Philip Hendrix, 130 TESS
Let’s set the mood a little bit. Close your eyes (or don’t) and try to think of someone in your life who brags a lot, someone who loves to tell you in person or on social media how awesome they are and how awesome their life is. Try to really dwell on it – think of something they did recently that rubbed you the wrong way. For me, just the thought really gets to me. It gives me this intense wave of negative energy that somehow also silences me, as if addressing it head on would be impossible. Recently, however, I have worked up the nerve to turn my attention toward it and ask: Why does it impact me so viscerally? Why do people brag in the first place? And what is the cost?
The exploration started with the idea that all of us have a deep desire to be loved and to feel like we belong. According to vulnerability researcher Brené Brown, what really differentiates those who feel a sense of love and belonging in their lives is that they believe they are worthy of it – that they are lovable as they are, that they deserve to be accepted. I fear that many of us have come to believe that this ‘worthiness’ has to be earned, that we have to do things or be a particular version of ourselves in order to be enough. For me, this pressure is accompanied by fear: that I will do something today that makes me less worthy than I was before, or that something will happen today that proves I was never really worthy in the first place.
But what does this have to do with bragging? Perhaps when we are insecure in our ‘worthiness’, we feel the need to voice our accomplishments in order to give them weight. We may also be looking for external validation, for someone else to tell us somehow that ‘we’ve made it’. The irony, though, is that this pursuit often distances us from receiving the love and acceptance we are trying so hard to deserve. One classic example of this is unsolicited advice, where I reach out in the hopes of receiving solace and solidarity, and you respond with a monologue of, “What I do is…”, or “You should…”. You seem pleased with yourself; I feel smaller. And as helpful as the advice may be, I am not in a place to hear it, especially not from you, not for a while. When people talk unnecessarily about their accomplishments, I don’t think more highly of them; I resent them for making me question my worth and my belonging further.
For many of us, the solution to our insecurity is to convince ourselves that we have earned our place. We create a set of standards and tell ourselves we are ‘good enough’ because we meet each one of them. And while this helps us to love ourselves and to feel secure, it often causes us to be, well, smug. We become a little too pleased with ourselves, and whether we realize it or not, we begin to look down on those who don’t meet the standards we have established. As we think more about ourselves, we spend less time doing productive work, and less time thinking about others. We become less generous and less forgiving because we feel that others don’t deserve it. We begin unconsciously damaging our relationships as people begin to feel us looking down on them. As for those who meet or exceed our standards, they can be perceived as threats. We fear that they might expose us as ‘not yet good enough’, and this makes it scary for us to interact with them, let alone admire or learn from them. And then there is the adage that the pride comes before the fall. The more emotional energy we have invested in a certain vision of ourselves, the more we lose when the vision is shattered. If we stop meeting our own standards or fail in any way, then our self-esteem gets taken out from under us, leaving us with nothing to hold onto.
I think we often find ourselves in these cold wars of ego, struggling against each other just to be okay with who we are. Much of it seems to be based on this assumption that our worth has to be earned. It is not true. The solution for me isn’t a commandment forbidding jealousy or an article about how bad bragging is. The solution is to remind myself, over and over again, that I am enough, that I was always enough – that you are enough too; you always were. And the more I believe that, the more I can relax, the more I realize that we’re all on the same team here, the more I can take true pleasure in your success, the more I can be there for you when you need me, the more I can reach out for help, the more I can admire and learn from the people around me, and ultimately, ironically, the more I can share my joy with you and trust that you are ready to hear it.