Feeling special is one of life’s most euphoric feelings, don’t you agree?
Who doesn’t love feeling picked out from the pack and celebrated?
But it also has a strange underbelly, doesn’t it?
Feeling special can quickly turn into feeling superior, bitterly judgmental, lonely, and purposeless.
But what if I told you that you could keep your strong sense of identity and pride WITHOUT succumbing to the dark side of feeling special?
You’d want to know more, right?
Well, you’re in luck, because this post is going to help you figure out whether or not feeling oh so unique and special is costing you friends and happiness.
Then, I’ll help you make the tweaks necessary to put the kibosh on this Connection Crusher.
The Upside of Feeling Special
Before going into the downside of feeling special, I want to first acknowledge that embracing our uniqueness can be one of the best things we can do for ourselves.
When we learn to cherish even the parts of ourselves that aren’t on the hip-list du jour, we put ourselves in the position to become who we’re really meant to be.
We can nurture our latent talents and achieve rewarding employment (or self-employment).
We can enjoy true self-love and self-acceptance.
But if owning our uniqueness and our specialness is so paramount to a happy and fulfilled life, how is it that it can also turn so ugly?
How Feeling Special Turns into a Connection Crusher
Accepting and learning to celebrate even the oddest parts of ourselves is indeed an invaluable life skill.
But for some of us, somewhere along the way, “owning” our uniqueness can morph into an overdeveloped attachment to it; we can start to regard our specialness as superiority.
Feeling special becomes emotionally unhealthy when it turns into feeling superior. This is when it starts alienating us from other people.
Think about it.
How can we feel connected to other people while focusing on how much better we are?
You may be guessing that feeling superior is, in a nutshell, an unlikeable quality – and that this is the reason it alienates us from other people.
And it certainly can be unlikeable, but most of us know at least one person who is a master at using an air of superiority to command a pack of adoring minions (narcissists are excellent at this). So unlike-ability is not the main reason.
The main reason feeling superior robs us of friends is that feeling superior actually makes emotional connections nearly impossible, even when other people desire to be close to us.
Let’s peel the onion back a little farther so we can understand exactly how feeling-special-to-the-point-of-superiority costs us nourishing friendships.
Feeling Special Prevents “Basking in Reflected Glory” or BIRGing
BIRGing, or Basking In Reflected Glory, is a concept that first gained prominence in the social psychology literature in the 70’s. It was popularized most notably by Robert Cialdini, the author of the famous book “Influence.”
It is often used to talk about the way that sports fan share in the glory of a team win – as fans, they bask in the glory of the winning team.
But this concept can also be thought of as a way to regulate our emotions when we ourselves can’t be the best and score a personal victory.
In other words, when we encounter a person who threatens our ego in some way, one way to handle the threat is to find a way to identify with that person (basking in their glory), thereby neutralizing the threat.
Problem is, if you are addicted to the idea of yourself as unique and special, then you won’t allow yourself to identify with the person who made you envious (unless of course they overtly validate you first).
Instead, you’ll neutralize the threat by finding reasons to devalue them, instead.
A “threatening” person could make a great friend to you or become a helpful connection, but neither of those things can happen when you’re focusing on reasons to turn up your nose and distance yourself in order to protect your ego.
Even if you plan to keep your contempt a secret and pursue some kind of Machiavellian relationship with such a person, you’ll have limited success because your disdain is guaranteed to leak out sooner or later.
If fact, it’s been shown that even very skilled narcissists lose their minions overtime.
Even if you’re not a narcissist, the point is, how we really feel has a funny way of always revealing itself eventually.
And who wants to spend time around someone who gives off little whiffs of disgust and contempt?
It also takes a great deal of mental effort to counteract envy with dislike. You’ll become rigid and pre-occupied with bitterness, both of which make emotional connection unlikely.
On the contrary, emotional connection requires emotional fluidity and the ability to pay attention to someone else.
