A few months ago, my friend Ben had a crush on a girl at work. She would send him Gchats, engage with him, and then disappear. She’d flirt with him during lunch and mention going out, but would never follow up.
“I’m just waiting for the right time,” he said. He was asking me about strategy, and how to best get her attention. A few months later, Ben took a new job and started working for a news agency named after one of the wealthiest men in the country, a man whose publicly stated political values include maintaining the current taxation rate on billionaires. The first time I met A., he went on a rant about democratic socialism, worker’s rights, and his support of Bernie Sanders.
“Does it feel weird to be making money for someone who is trying to advance an economic agenda that you say is weakening the social safety net in this country?” I asked.
“I’ve feel better. But I do have a family to support,” he said. Ben has no dependents, and doesn’t send money to anyone in his family.
“You couldn’t make money doing something else?”
“How am I supposed to make money, working for NPR? I’m a member of the worker’s union. I do plenty of good.”
The girl texted Ben on a weekend, and asked him to come to Brooklyn. He bought her tacos. She didn’t reach out for months.
The only time that Ben directly asked the girl if she wanted to go out on a date, she responded that it wasn’t a good time.
“She’ll come around.”
Ben has been going to the gym for years, with little improvement. He’ll do a few dumbbell curls, rack the weights, and wonder why he doesn’t seem to be getting any stronger. “I’m just not one of those big guys,” he says.
While recently spending time with my family, my aunt and I discussed getting older, eating well, exercising, and going to the gym.
“It’s too bad that diabetes runs in our family,” she said.
“Grandma didn’t get diabetes because of her genes. She ate a bag of jellybeans everyday and never exercised.” Oh, how my aunt’s nostrils flared.
The idea that you’re spending over 40 hours a week to advance causes you despise is uncomfortable. The idea that you’re being used to bolster someone’s ego is uncomfortable. Training your muscles until you hit physical fatigue is uncomfortable. The idea that lifestyle interventions, not just genetics, are responsible for developing muscles and chronic diseases is uncomfortable.
Perhaps no cognitive bias is stronger—or more beneficial to work on—than the need towards self-protection. I’m not talking about physical self-protection, of course, but the psychological need to defend our self-concept, or the tendency to view information that doesn’t match what we think of ourselves as threatening.
In order to maintain their self-concept, people engage in a litany of defense tactics. Ben—single, mind you—said he needed to support his family, and that getting any other job was impossible. Not wanting to admit that he let himself be strung along, convinced himself that external variables were at play: it’s the timing. She’ll come around. My aunt, not wanting to change her diet or lifestyle, blamed genes for everything.
In other words, when we feel like there’s a discrepancy between what we think of ourselves and how someone else sees us, we go on a rampage, all in order to hold two beliefs: I am a good person. This is the reality of the situation.
Our motivation to reduce this conflict takes over, emerging as:
•Shutting down the source of discomfort. You are crazy. You don’t know what you’re talking about. I never wanted muscles. Only jocks spend that much time in the gym. It would take too long.
•Rationalizing our actions. I need this money, to provide for my family. It doesn’t matter where I work, I’m going to be making money for a billionaire. I couldn’t possibly find another job that would pay me as much. If I found a job that matched my values and paid me a lot, the actual work would be awful. My boss would probably be a nightmare.
In other words, when someone starts dismissing any incoming information because actually taking it to heart would make them feel bad about themselves, you’ve hit on a character flaw: an unstable sense of self.
A noisy, fragile ego. A noisy ego is a defensive, self-aggrandizing ego. People with noisy egos often have as their prime directive the protection and enhancement of a fragile sense of self and its worth. They tend to be overly aggressive and defensive, and they abhor anything that suggests they are less than perfect.1
It’s uncomfortable to think that we have a part in the outcomes, but growth lies on the other side of facing discomfort—which can only happen if you’re willing to face your weaknesses, admit that you have flaws, and take responsibility for your part for the outcomes.
The best way to see if someone is headed towards self growth is their willingness to look at their blindspots. Both of these people have, when asked, said “I don’t need to see a therapist.” Let’s stop employing that 1950s mindset: saying you don’t need a therapist is like saying you don’t need to go to the gym or see a doctor. It’s a sign of strength to want to work on yourself. Admitting that you have as many flaws as any other human is liberating. Being able or willing to see all of yourself, and accept every last bit, is liberating. And growth comes from being willing to deal with the discomfort of being honest about how you affect others, and how you bring some of your hardships on yourself.
The biggest red flag for personal growth is anyone who says: “I don’t need to see a therapist.” The three people who have said that to me in the past few months are all unwilling to entertain the idea that they have blindspots, but what they don’t see is how much these blindspots have affected their relationships. One of them is the boss of his company, and 98% of the people he deals with on a daily basis need to stay on his good graces in order to earn a living and support their families. Other people with fragile egos who are overly defensive never learn how much they’ve unknowingly alienated loved ones.
Eventually, they manage to find people who stick around: dependents. Some are employees. Some are kids. Some are fundamentally insecure people whose accept the jabs, rationalizing that they deserve them. Others are people who think that poking holes in someone else’s self-worth is a core component to a great relationship. (Pro tip: it’s not.) They structure their social environments to engage in self-verification, choosing only to interact with people who see them the way they prefer to see themselves.2
I’m not saying that you can’t laugh at yourself—far from it. But if the only way you can think of to add humor to a situation is to make fun of others, then you’re more interested in brutality than humor.
I stay away from people with unstable, fragile egos. Everything is always someone else’s fault. Moral of the story—people who claim that they don’t need to see a therapist are unwilling to look at their blindspots. We know exactly where they’re be in a few years: right where they are now. Hopefully, you’ll be somewhere else.
1. Jack J. Bauer and Heidi A. Wayment. The Psychology of the Quiet Ego. American Psychological Association, 2008: 10.
2. William B. Swarm Jr. “Self-Verification: Bringing Social Reality into Harmony with the Self.” Social Psychological Perspectives on the Self 2 (1983): 33-66.