Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Confidence or Arrogance?

Originally posted on June 7, 2014

Many people think they know, or they give out to others the attitude that they believe completely in what they’re saying or doing. Examining history, it’s clear to me that nobody ever should be fully confident, because humans cannot know the full extent of the impact of their actions. A measure of at least 10% humility is optimal, and in some cases, raise the level of doubt to 60%. That’s science. Check it out. But most folks don’t bother with this.

I was buffaloed, intimidated, by others as a kid, believing that folks who acted as if they knew what they were doing did in fact know what they were doing. I’ve come to realize that I was embarrassingly naive, sorely mistaken in this belief. However, I continued this tendency to defer to people who seemed more confident well into middle age! I knew I didn’t know and was inclined to be open about my uncertainty. If others were more confident, it must have been that they did really know.

In the last 20 years or so it occurred to me that people could project confidence and yet be mistaken. The power of facade, what analytic psychologists (Jungians) call “persona,” is that for many it is consciously sincere. However confident many people’s statements, it turned out that often they were if not flat wrong, then missing some very important elements. This overlooking of certain obvious factors could be an expression of denial, and they were comfortable about it. As for me, I believed in the facades they showed me and the world—that they knew what was right, they recognized how I was not right, they were clear they had the right to judge, and they might not like me very much. I also believed my sense of disonnect was all because I was bad in some shameful way, not because they were envious or hurt.

Looking back, I erred in believing that. I hadn’t taken into account how effectively people could cover their own ignorance and prejudice with confidence. I now see that it’s common for people to do that. They’re just bolstering themselves. “I whistle a happy tune” isn’t just attitude, it can slip over into unconscious arrogance.

I have come to see people as being more annoyed, scared, lonely, disoriented, and confused than they allowed themselves to appear. It was too emotionally humiliating to admit any of this to themselves much less admit it openly to others. People were unconsciously hurt and offended because they were not recognized enough, thanked enough, flattered enough, helped enough.

My own style was to overly humble myself—which was also a mistake. The game as I see it is to engage in a lively discussion and exploration of how we both might be right and how we can build on it. It’s sort of a balancing in-between the unconscious positions of “I’m okay, you’re not okay” and “I’m not okay, but you’re okay.” How can we explore the realm where we can both be okay, yet free of blaming the other? It’s not easy if one side insists on not only being right, but fully getting its own way? This leads into a discussion of peacemaking, negotiations, etc.—and I’m not prepared to go there now. (Nor do I claim to be an expert at this.)

Incidentally, in my own history, I sensed there was something wacky about the interpersonal relations. The movies were full of the theme of being hurt and pridefully not admitting this vulnerability, and the complications that come from such reactions. Being “phony” was a theme in my adolescence, among the beatniks and intellectuals of the 1950s. I believed it happened, but couldn’t see it in my own social or family network.

Indeed, my life, from one perspective, has been a shucking of pretense, of becoming more authentic and less phony. I do this in several ways:

First, I have become interested in detecting deception, analyzing rhetoric, propaganda, or advertising. In part this fed my interest in psychiatry, which in the mid-20th century was attentive to dynamics of self-deception. I was interested also in cultural norms and how they might seem good at the time but harbor seeds of arrogance and even cruelty. (The Nazi and Japanese attitudes in the Second World War were dramatic examples, but further evidence ranged from the cruelties of the Soviets and the bigots in the Southern United States, among many others.

So I have been interested in promoting critical thinking, noting logical fallacies, becoming sensitive to turns of speech, nonverbal communications, semantics, and criticisms of what Jay Haley noted as “power tactics” in psychotherapy itself.

Another way I become more authentic is that I admit my pretenses to knowing and being powerful by exaggerating these in pretend play or joking. Privately, I notice my own temptations to to consciously and explicitly exaggerate my attempts to restore dignity and confidence in the guise of heroic characters. I try to make it quite clear that I am just playing, pretending. That bleeds off some of the energy of humiliation. (Alas, I’m sometimes not good at being transparent enough so that others folks don’t know I’m playing when I am. I need to be far more conscientious about this.)

A third role I play goes in the opposite direction: Privately—in my home with Allee—, I allow myself to become quite limited, I play a role of a somewhat mentally retarded young man living in a protected care home, and I like to help by doing some simple chores. I wash “dishkes” and do some of the laundry and the like. I take real pleasure in simple tasks, enjoying the purity of accomplishment. This is role relief from my more complex and multi-faceted life—such as my blogging here.

Anyway, about confidence: I’m both willing to think and say what I think, and I’m willing to have people call me on mistakes. I appreciate it if they’re gentle and forgiving, and I will consider their viewpoints. Sometimes they have a good point. Sometimes I need to clarify or re-affirm certain ideas. Truth at these more complex levels is hard to pin down, and I risk being mistaken, or not having covered all the bases. Indeed, my thinking now is that it’s quite impossible ever for any human to cover all the bases, which makes for intellectual humility or a bit of unsureness.

In summary, I am both medium confident, but also often unsure. I trust in dialogue and know that in the future I will be if not entirely mistaken, then at least partial in what I can perceive and think about. I look forward to the progress of knowledge.

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