In a Psychology Today article entitled “Foolish Arrogance: When High Self-Esteem Blinds You to Risk,” developmental psychologist Stephen Greenspan, Ph.D. argues that “excessive self-regard” or “arrogance” leads people to disregard important facts and make decisions that are destructive to themselves and others. He also states, “people with violent, criminal or racist tendencies tend to have overly high self-esteem.”
This is a huge problem in my field of mental health—equating arrogance and self-destructive behaviors with high self-esteem.
A person with high self-esteem greatly respects him or herself (that’s what “esteem” means). Self-esteem is confidence in one’s ability to think, make choices, and act on those choices, as well as feeling deserving of happiness and benefiting from one’s hard work and accomplishments. Above all, it means valuing the facts of reality and reason to guide one’s life over the course of many years.
Arrogance (or narcissism) is the exact opposite of self-esteem. Arrogant people act as if they know everything, and anything that contradicts what they believe is either evaded or rejected out of hand. They’re not interested in facts that contradict what they feel or want to be true, because that would be admitting (in their minds) they aren’t as good or worthy as the person who knows something they don’t.
The primary error with narcissists or arrogant people is they feel they must be right all the time or there’s something wrong with them. This is a huge error, as no matter how smart we are, we can make mistakes in our thinking or actions. The healthy person knows this and doesn’t let a lapse in knowledge or a mistake threaten his self-esteem. In fact, he embraces facts, whether those facts come from himself or someone else, because he knows that knowledge will help him in his life.
Criminals and racists don’t have high self-esteem, if they have any at all. Criminals (falsely) believe they can obtain self-esteem by exploiting, deceiving, assaulting, or taking advantage of others. When they get away with it, they feel “good” about themselves because they’ve put something over on others, and they feel “superior” as a result.
But this is a completely false sense of superiority or “self-esteem,” because it’s based on faking reality (i.e., lying and evasion). You can’t achieve self-esteem in this way.
Racists lack self-esteem too. They try to make themselves feel better than others based on non-essential physical characteristics, like skin color or nationality. This is a distortion of reality, as a person’s self-worth is not based on skin color but on his or her character (i.e., chosen actions).
The arrogant person, criminal, and racist do not esteem themselves (at any level), which is why they evade, deny, lie, reject, and twist facts—to avoid this realization.
People with high-self esteem rarely (if ever) evade facts or rational advice because they know reality is their survival tool and means of achieving and maintaining happiness.
Dr. Greenspan provides several case examples of arrogance, such as:
An “example of Bob Smith’s arrogance came when he took his 12-year-old grandson and another adult up in his plane for a late afternoon flight over the Rockies. Coming back into a small airport south of Denver just after dark, Smith was told by the tower operator that he was coming in too low and needed to increase his altitude. He responded in his usual style, by rejecting the controller’s warning, and flew his plane into a hill, killing himself and both of his passengers.”
This example is certainly illustrative of arrogance; however, it’s not an example of high self-esteem (or any self-esteem).
In the example, Bob Smith rejects the air traffic controller’s warning, without reason, and crashes the plane as a result. What makes this arrogant (or just plain stupid) is Bob doesn’t consider the advice of a professional whose expertise is guiding pilots safely to the ground. Bob does it his way to show what a big man he is. He evades vital information that would have helped him land safely, and instead, he crashes.
A person with high self-esteem (let’s call her Amelia) would’ve handled this situation much differently. Amelia would have gathered all the data she needed to make a safe landing, including checking her instruments, using her vision, and checking in with the air traffic controller for guidance. When the controller told her she was coming in too low, she would neither ignore this information nor act on it blindly, but rather consider it with the facts she already had (e.g., her altitude, experience in landing, etc.), and then either decide to heed the controller’s warning, or make a different decision if she assessed the facts differently.
Amelia, being a person who respects herself and the lives of her passengers, would never ignore advice from a controller, because she knows it could lead to a serious accident.
Amelia’s actions reflect her self-esteem, while Bob’s proves his arrogance.
The problem here is the concept self-esteem is being used incorrectly by Dr. Greenspan and many other mental health professionals. The danger with equating arrogance, criminality, and racism with “high” self-esteem, is to corrupt the concept of self-esteem.
Self-esteem means confidence in one’s ability to use one’s mind, i.e., to identify the facts of reality and use logic to guide oneself safely and prosperously through life, and feel deserving of happiness. A person can’t have too much reason, knowledge, logic, acceptance of reality and of one’s limitations, or self-respect. In fact, the higher amount of these qualities, the better.