Believing that no harm can come your way, no matter what, can lead you to become a victim of the myth of invincibility. There is a reason behind the saying that “pride goeth before a fall,” or that excessive pride or hubris, commonly regarded as a tragic flaw, will lead to your own undoing. Once you’ve convinced yourself that you’re invincible, you fail to see yourself in an accurate or realistic light. Whatever shortcomings you’ve avoided coming to grips with can then come back to haunt you. And, if they're serious enough, they can lead to your downfall.
We see plenty of examples in the media of celebrities and politicians who think they can do no harm. Most recently, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, given the “Superman” designation prior to Super Bowl 50, failed to live up to expectations when the big game came along. Although his team certainly would have gone into that game well-prepared and ready, who knows how much the accolades that media foisted upon him turned his head, and focus?
Anyone who goes into a competitive situation convinced of his or her own invincibility is liable to suffer a similar fate. Once you see yourself as the inevitable hero or victor, you’ll fail to prepare yourself for the reality of what might end up being a very challenging situation. Imagine that you’re going into a high-pressure meeting where you need to talk your boss into agreeing to a request, or beat out a coworker looking for the same plum outcome. Instead of methodically going through the rationale of your approach in your mind, you gloss over the details, thinking only of how great it will feel to win. When your boss asks for those details, you're stumped, and your rival carries the day.
Similarly, in relationships, invincibility leads you to ignore potential weaknesses in the way you and your partner manage difficulties. You may feel like you’re the one who deserves special treatment and therefore fail to engage in the kind of give-and-take that keeps relationships thriving.
It’s clear that invincibility is a component of narcissism, as by definition, people high in narcissism cannot see or admit to their own flaws. They believe they are deserving of that special attention that they want everyone to give them, and so make constant demands on their partners. Focused only on themselves, they become unable to empathize with their partners, and resist changing when their partners seek to improve the quality of the relationship. With their eyes closed to their contribution to the weaknesses in their relationship, they’ll be caught up short when their partners announce that they’ve had enough and walk out the door.
The myth of invincibility relates to the notion of the personal fable. Psychologist David Elkind coined this term to refer to the tendency of adolescents to engage in endless egocentric fantasies. If you believe in the personal fable, you see yourself as the hero or heroine of your life story, and imagine that others see you that way as well. Thus, it’s a direct outgrowth of early development. Through experience and maturation, most individuals (the non-narcissistic ones) gain a more realistic and measured view of their own importance.
Those who don’t overcome their personal fable tendencies are the ones most at risk for the dangers of the invincibility myth. Northwestern University’s Drew Cingel and colleagues (2015) believed that belief in the personal fable doesn’t end at adolescence. Given the extension of adolescence into what’s now called “emerging adulthood” (ages 18-30), it’s possible to see these invincibility notions stretch out for years. On top of this, Facebook has the potential to bring out the personal fable in many more people than ever before. Linked to the personal fable is the “imaginary audience,” the people you believe are following you and evaluating your every move. If Facebook doesn't exacerbate this, I don’t know what does.
Using this logic, Cingel and his team predicted that heavy Facebook users would be higher in the personal fable belief in part because of their feeling that an imaginary audience is constantly following them (i.e., their Facebook friends). The Northwestern team also looked at “behavioral rehearsal,” or the tendency to put Facebook in the forefront of their actions. If you’re high in Facebook behavioral rehearsal, for example, you might think about how something will play out on Facebook before you even engage in the activity you’ll be posting.
The team tailored statements measuring the personal fable for adolescents, but they are translatable to all ages. They included: “I know I get away with a lot of stuff other kids get in trouble for" and "although I know that many other people may never realize their goals and ambitions I am sure that I will." The imaginary audience statements included: “Imagine what everyone will think if you became famous"; "Imagine what everyone will think if you win a lot of money;" and "Imagine what everyone will think if you rescue a friend from danger.”
The findings showed that, as predicted, both behavioral rehearsal and the imaginary audience proved to play a role in leading from Facebook use to the greater endorsement of the personal fable. This is because being on Facebook heightens your awareness of the others who may be observing and commenting on what you do. However, once the personal fable takes hold, it can further influence your Facebook use. The data analysis also revealed it can cause you to post more frequent updates, photos, and check-ins. However, for the majority of the sample, the personal fable belief didn’t relate to riskier self-disclosure. As the authors concluded, “once the adolescent feels special and unique and experiences Personal Fable ideation, our results suggest that they no longer feel a need to engage in risky self-disclosure and instead merely engage in continued high Facebook use, likely in an effort to remain active and be seen on Facebook” (p. 34).
The upshot of this study: Even if you’re far past adolescence, you may carry at least part of that personal fable notion into your everyday life, including your social media presence. No one has yet studied the personal fable in adulthood, but if we extrapolate from the Cingel et al. study, it seems that the heightened awareness we all have of our online presence due to social media could build feelings of invincibility. Staying in touch with your social media use can help you identify just how much the personal fable characterizes your sense of self. Once you focus on your actual accomplishments, and not those you imagine you deserve, you’ll find that the fable may turn to reality in your search for fulfillment.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.
Cingel, D. P., Krcmar, M., & Olsen, M. K. (2015). Exploring predictors and consequences of Personal Fable ideation on Facebook. Computers In Human Behavior, 4828-4835. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2015.01.017
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016