The Futility of Self-Importance (and How to Cure it)

The Futility of Self-Importance (and How to Cure it)

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You are out with a group of friends, having a discussion about where to go out for the night. Everyone is throwing out ideas, and when it comes to your suggestion, the group laughs and dismisses it as being foolish. Think about how you felt. Did you feel a chill come over your body? Maybe a slight uptick in your heart rate? Did you blurt out a response, perhaps a negative comment towards your friends?

Quite often, this is how we react when we feel we are being “challenged.” When we are criticized or not taken seriously, we get mad and respond in a negative way. The same holds true when someone directs an insult at us, gives us constructive criticism, or argues against our beliefs.

What is going on here? Why does our response feel like it happens automatically, outside of our control?

Stage 1: I’m Offended!

People who are always offended have an over-inflated sense of self-importance. Such people are overly concerned with their ego’s (usually without realizing it), and feel a blow when this point of view is challenged by a conflicting belief. Everything becomes personal.

Self-importance and ego lead to a volatile life filled with conflict, drama, and reactive emotional outbursts. We allow other people to dictate our emotions, because we feel special, deserving of better treatment. Thankfully, a simple mindset switch will allow us to improve. As Don Miguel Ruiz explains in The Four Agreements: 

Personal importance, or taking things personally, is the maximum expression of selfishness because we make the assumption everything is about “me.”

The most important thing to understand is that the actions of others are out of our control. Their decisions, actions, and words reflect their own reality and experiences. We can’t let them affect our state of being, which is usually drastically different from our own. If someone hurls an insult at us, it’s nothing more than a manifestation of their own negative feelings, beliefs, and opinions. We are simply the punching bag. To shrug off such an attack is the ultimate act of self-control and composure. As Ryan Holiday explains in Ego is the Enemy:

Those who have subdued their ego understand that it doesn’t degrade you when others treat you poorly; it degrades them.

When you let personal attacks bother you, it’s feeding into the other person’s garbage. It makes their negativity be about you, which is backwards and futile. As Ruiz continues in The Four Agreements:

Taking things personally makes you easy pray for these predators, the black magicians. They can hook you easily with one little opinion and feed you whatever poison they want, and because you take it personally, you eat it up…When you take things personally, then you feel offended, and your reaction is to defend your beliefs and create conflicts.”

Not only are conflicts over opinions petty, they are useless and a time-wasting activity. Yet so may people spend so much time and energy dealing with drama and pointless disagreements. It’s a seemingly perpetual state of being, stuck in a iteration of self-importance. Ryan Holiday points out the futility of a big ego:

When we remove ego, we’re left with what is real. What replaces ego is humility, yes—but rock-hard humility and confidence. Whereas ego is artificial, this type of confidence can hold weight. Ego is stolen. Confidence is earned. Ego is self-anointed, its swagger is artifice. One is girding yourself, the other gaslighting. It’s the difference between potent and poisonous.

We are cogs in the wheels of life, so it’s best to make the most of our time, rather than spend it in an endless cycle of egotism and emotion. The billionaire hedge fund manager Ray Dalio explains in Principles that we must look to nature (and not ourselves) to see how things truly work:

I now realize that nature optimizes for the whole, not for the individual, but most people judge good and bad based only on how it affects them…

Typically, people’s conflicting beliefs or conflicting interests make them unable to see things through another’s eyes. That’s not good and it doesn’t make sense. 

Our mental makeup is programmed to see disagreements, insults, and such as a direct challenge to our livelihood. These feelings cause us to be close-minded and elevating our beliefs above those of other people. To understand nature helps to make sense of this. “Good” and “bad” are our subjective ideas, nothing more, whereas what is actually “good” or “bad” for nature (civilization as a whole) is often quite different. The same holds true for other people’s beliefs. What works for you might conflict with the beliefs and worldview of friends and family members. That’s okay and you shouldn’t feel threatened by this.

Stage 2: Moving Past Self-Importance

How do we limit your feelings of self-importance? How do we keep our ego in check? The first step is acceptance and honesty. We must acknowledge this weakness and agree it’s a drag on our life. Understanding the root cause of a behavior is the first step in eradicating it.

You must then frame your thoughts and interactions completely differently. Realize that you don’t need to be accepted or praised by others. You sense of worth is intrinsic; it comes from within. Your principles and beliefs are what define you, not the words and actions of others. Just this simple mind switch will do wonders for you.

