No one ever compliments me, so I say nice things about myself,’ says Lucy, 34. ‘I talk about my successes to the point that I seem big headed. But, whatever… as long as people pay me some attention.’
In a society fixated by appearances, ‘it’s tempting to act up in order to feel like you exist’, says therapist Martine Périou. ‘And there are plenty of people who define themselves not by their own qualities, but by external signs of wealth or success.’
‘Such individuals are often given too high an opinion of themselves by their parents,’ says psychiatrist Quentin Debray. ‘They use this “superiority” in their relationships with others.’
Their friends and family are over-invested in them, which can result in them becoming blind to the negative aspects of their personality. They’re not used to having to identify these, so confronting areas where they are lacking would be very depressing for them. That’s why, explains psychiatrist and psychotherapist Elsa Cayat, ‘while others are often weighed down by anxiety – “Do I deserve to be loved?” – these people protect themselves by insisting that they are better than everyone else.’
‘If I was just myself people would find me boring,’ says Lucy. People like Lucy often don’t think they are worth loving. According to Périou, their lack of self-esteem also has its roots in childhood. ‘If a child doesn’t get enough attention, the child will not believe he or she is interesting,’ she says. The child goes out into the world with a fragile ego, looking for the love and recognition they missed. This applies above all if an already fragile child experiences further trauma.
The most frequent cause is some sort of humiliation that is reinforced by a lack of protection from adults – for example a schoolteacher allowing the child’s classmates to bully them. An attention-seeker ‘enters the stage with a lot of noise, keeps others at a distance and avoids intimacy’, adds Périou. They don’t mean to be dominant, rather they are protecting themselves from anyone who might see their faults and judge them. ‘These individuals see other people as all-powerful,’ says Cayat. It is as if they are still a child who sees their parents as omnipresent. ‘I feel like people can read me like a book,’ says Lucy.
What can you do?
1. Rely on your friends
‘People who aren’t able to judge their own worth can find it difficult to tell when they have begun to show off,’ says therapist Martine Périou. It would be helpful, then, to be able to rely on friends you can trust, who like you for who you really are, despite your imperfections and faults. You could, for example, agree a discreet signal that your friends could use to let you know when you’ve started to become overly theatrical.
2. Identify your hidden vulnerabilities
‘What hurt are you hiding when you’re showing off?’ asks Périou. ‘What lack of recognition, or lack of love? When does it date from and who is responsible? Would it be so terrible if this hurt were revealed?’ Thinking about this can be difficult if you’ve expended a lot of effort hiding your weaknesses, but you need to do it if you want to make peace with yourself.
3. Think about your values
Ask yourself: Whose approval do I want? Why? What means more to me – being able to make strangers laugh or real friendship? And then: At what moment was I considered to be ‘the best’? By whom? Was it true? The aim of this, says psychiatrist Quentin Debray, is to ‘work out what is really important to you and to pick out the reference points and role models you want to identify with’.