People who routinely find ways to BIRG away their envy feel relaxed and capable of both of those things.
Feeling Special Means Throwing Away 95% of Connection Opportunities
If you are attached to feeling superior, you won’t be able to BIRG when you meet someone who threatens your cherished idea of yourself. But that’s not the only reason feeling superior perpetuates loneliness and isolation.
Being attached to feeling superior also means losing out on chances to bond with people who don’t threaten your ego, too.
This is because people who latch onto the idea of themselves as superior have a bad habit of downplaying similarities that they share with “regular” people.
Shared experiences, viewpoints, even similar physical characteristics can all be used as the basis for emotional connections – but superiority-lovers simply throw them all away.
Why do they do, this, you ask? (Or, maybe you’re even bravely asking yourself why YOU do this – if so, good for you!)
Sometimes an attachment to feeling special is a defense mechanism. Many people deal with the pain of rejection (or even just a lack of praise) by telling themselves that regular people don’t “get” them because they are too unique and special.
The problem here is that it means making a bit of a deal with the devil because it sets what I like to call the Special Snowflake Feedback Loop into motion:
When we are over-attached to feeling special, we eliminate the possibility of connecting with other people. We feel lonely and rejected as a result.
Then, we become even more invested in the idea of ourselves as superior in order to soothe the pain, thereby causing the cycle to keep repeating.
Being what might easily be called “addicted” to feeling superior is a very unfortunate thing because it means purposely forgoing the one thing (emotional connection) that would put an end to the rejection/disconnection cycle.
How to Give Up Your Superiority-Addiction Without Losing Your Identity
Ok, so to recap briefly, feeling unique becomes a problem when it turns into feeling superior.
Feeling superior to others is a connection crusher because it means missing out on chances to BIRG (one kind of connection) and on chances to relate to others around our common humanness (another kind of connection).
So if you’ve recognized by now that you might have a little bit of a superiority-addiction, how can you address the problem and still relish in your uniqueness?
First, Recognize that It’s a Mourning Process
I remember very vividly what it was like when I struggled with feeling special.
I’ve always had an idea of myself as insightful about human nature (and I still do – it’s one of my favorite things about myself!)
But because I struggled socially in school years ago and didn’t have many friends, I told myself that this cherished quality was the thing that made it difficult for me to relate to other people.
It was an easier story to swallow than facing my social inadequacies, and it helped me feel good about myself when I wasn’t getting much love.
But I was stuck in the Special Snowflake Feedback Loop.
The more “different” from other people I convinced myself that I was, the less I was able to relate to them and the more my interactions turned into rejections. These all lead me to keep soothing myself with the idea that I was special.
Even worse, anytime I met someone who was also interested in psychology, I could not help myself from mentally diminishing them! I was simply too invested in the idea of myself as supremely unique.
Why? Because if I gave it up, it would mean getting absolutely smashed in the face with pain of not fitting in with others. It would mean recognizing that my social missteps were my fault.
I tell this story to illustrate the fact that giving up a specialness and superiority addiction is straight up PAINFUL.
It is very much a mourning process – the mourning of an altered idea of reality that provided comfort and protection against a difficult and sometimes unkind world.
Before the benefits of emotional connections can start to pour in, the pain must be dealt with. This is something that you have to accept about the process if you choose to embark on it.
Letting going of a superiority illusion means enduring a period of no protection in the bitter cold, but it means walking into a sense of peace in life that is more than worth it.
Be Shamelessly #Basic
Once you’re ready to endure the difficult period between letting go of your superiority security blanket and mastering the tools to enjoy nourishing emotional connections, the first step you must take is to start embracing the things about yourself that are delightfully regular.
If you love the taste of Pumpkin Spice Lattes, just own it.
Go ahead and indulge in that guilty-pleasure blockbuster movie.
Don’t freak out the next time you struggle to understand something challenging – go ahead and admit that you’re struggling just like anyone else. Try first with yourself and eventually graduate to admitting it to others, too.
