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Humility 3 – Detecting characteristics of consubstantial pride within oneself

Tiny man and the cosmos

As with all omnipresent and invasive character traits, consubstantial pride is difficult to localise. But a number of characteristics make it possible to pinpoint it. These characteristics are more or less obvious depending on the individual, but no one is entirely devoid of them. Delving within is all it takes to uncover strong tendencies that express themselves more or less openly depending on the situations, and take different forms, at times obscure, at times subtle or twisted.

Self-centredness

The first of these characteristics is self-centredness or the tendency to relate everything to yourself and to see yourself as having more importance than you actually do. In theory, I know I am one out of 7 billion other human beings on a tiny planet in a vast universe. In practice, however, I act and feel as if I were at the centre of the universe and everything revolved around me. Some examples from everyday life clearly demonstrate this state of mind.

  • Example 1: I enter a conference room and at the very moment I open the door I hear two people bursting out with laughter. Among the innumerable possibilities that may have caused this laughter, what first pops into my mind? Even if I am a very self-confident person, it is more than likely that the idea at least crosses my mind that “they are laughing at me”. Most probably—at least if I have a healthy psyche—I will be able to get a grip on myself immediately and rationalize the situation: “There is no reason for them to be laughing at me. Don’t be so paranoid.” But my first reaction remains the assumption that the laughter was directed at me. My natural tendency is to organize things and people around myself—whether on my side or against me.
  • Example 2: Everyone has had the mortifying experience of making a fool of themselves in public, in one way or another. The painful embarrassment we experience can be quite disproportionate to the undeniably insignificant event that actually took place. Let’s compare this discomfort or pain to the feelings we have when we hear about an earthquake in a far away country in which thousands of people have died and are waiting for help that is not coming in the most terrible conditions. Let’s be sincere with ourselves—which of the two emotions is stronger? And which of the two events is objectively the most terrible?

This tendency is certainly natural and necessary for self-preservation. But bringing it to light allows us to become aware of the passionate relationship we have with ourselves and the colossal distortions that ensue in our perception of things.

“Superioritism”

There is a very strange phenomenon that can almost constantly be observed in everyday life: the exact same observation, rather inoffensive in the first person (“I am hopeless!”), becomes perfectly unbearable in the second person (“You are hopeless!”).

“Theotime never thinks without amusement of old Abba Leonides who loved to say: ‘I am an ass, a dunce, a poor man, a sinner, the last of all,’ smiling tenderly while reprimanding himself in this way. Indeed, if there is one thing Abba Leonides does not like at all, it is for others to point out his faults. Make him aware of small errors, minute omissions, and he falls into a fit of anger, his ears turning red. He claims to be working on humility all alone.”

Translated from French: Frère Denis Hubert, Théotime, Chroniques de la vie monastique, Paris, Karthala, 1998.
Quoted in: Christophe André, Imparfaits, libres et heureux. Pratiques de l’estime de soi,
Paris, Odile Jacob, 2006, p. 420-421

Why do we react so negatively to criticisms when they come from others, while we are often the first to criticise ourselves and even verbalise such criticism in front of others? Clearly, it is not so much the content of the criticism that hurts us (even if the content does play a non-negligible role) as the fact that it comes from another person.

When others criticise us, it hurts our feelings because they put us down and thereby challenge another profound tendency that structures our relationship to the world: “superioritism”. Indeed, not only do we feel that we are at the centre of the world, we also feel that we are at its peak. This explains the extreme discomfort we feel when comments or criticisms are made against us by others, or when we experience failure in public.

Obviously this does not imply that we are all afflicted with megalomania. Things are of course far more complex when we are experiencing them. There are people whose superiority in one field or another cannot be denied, people we admire and place above ourselves. If we look more closely though, it is possible to unravel some of the strategies set up by the ego to help make these situations bearable.

Indeed, the people we admire are often at a safe distance from us—physically or symbolically—, so they don’t cast a shadow on our ego. Celebrities for example, or people whose age, experience or social position set them apart. We can also easily admit the superiority of someone whose field of excellence does not rival with ours—I am willing to admire a remarkable violinist if I myself do not play an instrument. But if, in fact, I played third violin in an orchestra, it would be much harder for me to admit the virtuosity of the second violin and his superiority over me.

