holier-than-thou at the table
"Holier than thou" can cause conflict even at the table.

Avoiding the “Holier than Thou” Idealist Label: Part I

This is an excerpt from Naked Idealism, from the chapter entitled “Relating to Others Despite Differences.”

If we have not resolved our own major insecurities or our need to appear perfect, we may inadvertently set impossibly high standards for others. We may look down upon them when they don’t meet our standards, and actively reject them.

This can lead to self-isolation, as well as an exclusion of others who might otherwise join us in achieving our visions.

Even though labels can occasionally be useful, I personally attempt to defy stereotypes. Nonetheless, after several years of working in the non-profit, governmental, and academic sectors, I developed a somewhat “holier than thou” attitude that I still wrestle with. This is true even after attending a public policy and management school with a reasonable focus on the private sector, and after working in a global corporate leadership consulting firm that I really enjoyed.

The attitude is basically this: “I choose to prioritize a larger purpose and the well-being of the world over profit, and many people not in the non-profit sector don’t, so I’m better than them.” This attitude is quite common, and this is but one example of how it can rear its ugly head.

As people who sometimes wish the world were very different, we idealists often find ourselves sitting across from someone whom we wish would “just see it my way.” Why can’t they see the complexities of the world that are so evident to me? Why don’t they understand the connections between veganism, health, and global warming? Why can’t they grasp the links between factory farming and water pollution? Why don’t they understand that racial disparity still exists? The list goes on and on.

Inside, we may pride ourselves for our superior understanding, knowing we are “holier than they.” If only others could comprehend our point of view, or were open to learning the same information we had obtained, their newfound enlightenment would benefit both them and the world in amazing ways. However, they have no desire to hear what we have to say, which frustrates us – especially if it’s someone we know and love. As we’ll discuss shortly, they probably won’t listen unless we’re able to get off our own pedestal and listen to them.

What can make things particularly difficult for idealists is that even when we get past this attitude ourselves, others are still likely to perceive us as an “annoying do-gooder” who reminds them of their faults. Thus, even if we aren’t looking down on others, they may imagine that we are. Why is this?

The Arbinger Institute’s model, originally designed to explain the source of conflict between individuals, groups and even nations, offers one answer. When we choose to do something that we know in our hearts to be wrong (e.g., something that contradicts our values surrounding social/ecological responsibility or otherwise), it creates internal conflict or “cognitive dissonance” that makes us uncomfortable. There are a few ways to escape this discomfort:

  • We can change our thinking and behavior to correct our wrongdoings.
  • We can attempt to deny and mask the true cause of the dissonance (our own behavior) by creating a conflict with an external source. We then blame that external source (a person or group of people) for our thoughts and actions.

Even though the second option takes much more time and effort in the long run, it is often the easiest or most “automatic” route to take. In other words, it initially takes less effort to objectify an external person or group and label them as the “bad one” than it is to admit we were wrong or to deal with the internal conflict we’ve created. The recipient of negative energy is often the person who reminded us that we’re not doing the right thing. We shoot the messenger.

Carol Adams uses a similar explanation as to why vegetarians and vegans often inadvertently trigger conflict – even when we haven’t said a single word. The mere presence of someone who refrains from eating animals can trigger guilt and anxiety in others when they sense that their own behavior may be harmful and unhealthy. Nobody wants to hear or feel that! Rather than acknowledge their discord, it’s easier to label us (the silent messenger) as being an “annoyance.”

Debating why our position is better in such a situation only creates further conflict. The greatest disservice we can do, whatever our social cause, is act from a place that sounds like “holier than thou.” After all, we’re far from perfect, too. If we have a tendency to label other people in return, it becomes very difficult to establish open and meaningful communication. We are also more likely to react defensively ourselves, justifying their stereotype.

Read Part II of this article.

Photo by Flickr user Naomi. Size, brightness, and contrast adjusted. License.

Dave welcomes phone-based life, career, and transition coaching clients from around the world.

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