusion of emotional ingredients: these unfortunates may have been built up to immense heights by a parent who was both seemingly on their side and yet unpredictable and distracted in their attentions. The parent may have told the child that they were exceptionally gifted and destined for glory — but then done nothing to help them to know why and how this might be the case. They might have abandoned the family home or spent a lot of time depressed or more interested in other people. The ostensible message was that the child was a prodigy — but then why in that case did the parent never bother to listen to them properly, to sympathise with their reality and to be patient with their growing pains? The child was left to inhabit a golden role which they never really understood why they had been accorded or known how to live up to.
The grandiose person now insists on their specialness with such ferocity because they are inwardly close to a terrifying prospect: that they may just be average, that they were actually unloved early on, that they were at one time bigged up yet fundamentally alone and uncared for. A healthy relationship to ourselves requires that we gracefully take on board certain challenging realities: that we may have said something wrong, that we aren’t as good as we had hoped, that we still need to learn a lot. With sufficient self-love, we can dare to absorb such blows without collapse. We have enough inner warmth to bear the sharp winds of scepticism. We like ourselves enough that we don’t always need to be right; we are happy enough with who we are not to have to insist on our specialness.
But no such luxury is afforded to the grandiose. One millimetre away from the baroque scaffolding of their self-confidence lies a devastating and raw landscape of utter nullity. No one has ever been kind enough to let them fail and still be cared for, to let them say and do stupid things and still be cherished. It is no wonder that they must speak so loudly and cannot risk the merest moment of humiliation. It requires a lot of self-love to accept that one may be a bit of a fool of whom most people don’t think of very much and who will die leaving the universe entirely undisturbed. It is a sign of immense psychological privilege to know how to be ordinary.
What is sad about the grandiose is that their illness renders other people unlikely to step forward to offer them the kindness they need. The very last thing that the over-confident appear to require is reassurance. It takes an advanced level of imagination to determine that beneath the shouting, incensed puce-faced customer, there may lie a frightened child, desperate not to encounter yet another reminder of how much they don’t matter. We need to be morally highly evolved to guess at the pain and lack that runs beneath the bluster. People who are most severely ill don’t always make the most charming patients; help is the thing they most desperately crave and yet are extraordinarily adept at making sure they won’t receive.
We should — when we can manage it — disregard the surface antics of the grandiose. We should behave like loving parents who know that their child’s angry tantrums spring from fear rather than evil and that their assertions that they hate us are only disguised pleas for relief from the pain of needing us so much.
We will have learnt to be truly kind when we can more reliably keep in mind the angry lost tearful neglected vulnerable small person who dwells beneath the unpleasant rantings of the blustering, over confident adult.