Two suggestions on dealing with so-called 'conceited' people
"I've never met a conceited person."
"You've got to be kidding!"
"No, I'm serious. I have never met a person who is really conceited."
The key word here is "really."
Sure, there are a lot of people who act conceited, but that is just what it is -- an act. Their conceited behavior is a front for what they really think about themselves.
Most so-called conceited people are actually just the opposite. Beneath their surface bravado, they don't really like themselves all that much. They have a good case of what mental health professionals call a "low self-concept."
Our self-concept -- how we see ourselves -- starts developing when we are infants. It is very dependent on what other people tell us about ourselves.
If our parents, siblings, friends, etc ... give us a lot of "you are lovable and capable" messages, then we will see ourselves that way too. If they don't, we probably won't either. And if we get the opposite -- constant messages about not being good enough, not being able to do anything right, not liked or loved -- then watch out, we are really in trouble.
That is where people who act conceited are at. They may talk our ear off telling us how great they are, but what they really are trying to do is convince us, and themselves, that they are OK. In fact, chances are, the more they brag the less they really do like themselves.
Somewhere these people just didn't get enough of those "you are lovable and capable" messages, if not the very opposite. So, they spend an awful lot of time and energy trying to talk us into giving them the messages now. In fact, their whole life -- pretty much everything they do and say, can be driven by this need. And often they don't even know that this is the true source of their behavior.
Usually these behaviors backfire. We get tired quickly of people who act conceited. We stop listening, or get sarcastic, or avoid them. We don't take them seriously. That's just the opposite of what they want from us. It just adds to their underlying belief that they really aren't lovable or capable. Some people go to crazy lengths to try to get us to convince them they are worthwhile, special, or important.
I'm going to make two suggestions that may break this cycle.
First, be aware of people in your life whose conceited behavior is getting on your nerves. The next time they begin a long discourse on some accomplishment, try something different. Don't stop listening or walk away. Hear what they are really saying and be empathic.
"That sounds great!" or "I'll bet you feel proud!" are phrases that will give these people the messages they are desperately asking for. If you can do that consistently, they'll no longer need to try so hard to convince you, or themselves, that they really are OK.
Secondly, if it seems to you that you are one of those people who come across as conceited, take a hard look at what you really do think about yourself. What do you want from other people? Is your conceited behavior getting it for you? I bet it isn't.
If you want others to tell you that you're OK, then risk telling them that you really aren't all that sure about yourself. Chances are, once you admit your own doubts, you'll find out that most people struggle with self-doubt, too. You can build each other up.
Now, one caveat. Some people can be so damaged that they their very personality is disordered by their need to reassure themselves that they are good enough. If that is coupled with power and a lack of empathy for others, this person can be downright dangerous. In such cases we first need to protect ourselves from this person's behaviors before we have any chance of helping him.
Maybe somewhere there really is a conceited person. But, I kinda doubt it. I do know that there are an awful lot of us who need to hear some "you are lovable and capable" messages from each other. I think the more of these messages we send, the better off we'll all be.
• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaracare Counseling Center in Naperville, Downers Grove, Geneva, and throughout the North Shore. His book "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children" is available online.