Our evolutionary characteristics are to blame for our petty thoughts and addiction to drama. The brain consists of countless, complex pieces, all working together simultaneously to produce a master computer of thought, logic, and emotion. One such part, the amygdala, is a hot bed of emotions. This is the part of the brain which triggers our emotional responses, specifically fear, anger, and anxiety. In essence, we are predisposed to emotional reactions, such as being sensitive to criticism and “attacks” on our self-worth and ego. From Principles:

Because these areas of your brain are not accessible to your conscious awareness, it is virtually impossible for you to understand what they want and how they control you. They oversimplify things and react instinctively. They crave praise and respond to criticism as an attack, even when the higher-level parts of the brain understand that constructive criticism is good for you. They make you defensive, especially when it comes to the subject of how good you are.

What’s worse, our brains cause us to be addicted to drama and suffering. We love to spread and share that suffering with other people. So we lash out at others (due to our own problems), or surround ourselves with people who will share in our misery or unhappiness. It’s a constant battle between our conscious, higher-level understanding and our ancient, lower-level subconscious.

It takes time to learn to be immune to such criticisms. Keeping the ego in check is not easy. Neither is not being offended by other people. But if mastered, it frees up our emotions and energies for higher, more productive pursuits. Instead of being consumed by drama and anger, we can instead apply yourself to positivity. It’s crucial to work to develop this habit. Ruiz offers some simple advice in his book:

When you make it a strong habit not to take anything personally, you avoid many upsets in your life. Your anger, jealousy, and envy will disappear, and even your sadness will simply disappear if you don’t take things personally. 

Remember: You are never responsible for other people’s actions. Only your own. When people act foolish, immature, or nasty – let them be. The worst thing you can do is let their negative state ruin your own disposition.

Stage 3: Internalizing Positive Behavior 

Because it’s so easy for our self-importance to hijack our state of being, we need to look at ways we can keep it in check. Below I have outlined 4 well-known, yet incredibly helpful actions that will keep your ego at bay and hopefully keep you balanced and centered on yourself, immune to drama cast by other people.

Gratitude

As we ascend in life, we become immune to the upward mobility we have achieved. It’s amazing how quickly we get used to the next level. Think about when you were a kid. Everything seemed so big and unattainable. Getting an allowance was the world.

If we took a step back and looked at our life, chances are we are better off than the majority of the world. This is where gratitude comes into play. I wrote on this subject in the past (click here), but I will summarize the key points below:

Every morning I wake up and recite 5 things I am thankful for. Most of these are small in scale…

  • The ability to walk down the stairs (when I was sick, I couldn’t do this)
  • The love & support of my mother
  • Freedom to go in any direction with my life
  • Having the monetary means to live a comfortable life
  • The joy of being able to learn and grow daily

Meditation

I use the Headspace application for meditation. I’m working on making this a daily routine. Taking some time to clear your head of thoughts and enter a calm state helps you to stay calm and restrained when faced with challenging or upsetting situations. There are countless ways to meditate, so choose what best work’s for you and gradually ease your way into things.

Intrinsic Goals

Your internal compass is much more reliable than your external one. Make sure you are driven by intrinsic goals and values and not by external rewards such as money, fame, and praise. Those things can disappear in an instant, where your internal sense of self cannot be taken from you. As Viktor Frankl said in Man’s Search for Meaning:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Create “internal indicators” such as open-mindedness, compassion, acceptance, honesty, gratefulness, etc. When you improve in these areas, you will see a much more noticeable difference in your day-to-day life. Intrinsic values are more lasting and rewarding, and keep you grounded in a grateful state of mind.

Final Thoughts

Remember that life is too short to waste time feeling proud and important. It’s crucial to be able to control your ego. You do this by learning to be immune to the criticisms and insults of other people. To be truly open-minded, these situations will serve as a test of character; to learn, grow, and rise above the ignorance of other people. Ryan Holiday cautions that this isn’t a one time way of being, but a complete mindset shift required for a more enriching life:

We will learn that though we think big, we must act and live small in order to accomplish what we seek. Because we will be action and education focused, and forgo validation and status, our ambition will not be grandiose but iterative—one foot in front of the other, learning and growing and putting in the time.

Life is a constant struggle against external events and our own internal weaknesses. Only the latter is in our control. If we understand our inherent flaws and learn to combat them, we will be better for it. Our relationships will be more fulfilling and in turn, we will have more balance in our internal state.

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