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Outrageous! The Psychology of Self-Righteous Indignation

This seems to be Self-Righteous Indignation Month.  Apparently I did not receive the memo.  I'm seeing so many clients this month who are filled with self-righteous indignation about the behavior of other people.  They really get themselves worked up over it and come in totally frustrated and angry.  What is this all about?

The term "self-righteous" is defined by yourdictionary.com as "filled with or showing a conviction of being morally superior, or more righteous than others; smugly virtuous"

Beautiful.  That's exactly it.  Not virtuous, but smugly virtuous.  It is about feeling superior to someone else.  Most of us are most easily tempted into self-righteous indignation when driving.  The driver ahead of us is driving too slow, too fast, cuts us off or makes some other terribly heinous error.  And we are filled with outrage.  We lay on the horn and yell and make sure everyone around knows that driver is not driving "correctly" (or at least how we define correct driving).  The nerve of that guy!  What a loser.

When listening to someone smoldering with self-righteous indignation I often hear the words, "right", "fair" or "should".  "They should do it this way."  "They are not doing it the right way."  "It's not fair."  Why shouldn't we distinguish when people aren't doing things "correctly", or the way they "should" be done, or the "fair" way?  For two reasons:

1.  Because it's not real.  They aren't doing it that way.  They are doing it "wrong" or in a way they "shouldn't" or "unfairly".  That is the reality.  That is what's happening.  Expecting them to do something else just sets you up to be frustrated and angry. 

2.  Because it makes us unhappy.  I always ask people, "how much time and energy have you invested in being upset about this?  What could you have done with that time and energy instead?  Most have invested a lot of both.  And for what?  Is this issue really that important? 

If self-righteous indignation isn't real and it makes us frustrated and angry, why do so many of us do it?  Because it feels good.  It feels "right".  We feel superior to that idiot over there doing things "wrong".  We feel better than that loser over there being "unfair". 

"Criticism is another form of self-boasting."  Emmet Fox

By pointing out the errors of someone else we are attempting to position ourselves as better than them.  People with low self esteem, people who are unhappy in their lives, people who are frustrated with where they are in life are most susceptible to self-righteous indignation.  By finding someone we believe to be less than or worse than ourselves and condemning them, we manage to feel some sort of superiority.  

We can also use this to sabotage ourselves or make ourselves a target.  Being intolerant of the mistakes of other people, and pointing them out loudly, will not make you popular.  And it can totally destroy a career.  I frequently see people living out the Scapegoat role utilizing this technique to alienate themselves. 

A client came into my office fuming about her boss at work and how he was mishandling an account by giving a client preferential treatment.  The client made a point of telling him that he was mishandling the account and did not except his explanation as being valid.  She then went over his head and complained to his boss.  When I asked asked how the mishandling of this account affected her she could not readily answer.  She had no interactions with the client, it didn't affect her clients, and she would not be held responsible for the account.  She then continued to rail against the unfairness of the preferential treatment and her need to expose it.  She denied ulterior motives or her long and conflictual relationship with the boss.  She denied her wish to see him punished and stated she was unaware of any possible fallout from this action.  She reported telling the boss' superior that she did not mean to be a "tattletale", but that she needed to know if this was "right" or not.  When I asked her what her gut told her about whether it was right or not, she admitted that she already knew it was wrong and her boss' explanation flimsy.  But she continued to insist that she had to go over his head to find out "for sure" whether she was right or not.  She was completed surprised when, a few weeks later, the boss attempted to have her transferred to another office.  She had completed sabotaged herself with her boss in her need to be self-righteous.  This is a pattern she has replicated in many offices prior to this.  Her self-righteous intolerance of the foibles of other people and her need to confront superiors about them makes her a target, or a scapegoat.  She eventually is let go or fired.  Yet she continues to maintain this behavior.  She had rather be "right" than employed.

If you are guilty of this pattern, how do you stop it?

1.  Instead of deciding what people should be doing, look at what they are doing and then decide how to react to it. 

2.  If you find yourself condemning people, examine your motives.  Is the issue itself really that important?  Is it really worth your time and energy?  Is this really a battle you want to take on?  Or are you doing it for some other reason? 

3.  Feel your feelings.  How do you feel when you are complaining about or reporting this behavior?  Superior?  Powerful?  Is that the true motivation for it, rather than righting a wrong?

4.  Examine the effects.  What effects is this behavior having on your life?  Has it damaged your career?  Cost you friends?  Caused conflict within your family?

5.  Repeat after me:  "I cannot change other people's behavior, only my own."  You have no power over other people.  Whatever they are doing is what they are going to do.  The only person you can change is yourself.  And most of us have more than enough work to do developing ourselves without taking on other people's issues.

Self-righteous indignation is a heady, powerful emotion that can be quite exhilirating.  But it comes at a high cost.  If you can only bring yourself up by putting other people down perhaps you need to look at that.  Perhaps your time and energy would be better spent developing your own character rather than shooting down other people's. 


 

Comments

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anom

thanks, i just had my self realization of self-righteousness and needed this

J. Sue Gagliardi

This is what I think of this article:

http://astrologizing.net/selfrighteousindignation.html

Anna Michael

Interesting

Monica

Thank you for this article. It has truely helped me to understand why someone has been making me feel like "crap" for several years. This article has really put a name to it for me, and to help me realize that I am not a bad person. Just an idiot for having put up with it for so long.

