Confessions of a braggart
Ok, I admit it: I brag. I am a brag artist. Name-dropper. One-upper. The male equivalent of Kristen Wiig’s Penelope SNL character – you know, the one that’s dated Tony the Tiger and has been to the moon. Ok, maybe I’m not that bad. But ask my friends and they’ll tell you about my rep.
It’s only really been in the last year or so that I’ve become aware of my behavior, and how it’s affected my relationships. For a long time I believed people were impressed by my exploits, that through my checklist of life-experiences I could command a level of respect and admiration that I deeply desired from my peers.
Then I realized something profound.
A while ago, I was listening to guy brag about his accomplishments at a dinner party. It seemed every time someone had an interesting story to tell, he could one up it. If life were a competition of stockpiling tall tales and friendships with famous people, this guy would win.
For every story, friend or accomplishment I had, he had a better one. When I was around him, I didn’t feel special, welcomed, or interesting. I felt second-rate.
I started to wonder if this is how people feel around me sometimes. I wondered if they don’t feel heard or special. In fact, I know they don’t, because some have had the courage to tell me when I’m being obnoxious, and others will take any chance they can get to take me ‘down a notch’ with a sarcastic quip aimed squarely at my oversized ego. Apparently this is the norm in our culture. As Brene Brown says in Daring Greatly, “Our first inclination is to cure “the narcissists” by cutting them down to size: These egomaniacs need to know that they’re not special, they’re not that great, they’re not entitled to jack, and they need to get over themselves. No one cares.”
I’ve been on both the giving and receiving end of this attitude, and I’ve seen that it just ends up being hurtful to everyone. Brown suggests we take a different approach: empathy.
“What almost no one understands is how every level of severity in this (narcissistic) diagnosis is underpinned by shame. Which means we don’t “fix it” by cutting people down to size and reminding folks of their inadequacies and smallness. Shame is more likely to be the cause of these behaviors, not the cure.”
In her book on the power of vulnerability, Brown asks us to cut through the BS of image and start trying to see people as they really are rather than what they project. She explains that, “When I look at narcissism through the vulnerability lens, I see the shame-based fear of being ordinary. I see the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose.”
When I was in high school, I was a year younger than my classmates. This made it incredibly hard to keep up at the game of being popular. I never felt special, or even accepted. I wanted to be respected, to be ‘cool’ like my heroes on TV, but I wasn’t.
I think that feeling of shame burrowed its way into my deepest recesses, and still lives there today. I want people to like me, but don’t think I am likable just as I am, so I have to impress them with lists of the people I know and the things I’ve done.
Do you want to know the secret to getting people to like you? Like them first. Show interest in them. Make them feel special.
When I was in high school, a special thing happened. I got to spend fifteen minutes hanging out with a bona-fide celebrity — just me and him. I won’t tell you his name, as I think that would defeat the purpose of the article, but what was interesting was how he conducted himself. He introduced himself by his first name (which I knew, of course). He shook my hand and gave me a big smile. Then we shot some hoops for a while (hint-hint), and he asked me about my team, our season, and a few other things. He seemed genuinely interested in my generally un-interesting life. And although he already had my respect, from that day on he also had my loyalty.
I wonder if there is something that is more important than being seen as cool, interesting, or even respectable. You can have those things, but unless you have people’s loyalty, which brings with it their trust and willingness to let you speak into their lives, you have nothing, really. This is true friendship, and the foundation for any worthwhile relationship.
Acquiring loyalty starts with being loyal. It starts with seeing people as deserving of attention not because of what they’ve done, but because of who they are. As David Benner reminds us in The Gift of Being Yourself, “It is important for me to remember that I am a human being, not a human doing. My worth lies in who I am, not what I can do or how I am seen by others.”
When we start to see each other through the lens of vulnerability: as fallen beings driven by shame, but also children of God, we may see them differently. They will command our interest, no matter what they’ve done. So next time you meet a name-dropper like me, give him some grace. And next time you’re tempted to do the same, remember that it’s by grace that we are saved, not by what we’ve done.