Low self-esteem is the flip side of pride

May 16, 2024

Arrogance is a really interesting state of mind. We never like to admit to being arrogant. Anger: we’re even prepared to admit to that. But arrogant? We don’t like to think we’re arrogant; it doesn’t make sense to us

But in our culture, we love to admit to low self-esteem. And what’s utterly fascinating about this is that low self-esteem is like the flip side of arrogance, pride. If you didn’t have arrogance, you could not possibly have low self-esteem. This is quite shocking, so let’s look at this.

The key function of all the delusions, all the unhappy states of mind – actually there are two: one is they’re very disturbing, but the main one is they’re delusional, meaning they’re misconceptions deep in our bones that exaggerate certain aspects of the object. With arrogance, the object is obviously self: arrogance over-inflates, exaggerates our own importance.

And what is low self-esteem? It’s the opposite: it exaggerates our own lack of importance. If you constantly feel you are nothing, if you constantly feel you are hopeless – “I’m nobody, I’m nothing, I can’t do it, I’m so negative” – that’s the flip side of pride. 

The fact is, if you didn’t have arrogance, if you didn’t have pride, you couldn’t possibly have low self-esteem. It’s like deflated pride, you know? We know that as soon as someone insults us, we’re so injured; there’s so much pain, and then it turns into low self-esteem.

Now, we can see arrogance in other people very easily: “Oh my God, he’s so arrogant. That woman is incredible; she’s so arrogant. Look at them.” We see it in other people, but it’s really hard to see it in ourselves; we would never like to think we’re arrogant. 

A big problem is we mix the delusions and the virtuous states of mind. We confuse self-confidence with arrogance, and we confuse humility with low self-esteem – but self-confidence and humility are both virtues. So a humble person would be self-confident and an arrogant one would fall into low self-esteem.

Humility is a spacious state of mind: it’s relaxed, content. It’s a virtue; it’s more reasonable, it’s more in sync with dependent arising, and it’s comfortable. When you’re humble, you’re realistic about who you are and you’re content with it, you are self-confident. Arrogance is a nonvirtue, a delusion. It’s over-inflated, it’s ego-based, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s distorted. 

Look at a person who’s arrogant: they’re very fragile. I always think of the example of two people in the same room: let’s say they’re both good at the same thing, and one has got arrogance and one has got humility. The humble person is delighted to meet someone else who’s even better than they are. But the arrogant person is really distressed, really nervous, can’t bear the thought of meeting a person who might be better than them because what happens is they take it as a personal insult, and they get upset, and then they feel, “Oh, I’m nobody.” They flip it over, and they become, “I am nobody. I am nothing.”

We’ve all got arrogance, and, in the West especially I think it’s one of our main delusions. That’s why we all have so much low self-esteem. When an arrogant person sees people better than they are, they’re thinking, “How dare all these people out there be better than me? How dare everybody be more happy and more wise and more this and more rich and everything else?” 

We can’tbear to see this quality in ourselves. But it’s why we get hurt and injured and offended so easily. Look how fragile we are!

And this arrogance comes hand in hand with anger. If you’ve got anger, you can’t not have arrogance, and if you’ve got arrogance, you can’t not have anger. They’re like two cousins, like brothers, like sisters. I remember Atisha, this eleventh-century yogi, saying – I forget which way he put it, but both would work – “The best patience is humility.” But “The best humility is patience” is perfect too, isn’t it?

This is not to criticize us. Seeing these delusions is really quite difficult because we’re so close to them, they’re so instinctive, and even hearing about them sounds like criticism, but if we can see our faults, we can see our suffering, and then we can find the solution.

We should be delighted to see our delusions and then know that they’re impermanent, they’re not set in stone, they don’t define me, and I can change. That’s the humility that has to come, you know? So we need this humility – and patience – I tell you. It’s being kind to ourselves.

More blog posts

Big surprise! Attachment is the main source of our problems

As far as the four noble truths are concerned, the main source of our suffering is attachment: this is what we have to understand. This is surprising: we don’t think like this. This is not Jung's model of the mind, or Freud's. And you don't get attachment from your...

Neuroses are not at the core of our being and therefore can be removed

Let’s talk about the fundamental point that underpins all of Buddha’s teachings from A to Z – all of Buddha's teachings from A to zed, as we say in England and Australia. According to the Buddhist analysis, the neurotic states of mind, the unhappy states of mind, the...

Angry thoughts arising in the mind is not necessarily “being angry”

Part of the process of becoming conscious inevitably means we're going to see the rubbish in our head more clearly. All these negative thoughts – the worries, the anxiety, the anger, the fears – loom large, and they fill our head. The tragedy is we overexaggerate...

Share this article