Obsessive self-importance may be the new normal, and it is not pretty. We have all seen over-inflated egos expressed, from the poorest streets of our cities and dying towns to the elevated offices of CEOs and the White House itself. Likely as not, we have all tried to demonstrate our own self-importance.
Why is something that should be an aberration, so common? Well, the answer is complicated but clear. Expression of self-importance as psychological compensation for the lack of power and respect in our lives is not new. Yet, today it seems at a peak as it is seen in the new racism, xenophobia, domestic violence, politics, and just about every part of our lives. Security is scarce and anxiety is high. Anger is cathartic.
We all need to feel worthy. If secure in our relations with family and community, we do feel our self-worth in our natural relations with others. When we are not sure of where we stand with our peers or “significant others,” be they family, coworkers, or powerful people we hardly know, the likely result is status anxiety. Well, status anxiety runs rampant in modern industrial-consumer societies, as does economic anxiety since so few jobs pay a living wage or are secure anymore.
Anxiety is an expression of fear, the fear of what is to come, how it may affect me, and the fact that I have little or no control over the outcome. Since people can do so little about the sources of modern anxiety, they often compensate psychologically by expressing self-assurance. As often as not, self-assurance comes off as some demonstration of how “I am important, much more important than you.”
Expressions of self-importance are everywhere. People often use the automobile as a tool we can control to show our self-importance. Unfortunately, as with shopping, the benefits do not last. And the risks may be physical, not just economic. Typically, “road rage” asserts power in reaction to someone else’s lack of deference to the offended one, if not just incompetent driving. To the self-important driver, “it’s my road; you must show deference to me.”
Some years ago, I made a lane change on a busy street, to get to the left-turn lane. The driver behind me was not at all close; that is, I did not cut him off. Immediately, he roared around me to the right, cut in front of me, and slammed on his brakes. This guy was clearly making a statement of self-important rage. I tried to see if he had a gun, as I acted as passive as I could, dropping back as he sped up having demonstrated his vehicular power. Fortunately, I saw none.
Just Because I’m Me
People do not need to work up a case of road rage to express their self-importance in a car. The mere presence of another driver is enough. When I taught social research methodology at Cal State University, I often gave an initial assignment to go out in the world and observe some social behavior, write up descriptions and analyze what happened. I got some boring reports and a few very insightful ones. At least some students discovered that it is not such a simple matter.
One semester, a young woman who had not stood out in another class, chose to observe behavior in the campus parking lot. Shauna focused on the interaction between drivers when one is leaving a parking place while others search for one.
Shauna timed dozens of people leaving their parking places, from unlocking their door to pulling out. When another driver was waiting to take that place, departing drivers consistently took more time to leave than drivers with nobody waiting to take their parking place. They adjusted their mirror, arranged their books or backpacks, put on lipstick, checked their cell phone, or anything that would slightly delay their departure. They seemed to be saying, “This is my parking place and I’ll give it up when I am good and ready.” They were not reacting to some behavior of the waiting driver. They were asserting a bit of self-importance in a world where personal control is a scarce commodity.
A core feature of industrial-consumer economies is the social fragmentation that leaves individuals isolated, alienated, and with little personal power in their lives. They must somehow fit into the institutional matrix to survive; that offers almost no personal basis for self-worth. The alienated expression of a false sense of self-importance is a poor substitute for the healthy social relations that breed self-worth.