A further example: I can admire someone who is close to me to the extent that the proximity to this person makes me shine too, giving enough satisfaction to my ego. If a childhood friend becomes a movie star overnight, I can either become jealous and distance myself from him or admire him and allow my ego to reap the bit of glory from the fact that I am part of the celebrity’s intimate circle. I will have to admit that he is on a much higher level than myself, but in doing so I also gain a choice position among all others: I am at the second highest position.

I can of course also simply accept a more modest position—I can sincerely love and admire. But this is not generally going to be my first inclination or a natural path for me to walk. Acquiring such an attitude requires introspection and an effort to control the ego.

Self-centredness and “superioritism” are in my opinion the two most prominent characteristics of pride, two underlying tendencies the pressure of which is at the heart of most of our thoughts and actions. It is extremely difficult to describe them. They are omnipresent yet subtle and fluctuating, they are difficult to grasp. Once we finally spot one of their manifestations within ourselves, they freeze and appear in grotesque and exaggerated forms we have trouble identifying with. Only fools or megalomaniacs believe they are at the centre and the peak of the universe, we tell ourselves. As a matter of fact, no sensible person consciously believes that he or she is at the centre and the peak of the world. In practice, however, our actions and the various emotions that inhabit us are proof that these tendencies are deeply rooted in us.

This representation, albeit rough, can help us clarify some of the definitions given so far. Consubstantial pride is an omnipresent and relentlessly active force in us, the goal of which is to create and sustain the illusion of an over-sized ego. Humility, by opposition, is a force that enables us to resist the pressure exerted by pride by opening our eyes to the reality of what we are and of the place we hold in the world.


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22 comments

  1. 7 Oct 31, 2012 1:22 pm 1

    Thank you, for the article. However, my experiences have been the opposite?
    I have been experiencing stronger negative feelings when it comes to celebrities. My dilated ego has more problem to admit the superiority of the one’s who are not close to me!
    I have been trying to understand these problem for so long. why I have less issue, when it comes to people around me? I am wondering, is it because, I am too self centered that I don’t even see the people close to me in my level ?
    Does any one can analyze my situation and give me advice?

  2. A. Nov 01, 2012 4:51 pm 2

    In my opinion, one of the most disturbing ways this superiority complex manifests itself is when we have a lot of theoretical knowledge in the field of authentic ethics/natural spirituality that we have not really put into practice. If the teachings are “very high level”, we think we are also “very high level”. Failures we incur when practicing ethics allow us to decrease this feeling of superiority.

    I myself have suffered from an intense superiority complex during 17 years and I remember very well how frequently I felt vexed when people did not pay attention to me and my knowledge, did not listen to me and did not ask me any questions… Now, since very few people are interested by authentic spirituality/ethics, my relations with the rest of society looked like those of a frustrated professor with students not paying attention to him. Incidentally, those who were interested by ethics/spirituality were probably not attracted by my style, because people always like authentic humility and abhor pride.

    I did not fully realize the extent of this flaw until after I suffered some repeated humiliations at work. Namely, I was demoted several times and had to stay in the same company where I had been demoted (lack of alternatives). These experiences reduced my complex since I no longer feel like giving lessons to anybody. The degree of severity of this flaw (prior to the demotions) has now become very apparent. I can now clearly see how this superiority complex used to negatively affect most of my relations with others. I now feel closer to other people, my relations have become healthier, more natural, because when one feels superior, all relations are contaminated, or warped by the superiority complex. This confirms that unpleasant experiences we live through are often divine therapies with very beneficial effects.

    I also want to add that in the past, when I became aware of my pride, I tried to reason and convince myself that I was not superior (I reviewed my failures, my mistakes, my flaws..) but that lasted only a short time and that reasoning process was really efficacious only in as far as I had recently failed at something or recent events had “highlighted” my flaws. In other words, reasoning myself was efficacious at decreasing (for some time) my superiority complex only if I could draw on some recent experiences (fresh memories).

  3. ilana Nov 02, 2012 1:27 pm 3

    @A. and 7
    I understand that one may be blinded by one’s ego to the actual truth and extent of one’s superioritism so that one does not even see it (I don’t know why we are envious of celebrities). It is also clear to me that only experience and practice truly make the difference. And that humbling experiences can make us learn a lot about ourselves.

