Are you modest, or arrogant?

One of the great things about writing a newspaper column is wondering what’s going to show up in your email box. Every logon brings a vague sense of anticipation (or is that dread?).

This morning’s ritual was no different, and was in fact timely, as I was just sitting down to confront this blank screen that demands I write — something. A regular reader sent me a question: ‘Is arrogance the opposite of modesty?’ That one made me sit back for a minute to think. Fortunately, thinking is my hobby and I’m always happy to oblige. Especially for somebody kind enough to be a fan of ‘Life’s a Beach.’

Merriam-Webster defines arrogance as, “an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions.” My version reads like this: A sense of self-importance greater than rationally justified. In other words, someone who thinks he’s more valuable, important or competent than he really is.

Modesty is presumably the opposite, where you underrate your value or competence. By these definitions, both traits are distortions of fact and logic. The only way to be rational is to see yourself as you really are. Admittedly, it can be hard to be objective, but you have to try. You can ask trusted others for observations about how you behave. You can also stand back and consider your own actions, and evaluate them objectively, as you would evaluate the actions of another.

Conventional ‘wisdom’ calls modesty a virtue. It’s supposedly virtuous to understate or lie about your obvious strengths and accomplishments. Don’t buy it. It’s ridiculous, unless of course you’re prepared to claim that departures from truth and reality constitute virtue. If modesty is a virtue, then lying must also be virtuous.

Arrogance, while no more excusable than modesty, is an understandable reaction against the distortions of modesty. “I’m supposed to pretend I haven’t accomplished what I have, and that I don’t have the talents I have?” And then that person goes overboard in claiming he’s greater than he really is. That’s when we move into the realm of arrogance and presumptive behavior.

Genuine self-respect comes from seeing yourself as you are — strengths, weaknesses and all. An obsessive concern with not being arrogant will lead one to ignore or minimize one’s good qualities. This isn’t healthy or rational. Psychotherapists spend hours with clients to help them learn to look at themselves objectively and identify their strengths. People with low or faltering self-esteem have bought into the idea that because true arrogance is bad (it is), then the only alternative is modesty. That’s a false alternative.

You can’t fight distortion with another distortion. You can’t overcome arrogance by substituting it with equally distorted modesty. Some degree of modesty is a good thing, especially when it refers to not bragging. But not everything is bragging. Imagine someone says, “That’s a great job you did.” You know you did a great job, so you reply, “Thank you. I know.” That is not arrogant if you really did do a good job. Modesty is not called for in these situations and would be a lie. Deliberately undercutting yourself and your accomplishments is unhealthy.

For eons, parents have encouraged their children to be humble and modest at the expense of their already fragile and developing self-esteem. They get away with this by claiming that the only alternative to modesty is arrogance, and that “you surely don’t want to be arrogant, do you?”

My rejection of arrogance and inappropriate modesty rests on the premise that knowledge — including about oneself — is objective, i.e., real. It’s entirely possible to be certain that you excel at something or that you’re terrible at something. It’s psychologically necessary to pass judgments about your own actions, as you would about the actions of others.

In a culture increasingly dominated by the idea that knowledge is simply a matter of opinion (‘Well, in MY reality ‘ blah blah.’), two attitudes become dominant: arrogance and inappropriate humility. As a therapist who has spent many an afternoon cleaning up after all this nonsense, it’s not difficult for me to see the counterproductive psychological course for each trait. And both will continue to eat away at our self-esteem until we recognize that knowledge is objective and that it’s possible to replace bad thinking with accuracy and genuine self-respect.