Arrogance and low self-esteem: flip sides of the same coin

Nov 11, 2021


If we’re accused of being arrogant, it’s not very comfortable, is it? “No!” we think. “I don’t have pride. I have low self-esteem.”


We all have low self-esteem. In fact, His Holiness the Dalai Lama when he heard about the extent of low self-esteem in our culture, he said, “That’s a mental illness.” And it’s true. 


It’s a bit of a shock to hear it, but it’s the flip side of arrogance, of pride. Low self-esteem is what we feel when we’re being insulted. But the fact is we wouldn’t have low self-esteem if we didn’t have arrogance and pride. This is a very curious thing. 


First of all, any of the unhappy states of mind, any of the delusions, any of the misconceptions – the delusions are misconceptions – have this component of being emotionally disturbing, right? Any of the disturbing emotions, any of the misconceptions or delusions, their one main thing is they’ve got the very loud voice: “I.”


There’s a better way to say it: they are the voices of I, but the neurotic, fearful, grasping, fantasy I. And the energy of I is fear. The energy of this neurotic I is fear. And the more we look into all our delusions, the more we’ll see they’re completely based in fear. Fear of I not getting what it wants. I has to get what it wants. I being insulted, I being less than I really am, I am not that, “I,” that fearful, panic-stricken I, that’s the neurotic I that we grasp at one million percent as real, which Buddha says is a complete fabrication. And this is a very hard thing to see. 


Because of grasping at this fantasy I we have attachment, anger and the other neuroses, including pride. Pride or arrogance is a delusion, not a virtue; it’s the state of mind that is based on the over-exaggerated I and is the attitude that “I am more than I actually am.” It’s an over-inflated sense of your being better at something or more important at something. And, it works in a very subtle way and it’s quite pervasive actually: I am more beautiful, more tall, I’ve got nicer hair, my feet are better; it could be the tiniest thing. 


When it’s in the mind, it’s always referencing everybody else in relation to this. And when we see other people who are more beautiful, more intelligent, more rich, who’ve got nicer hair, better shaped feet, what does that bring? “Oh, they’re better than me, I must be no good.” That’s what low self-esteem is. Pride collapses into low self-esteem. We’re always looking at others and always comparing with others. First, “I am so special,” then “I am no good.” But, it’s nonsense. Both the feeling that you are more important and the feeling that you are less important are distortions, exaggerations. They’re both delusions. They’re the flipside of the same coin. 


We think of low self-esteem as some kind of a virtue almost. But, it’s not. It’s an appalling state of mind. It’s awful. But it’s the same quality as arrogance. Arrogance is looking in the mirror and saying, “Oh, I’m so beautiful.” Low self-esteem looks in the mirror and says, “Oh, I’m so ugly.” The reference for both is I and they’re both a mistake. They’re both exaggerations. All delusions exaggerate. Pride exaggerates your beauty. Low self-esteem and self-hate exaggerate your ugliness. They’re both distortions. They’re both not accurate. Low self-esteem is deflated pride. If you didn’t have arrogance, you wouldn’t have low self-esteem. This is a very interesting point. 


So what’s self-confidence? And what’s humility? Humility is almost like a dirty word for us because it seems like you lower yourself even more. But actually humility and self-confidence are virtues, not delusions.


But we think humility is low self-esteem and self-confidence is pride. And so of course we then think that if we have to give up pride we have to give up self-confidence. 


Then we think if humility is good, this means I have low self-esteem. No! We confuse them completely. We need self-confidence, we need humility! They’re virtues, they’re reasonable, they’re not exaggerations.


A simple example: think of two people coming into a crowded room, they’re both gorgeous, both beautiful. One has self-confidence, let’s say, and one has pride. Self-confidence is not deluded, it’s not based on the neurotic I, it’s not comparing, it’s not fearful. This person is content with who they are, they’re comfortable in their own skin. They’re easygoing. And they’re not comparing themselves with others. 


When that person walks into the room they are very un-self-conscious. They are happy to meet people who are more beautiful than they are. They delight in seeing other people’s qualities. They have no fear of what people think. They’re not self-conscious. They are actually thinking of others, in a very natural, un-self-conscious way. 


The arrogant person is walking in utterly absorbed in “I,” fearful, worried about meeting someone who’s better, worried about what people are thinking. That’s pride. And terrified of being seen as less, almost waiting for the insult, and then when they discover someone more beautiful or when someone says, “You are not so beautiful” they’re devastated, they’re so offended, they collapse into low self-esteem. That’s pride. 


It’s the same with attachment and love: we totally put them together but they are utterly different states of mind. Attachment is neurotic I-based; love is spacious, altruistic other-based.


With virtuous states of mind, we’re comfortable, relaxed. With deluded states of mind, we’re miserable.


The key to understanding the difference is what Buddhist psychology is about. Our job as Buddhists is to distinguish between the delusions and the virtues: this is our fundamental, daily job. This is the method for getting happy.



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