Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Why Some People (Maybe Even Us) Think They're So Special

... and what to do about it.

Andy Dean Photography/Shutterstock
Source: Andy Dean Photography/Shutterstock

George Bernard Shaw famously said, “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.”

I would extend his theme to cover something that comes naturally to us all, which I’ll call pseudo-exceptionalism—the unearned conviction that we are exceptional, superior to others because we were

We simply assume that we’re kinder, more honest, more realistic, more wholesome than those around us. After all, we’re married to ourselves for life, so we make accommodations: We cut ourselves slack. We’re fast to forgive ourselves. When challenged, we’re much better at making our case than our opponent’s. We spot injustices to ourselves far faster than we spot our injustices to others.

All living organisms serve themselves, of course, but through language, we humans have the capacity to rationalize our self-service. We’re masters at coming up with any argument we need in order to keep forgiving, accepting, and liking ourselves. This tendency can be overcome but it takes conscious work that doesn’t come naturally. (Perhaps encouraging people to do this work should be a higher priority in education, certainly in moral education.)

If you’ve ever suggested that someone has behaved badly, and gotten a response like, “I would never do that. My intentions are good,” you've witnessed pseudo-exceptionalism at work. The accused looks inward in response to your challenge, but gingerly and selectively. He doesn’t look for possible ulterior motives; he looks for the beliefs that he has embraced in principle: “I’m someone who believes that one should be honest” is all he needs to find in order to respond with, “That couldn’t be me. I’m not the kind who does that. Others? Sure. But not me.”

Pseudo-exceptionalism subsidizes our sense of self-confidence, and while many people harbor self-doubt, that does not temper pseudo-exceptionalism so much as feed it. If you’re filled with self-doubt already, someone else doubting you could make your pseudo-exceptionalism work overtime to keep you feeling okay about yourself. You become that much more defensive.

If that’s you, people won’t know how to deal with you. On the one hand, they can see that you’re full of self-doubt; on the other, you come across as a know-it-all, very full of yourself. Out of respect for your hypersensitivity, they may walk on eggshells around you. But in response to your hyperactive compensatory pseudo-exceptionalism, they’ll want to get through to you.

There’s a lot of popular concern these days about dealing with narcissists and psychopaths. Such people exist but are far rarer than pseudo-exceptionalists. It’s safe to assume we’re all pseudo-exceptionalists to some extent. (And chances are, the person you’re inclined to label as a narcissist or sociopath is just a garden-variety pseudo-exceptionalist.)

The biggest side effect of pseudo-exceptionalism is something I’ll call passive-exploitive behavior—basically taking up whatever room one can get away with taking, not as a consciously active campaign, but as a passive outcome of thinking, as we all do, that we’re special, and therefore entitled to a bit more than others.

Passive-aggressiveness is just one form that passive-exploitive behavior takes, chiefly when one’s exaggerated sense of entitlement is thwarted, and one senses that he or she is therefore entitled to revenge.

More generally, passive-exploitive behavior includes any behavior pursued in the dark about one’s own tendency toward pseudo-exceptionalism. It can include talking over others; giving less attention to their preferences than yours, justifying yourself more readily than you consider other people’s justifications, and rationalizing why you deserve more by whatever means are available—and a great many means are available to our rationalizing minds. The pseudo-exceptionalist's prayer is, “Grant me one good reason why I can do what I want to do." Given our imaginations, that prayer is invariably granted.

Do you know anyone who engages in passive-exploitive behaviors? The better question may be, Do you know anyone who doesn’t?

More from Psychology Today

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D., MPP

More from Psychology Today