    I too often believe I have knowledge of higher truths than people around me. And then I will be in conversation with a friend who is ardently interested in ethics and spirituality but not on the same path as myself (thus, in my mind not at my level) and I am struck with the clarity with which they are able to voice the principles I study but struggle to come to terms with in my everyday life but cannot at the moment grasp or speak of in a good way. I see how much I swim in a fog. Maybe just now, I am not in the right place, not practicing consciously, not aware enough of my soul in everyday circumstances, making excuses, speaking badly about others, having feelings of righteousness and demands on life (hence on God)….and that is what is clouding my mind and my awareness. And in the matter of a talk and a walk with someone I mostly feel quite superior to, here I am on this website again looking for a thread, and maybe back on track : )

    One of the issues that I have been struggling with and that got me into the fog in the first place was yielding to these thoughts of superioritism, that I am all around so wonderful and superior (oh, and that is what I hate the most about others…) and yet that I have not been very successful at all and often feel ashamed that I did not at least try and be more and have more or that my feeble attempts failed so far. Contrary to A. my pride is strong and my feeling of superiority despite the fact that I feel I feel outwardly humbled. However, I have no serious problems, I have enough to be fine, and yet I spiral myself into thinking that I am so miserable. Maybe if I were more successful I would spiral away from the divine. Maybe I do not want to put the effort it takes to do better? Maybe this is all fine right now.

    I certainly have to learn not to be judgmental of others and so angry all the time. I have to learn to be more generous and less expectant of a return…And realize that I am not really better than everyone else…

    Maybe if I focus again on the bigger picture, on my spiritual dimension, on my spiritual routine and the little things at my little level, things will come back into perspective with clarity and beauty.

  4. m.m Nov 02, 2012 5:11 pm 4

    Thank you for great article and great comments. I too have suffered from been self-centeredness and from thinking I am superior to others. Getting familiar with basic ethics, I developed another suffering; the disappointment in myself because I saw I could not turn things around and stop being self centered. I liked this article because it reminded me once again that the pride within is consubstantial. It can hardly be overcome because it is part of our condition as human being living on Earth. We can make it weaker by relentless effort, but we should always be vigilant because it keeps coming back. So our duty is just keep trying and never be disappointed.

  5. Jimmy Nov 04, 2012 2:48 am 5

    Is being overambitious a sign of “the feeling of superioritism?”
    I feel like I want to get ahead and move in an upward direction (e.g., career) and in the process, devote substantial mental resources to such accomplishments. I think the reason I am so consumed by this over-ambition is because I feel like I deserve to be at a higher level than others. Maybe this comes from a superiority complex?
    Any comments in clarifying/overcoming this is greatly appreciated.

  6. aa Nov 04, 2012 4:33 am 6

    People have told me that my tone or way of speaking makes me sound like I think that I am better than them. Although, I don’t consciously feel as if I am “superior” and don’t intend to make anyone feel that way.
    What actions can I take to improve myself and become more humble both consciously and unconscious?

  7. Wire Nov 04, 2012 5:07 pm 7

    I wonder what is meant by CONSUBSTANTIAL pride. This word is defined as “Of the same substance or essence (used esp. of the three persons of the Trinity in Christian theology)”, but I am unclear as to why the author uses this term in this context…can anyone help?

  8. Jean-Jacques Stern Nov 04, 2012 8:24 pm 8

    @Wire: I might be wrong but I think it means that pride stems from our very essence, it oozes from the very substance of our being, hence the term “consubstantial pride”.

  9. m.m Nov 05, 2012 5:29 pm 9

    @ Jimmy , I have had the same problem. I always need to be the best in my my work and I spend a lot of time and energy to keep my self the best. I know for sure that it is a weakness that I should fight with. Once I decided to make an analogy between my professional duties and spiritual duties. I found out that when I never was late for a meeting, many times, my prayers were not on time and when I was normally well prepared and focused for giving speeches and lectures, I was not so for my spiritual duty. I concluded that when the satisfaction of the head of the department was very important for me, sadly, God’s satisfaction did not really have that importance. This conclusion made me very sad because theoretically, I knew better. I knew that this world would pass fast and in the other world, there would be no use for any material positions, as prestigious as might be.

  10. Charlie Nov 05, 2012 8:41 pm 10

    Thank you very much for all 3 articles which have helped me have a clearer picture of myself. It is so true that I was identifying with the examples even as I was reading this article. From what I understand, I am so submerged in consubstantial pride and it will be my driving force unless I fight it. It will be hard to pinpoint it to a single train of thought or behaviour because it permeates everything I think and do. So I have to fight against it. In order to fight against consubstantial pride is it enough to simply remind myself of how insignificant I am by reasoned thoughts and self suggestion or is there a more effective way of fighting it?