Do you think of yourself as a literary person? Don’t roll your eyes when your colleague wants to talk about that trashy best seller.
The next time you meet someone new, make it a point to find one thing you have in common. Let that one commonality drive your entire conversation. Force yourself to abandon the urge to show them how great you are.
Engaging around basic commonalities with others might feel awkward or even boring at first. You won’t get the little dopamine rush that comes from feeling socially dominant or superior.
But hang in there because the benefits are worth it.
Replace Devaluing with BIRGing in Order to Relish in Your Uniqueness
Giving up the illusion of superiority is painful and difficult, but once that hurdle is cleared, finding common and simples ways to relate to people is quite easy.
What is less easy, but perhaps even more valuable, is finding ways to identify with people who incite envy and jealousy by BIRGing.
By BIRGing, you’ll be able to really enjoy the parts of yourself that you love even when it’s other people who are getting credit for these qualities.
However, it’s not always easy to resist the temptation to find something not to like about the people who make you jealous, and it’s also far easier.
Everyone has flaws, and if you’re set on doing it, you could dismiss every single person who could ever possibly make you envious in your life if you wanted to.
That successful start-up founder has rich parents. She’d wouldn’t be anybody if she didn’t have that advantage. Plus, she’s ugly.”
That woman’s perfect husband and marriage is a sham. He only married her because she’s a doormat, and he’ll definitely cheat on her down the line if he hasn’t already.
That colleague who got promoted over me is such a selective ass kisser and so fake. If I were fake like her I’d have gotten the promotion.
For many of us, doing this kind of thing is absolutely automatic. Anytime envy creeps in, our devaluing machine is on call to knock others down.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. BIRGing is surprisingly simple, and it works right away. You don’t have to “pretend” to be happy for other people. You can actually learn to feel good about their good fortune.
Below are some examples based on the quotes above:
|Before BIRGing||After BIRGing|
|"That successful start-up founder has rich parents. She’d wouldn’t be anybody if she didn’t have that advantage. Plus, she’s ugly."||"That successful start up founder has the same kind of work ethic as me. No wonder she is successful. It’s starting to pay off for me, too. I may not have had my big break yet, but good things definitely happen to people with work ethic like us."|
|"That woman's perfect husband and marriage is a sham. He only married her because she’s a doormat, and he’ll definitely cheat on her down the line if he hasn’t already."||"That woman with the perfect husband sends her kids to the same preschool as me. We both recognize good things when we see them. Our kids are lucky to have moms like us."
|"That colleague who got promoted over me is such a selective ass kisser and so fake. If I were fake like her I'd have gotten the promotion."||"That colleague who got promoted over me has the same ambition that I do. Only one of us could get that promotion. But the two of us are definitely going to challenge each other to keep pushing ourselves. Working with her is a lot better than working with a slacker."|
You may recognize these as cognitive reframes – and that’s exactly what they are. They are a special case of reframes focused on finding common ground with people who threaten us so that we can BIRG instead of swallowing the bitter devaluing pill.
The next time you meet someone who has something you wish you had for yourself, try to find just one thing that the two of you have in common, and focus on it. Use it as a way to make it possible for you to bask in their good fortune, too.
BIRGing is your ticket to giving up on a damaging superiority attachment without giving up on your strong sense of identity and pride.
Trading Superiority for Real Emotional Connections is Worth It
At first, giving up superiority-armor feels like a great loss, and it may be very painful.
Many of us have hung years of perceptions on the idea that we are supremely unique.
It takes great bravery to be willing to look at ourselves without rose-colored glasses, and it can be very uncomfortable. In fact, one highly cited psychology finding confirms that depression is characterized in part by bleakly realistic self-views.
Realistically viewing ourselves won’t automatically bring happiness, that much is true. But it opens the door to the possibility of deeply nourishing emotional connections with others.
And feeling connected is a far more effective armor than feeling superior. It’s like comparing Bilbo’s ring to chain mail.