Kellen

Hi Monica,

You're very welcome. Not an idiot, please. Nowhere are we taught the psychology of our interactions with others. So how could you know?

I'm pleased I could be of service.

JHW

Kellen,

How do you determine the difference between "self-righteous indignation" and just plain ol' vanilla "indignation"? Is it the sense of smugness and superiority? Where do you draw the line between "not my business/live and let live" vs. taking a stand in terms of values and morals when other people's actions/behavior are, well, "screwy" for want of a better term? Where do values and value judgements vs. ego come into play in this?

For example, a couple of years ago I was quite indignant for many months about how a friend's g.f. repeatedly took advantage of him. Now, he let her, and I said nothing to him after an initial discussion or two -- I thought it better to respect his decisions and stay out of it. I was angry at her for doing it and him for letting her, but in the end, I knew it was between them and not my business. I would still sometimes find myself angry on his behalf, but when my thoughts went in that direction, I reminded myself to keep out of it/"not my business", stayed silent, and kept my thoughts and feelings entirely to myself. I also made the decision not to listen if he wanted to complain about her, as he knew what he had by a certain point and he was participating/letting her take advantage of him, and he knew it.

They are now no longer together, and I am happy I made the choice I did (to keep my thoughts to myself). I was guilty of both self-righteous indignation and plain ol' indignation, and, if I had voiced them, it would have damaged the friendship over the long term.

What I found myself thinking during that situation, though, that I was reminded of by reading this post, is that on the one hand, I think that we shouldn't let ourselves by ruled by the "shoulds" -- "why shouldn't she and he do X,Y, or Z?" I would say to myself when I was getting self-righteous. On the other hand, sometimes you do have to take a stand in terms of values and morals....

Where do you draw that line, though, though, between "rightful indignation" and having a sense of morals and values, and "self-righteous indignation", where it seems to be about smugness and moral superiority? Where do you draw the line between having values and making judgements in the sense of evaluating right and wrong (a.k.a., "rightful indignation"), and value judgements that lead to self-righteous indignation and smugness?

In the example above, obviously your client needs to let go of her need to be right, but I can also see in some circumstances where she might need to stand up for her values. How do you determine what is acting on ego vs. what is acting based on your values and morals?

I'm just curious to hear your perspective as a therapist.

Thank you.

Kellen

Hi JHW,

What interesting questions! Let me take a shot at the big one: self-righteous indigation vs. good 'ole healthy indignation.

In my humble opinion, the smugness and superior are the very purpose of self-righteous indignation. In fact, most people who are full of self-righteous indignation about something someone else is doing would often be very disappointed if they stopped doing it because they could no longer stand over them in judgement, feeling superior.

Indignation, by contrast, is truly concerned that something is wrong and seeks change. (And I totally agree with you that we must take a moral stand on things. Perhaps more than we do.)

I think these are the primary differences, but there is one additional factor that may be present. Not always, but sometimes. Self-righteous indignation always requires that someone else change their behavior.

Indignation is often followed by the person who is feeling it getting up and doing something about it. Isn't indignation the feeling which motivated Dr. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi?

So let's look at your very good example above (which you handled beautifully by the way). You were indignant that your friend was being used and had an intial discussion with him about it. When he didn't see it the way you did, you dropped it and walked away. As a loyal friend, you advised him of your concerns. When he chose to ignore you, you changed your behavior and respected his right to make the mistake. I don't hear you feeling smug or superior, just concerned for your friend and upset, because of your loyalty to him, that he was being used.

I believe that indignation seeks change without seeing other people as being morally inferior or "less than". The entire point of self-righteous indignation is to look down on someone else.

Indignation is about standing up for what we think is right. Self-righteous indignation is about putting someone else down.

What do you think?


Yogataylormade

Need to investigate what your characters are feeling to create authentic scenes, delve deep into character motivation to layer on emotional context within scene content.

Robert

Hi Ms Kellen,

How do I tell the people in my social circle and strangers that they are doing something wrong without being self righteous?

For example, if someone is sleeping late for two consecutive weeks and waking up early, and I want to tell he or she not to do that as it is unhealthy?


If I cannot say, you shouldn't sleep so late, then how do I say it?

Thank You.

Philoctotease

Guilty as charged. Thanks for a most helpful thread.

I'm living in a post Communist society that has a weakly functioning democracy, which I believe is directly related to their moral failings as a society (petty theft, corruption, total lack of trust). And my role as a language teacher often requires that I 'judge' others' work but a lot of the time their behavior as well. But I can't help seeing that their shortcomings as individuals, especially surrounding issues of trust, are precisely a result of those failures at the societal level. Moreover, the dysfunction begins in the home and is exacerbated by a poor educational system which focuses on rote learning rather than critical thinking. Therefore as one who was born to a fair amount of privilege and entitlement (to be brutally honest) and as the beneficiary of a solid college education, it's hard for me not to feel morally superior to them. And what is even more frustrating is that I'm totally cognizant of what I'm doing, but find it hard to change my behavior because, in my heart, I believe I'm trying to show them a better way. This stems from the belief of leading by action and not just words. Maybe I take my role as a teacher a little bit too seriously (maybe myself too).

Needless to say this behavior has consequences as I'm often classified as arrogant and foolish, and has cost me clients as a result more importantly.

And of course I do suffer from low self esteem and the other symptoms you identified previously, so there's no need in pointing that out.

But I would appreciate your thoughts. This has had a great impact on me emotionally.

Many thanks in advance.

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