  11. wire Nov 07, 2012 2:43 am 11

    @ilana

    Thank you for voicing in such a lucid way exactly my sentiments. I have had conversations with atheists who have explained in very clear way why they do not believe in God, and although i am diametrically opposed to this opinion, i still walked away from the conversation impressed with the extent to which they had thought about the issue and were so able to communicate their opinion. i think this is because they have come to this opinion through their experience. i feel very comfortable with my opinions, and get a lot of pride in the fact that i have faith and a path, but do not understand spiritual principles more than 0.01% because i have not put these principles into practice, and that reminds me that i need to be humble.

    in fact, those who understand the most are the ones who feel the most humility. As Socrates says “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”

  12. A. Nov 07, 2012 7:21 am 12

    @Jimmy @m.m

    >Is being overambitious a sign of “the feeling of superioritism?
    Whether ambition at work is good or whether one is being overambitious really depends on one’s intention : if one works hard to improve one’s family material life i.e. pay for better schools for one’s kids, or for one’s parents nursing, or even to get a more interesting job etc. then it is obviously positive but if one kills oneself to ensure that people admire him/her, or trying to earn a fortune etc. then it is obviously not very positive

    Only when I was “serially” demoted at work did I realize how important people’s opinions were to me. Meeting my colleagues after my demotions felt like walking in the street wearing only underwear. It was really painful, psychologically speaking, but every time less painful… until the day I will probably end up not caring at all what people think. I can already feel it now a little bit, that day I will be freer human being. I will be a little less subject to the causal gravity. So, despite what happened to me is synonym of being a loser (especially in American culture) I am actually a winner for sure.

  13. Jake Nov 07, 2012 11:23 pm 13

    @m.m: There is something weird in your reasoning. Wrong, even. You can’t compare your “professional duty” to whatever you call your “spiritual duty.” As a matter of fact, your head of the department does care about your doing your job properly, but I doubt that God cares whether you accomplish your “spiritual duty” or not! By definition, God doesn’t have any need (quite the opposite of your head of department actually), so why should God care if you pray once a day, twice a year or not at all? You compare “God’s satisfaction” to the satisfaction of your boss, as if God could be “satisfied,” as if God had needs waiting to be satisfied. Well, what do you think happens when you don’t act according to “God’s satisfaction?” God’s frustration? Because that’s what happens to your boss when you don’t do your job properly!
    If praying has no effect on you, why should you even pray? Your lack of motivation concerning your “spiritual duties” when you compare it to your motivation for your professional activity just shows that, well, you’re getting concrete results when you’re doing your job. You just don’t feel you’re getting the same concrete results when you’re doing some “spiritual duty.” Maybe you should just drop this ritualistic approach and start looking for some serious knowledge. There is a post here that explains this better than me. It defines “seeking God’s satisfaction” as some kind of mental technique for avoiding to dupe ourselves.

  14. wire Nov 12, 2012 11:57 pm 14

    the picture associated with the article is quite interesting. First, the figure in the image is the smallest part–the landscape, the tree, the sky, and the stars dwarf the figure to the point that it is almost a negligible part of the universe. Second, the shadow of the figure is almost twice as large as the figure itself–in other words, how he/she sees itself is actually larger than it really is!

    i think this image encapsulates pride in a beautiful way.

  15. A. Nov 13, 2012 7:10 am 15

    @Charlie
    A good way is to try to apply ethics, practice natural spirituality and then analyze one’s failures. Practice can also be fighting against one’s thoughts, trying to clearly see them. Malak Jan Nemati is reported to have said that once one sees one’s thoughts clearly, one is so ashamed that one does not know where to hide any longer.
    For example a few days ago I wrote a post on the spiritual effect of my multiple demotions and how I felt this made me a little better. As I had finished writing it, without realizing it I thought something like “let me show this people – ie. the readers of these comments – what I have gained in wisdom and they still have not”. In other words, I had barely finished describing an experience that had undoubtedly allowed me to decrease a little bit my superiority complex, that there it went again … I felt superior again and even after living through such humiliating experiences! That is why the process is very gradual, and consubstantial pride is going to stay with me until we die.

