Can Boosting Your Self-Esteem Lead to Arrogance


Great article by my colleague, Dr. Guy Winch. Best, Noah


David was an overly-serious professional who came topsychotherapy to work on his low self-esteem. Yet, whenever we discussed exercises that could strengthen his feelings of self-worth, something interesting happened—David resisted. When I asked him why he was hesitant he admitted it was because he was afraid.


“What of?” I asked him.

“Of becoming prideful,” he explained. “I really need to be more confident but I’m worried that if the therapy succeeds and my self-esteem improves, I’ll become arrogant.”

“Trust me, there’s no way you’ll go from self-doubt to arrogant,” I reassured him.

“How can you be sure?” he asked.

“I’m just not that good,” I replied.

My joke was intended to break David’s tendency to over-think everything, as while he believed he was merely being cautious, by constantly second-guessing himself he was actually sabotaging any steps he took to rebuild his self-esteem. However, David was not alone. People with low self-esteem often worry that improving their confidence will make them arrogant.

The Difference between Arrogance and Self-Esteem

Boosting our self-esteem when it is low is important for our emotional health (read How Self-Esteem Functions as an Emotional Immune Systemhere), our happiness, and even our relationship satisfaction (read Why Some People Hate Receiving Compliments here).

But what distinguishes between people who feel confidence and pride and those who are boastful and arrogant?

Psychologists distinguish between two kinds of pride. Authentic Pridearises when we feel good about ourselves, confident, and productive and is related to socially desirable personality traits such as being agreeable,conscientious, and emotionally stable. Hubristic Pride tends to involve egotism and arrogance, and is related to socially undesirable traits such as being disagreeable, aggressive, having low or brittle self-esteem, and being prone to shame.

People who seek to improve their self-esteem are essentially looking to generate feelings of authentic pride rather than hubristic pride—they are seeking to become more confident rather than to become arrogant. The good news is authentic and hubristic pride are not on the same continuum because they represent two distinct facets of pride. People do not go from being insecure to being arrogant unless they were egotistical, selfish, and aggressive from the get go. In other words, the reason I could be so sure David (and others with low self-esteem) was unlikely to develop hubristic pride was exactly because he was worried about doing so, as his worry indicated conscientiousness and agreeableness—traits associated with authentic pride not hubristic pride.

Couldn’t My Becoming More Confident Makes Others Think I’m Arrogant?

“Okay, so I won’t become arrogant,” David said once I explained about things to him. “But isn’t it likely others might perceive my new-found confidence as arrogance?”

“People’s perceptions of others are always filtered through their own issues,” I replied. “But the research indicates that is unlikely.” I went on to explain that authentic pride tends to motivate us to display pro-social behaviors such as hard work, persistence toward our common goals, andgenerosity, while hubristic pride tends to motivate people toward anti-social behaviors that are focused on attaining dominance such as, arrogance, aggression and hostility.

While both authentic and hubristic pride can afford someone status in other people’s eyes there is a significant difference between them. In one recent study, people were able to distinguish between displays of confidence and status that were attained through hard work and socially valued skills (efforts which afford a person prestige) and status acquired through intimidation and aggression (which afford a person dominance rather than prestige). The study also found that people who displayed authentic pride were perceived as more likable than those who displayed hubristic pride. In other words, people can generally distinguish between confidence and good intentions from arrogance and selfish intentions.

Once David understood these distinctions, he felt more comfortable about moving forward and working on his self-esteem in earnest. After struggling with low self-esteem for many years, lasting feelings of true confidence were unfamiliar to him and his concerns about becoming arrogance resurfaced several times over the next months. But by then he was able to comfort himself by telling himself the one thing he knew to be true: His very concern about becoming arrogant was the strongest indicator that he was exactly the kind of person who was likely to develop authentic pride rather than hubristic pride and arrogance.

Copyright 2014 Guy Winch

One Comment on “Can Boosting Your Self-Esteem Lead to Arrogance”

  1. Will Harris says:

    Great article- answered a question I’ve agonized over for years! Thank you.

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