    Another example, along the same lines, happened to me a few days ago. I was reading a previous article “Excursion in my deep conscious self” and whilst I read the paragraph where the author described the characteristics of the surface conscious self I clearly thought to myself “I am not like that. I have improved a little bit”. Now, 20 minutes later I called my kids on the phone, who I had not see for 10 days because of mid-term vacations, and both of them hung up on me because they were watching TV. No later had they done that, that my imperious self started to complain “how dare you treat me like that! Wait until you come back home and you need something from me – and that happens all the time ! and you will see what I will do to you! etc.” The sound of its voice was devilish almost scary. And this was with my own kids. So, it is a very long, drawn out struggle and we really need to be patient and perseverant. Everytime we think that out enemy has become weaker, or that significant progress has been made, we can sure it is our enemy’s voice

  16. Charlie Nov 16, 2012 1:40 am 16

    @m.m.
    I also feel sad when i can see how much i have to gain by correcting my intention and trying to seek God’s satisfaction and instead i end up placing too much value and effort into material things. If I gave in to the feeling of hopelessness that makes me feel I would just give up but I find that it helps to remind myself that this is the reason I am here and as long as I continue to see my weaknesses and am doing what i sincerely believe to be the correct action to fight the weaknesses then i am going in the right direction. I also find that it helps me to remind myself that there is no dividing line between material and spiritual life. Material life is whete i can practice all these theories i have the privilege of having access to

  17. Jimmy Nov 17, 2012 6:32 pm 17

    @m.m: Thank you for your thoughtful and constructive comments. I found your analogy, taken as a whole and not piecemeal, to mean we tend to over value our material life styles, positions, and ambitions in comparison to our spiritual destiny. Drawing on A.’s (comment 12) valuable experience, hopefully through experience we can shift our perspectives in a more spiritual direction, such that while striving to materially succeed, we don’t get consumed by the outcome (promotions, respect of peers, etc.). I am of course writing about this as opposed to DOING it, whereby the goal is … practice and not theory.

  18. Charlie Nov 18, 2012 1:13 pm 18

    @A.
    Thank you so much for your helpful suggestions and experiences. It is at the times when I analyse my day (or past) and see my failures that I have this strong surge of hopelessness and my thread of thinking goes something along the lines of: I am a failure in everything so why even bother. From reading these 3 articles I can see now that the source of this is my consubstantial pride and it has given me so much hope. However, I am now aware that this energy will find another route which has started happening, that is me thinking now I know what it is and have started fighting it, it is now weaker and I can now control it better! So, thank you for your reminder that this is a long term struggle during which my enemy is going to have many voices!

  19. MaryS Nov 19, 2012 11:25 pm 19

    @Jimmy

    I hear you, Jimmy. Practicing takes us higher than theory. We all can talk as much as we want, but are we truly doing what we are discussing here? Well said.

  20. A. Nov 21, 2012 9:42 am 20

    @Charlie “IT IS AT THE TIMES WHEN I ANALYSE MY DAY (OR PAST) AND SEE MY FAILURES THAT I HAVE THIS STRONG SURGE OF HOPELESSNESS AND MY THREAD OF THINKING GOES SOMETHING ALONG THE LINES OF: I AM A FAILURE IN EVERYTHING SO WHY EVEN BOTHER.”

    Thanks for bringing this up. One way that consubstantial pride manifests itself is through a form of depression that kicks in when events clearly show that we are not superior to others for example, or that others really do not pay attention to us at all. Instead of aligning ourselves with reality, we tend to become depressed. And this can be quite severe. I have suffered from this extensively.

    In French I believe it is called “depression orgueilleuse” which in English could be translated as “proud depression” or “depression of the one who is proud”. It is yet another manifestation of consubstantial pride. We should fight against it just like against the other 2 forms, i.e. feeling superior and self-centredness

    By the way, whilst I am about to post this comment my consubstantial pride goes again and suggests the following (crazy thoughts): this comment that I am writing is really interesting, it will certainly be published and it is very likely that the editors of the site will contact me to offer the possibility to collaborate. It is very embarassing to admit to myself that I have such thoughts.

  21. m.m Nov 22, 2012 7:53 am 21

    @wire, thank you for drawing my attention to the picture. It really depicts what the paper means to tell .The image we have of ourselves is just the shadow of our reality. It does not represent us. Keeping it in mind is helpful to fight with our pride.

  22. Charlie Nov 24, 2012 4:03 pm 22

    @A.
    What you say is really intersting. When I started analysing my thought process, I started to see that even at times when I think I am being helpful and doing the right thing, the consubstantial pride is hard at work. What I am trying to figure out is the best way to combat all these manifestations. It seems so overwhelming and strong.

    @wire
    Thank you for telling us about the picture. It is very revealing and I would have not noticed it otherwise.

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