An old friend, Andrew Schwartz, whose intellectual historian work focuses on rational conservatism, tossed a question my way a while ago that I would like the opportunity to unpack here. He asked me about motivation and superiority, explicitly, “do the superior somehow strive for inferiority, or at the very least, strive for the acceptance of the inferior?” As a psychologist, I’ll spend a bit of time with the two layers of this question, namely the idea of being better than others, and also what constitutes not becoming better.
To begin to answer this question, I’ll offer a tentative, “no.” I believe that many people strive to be superior to others, and in doing so relate to others in a hierarchical, dominating, and overpowering way, and not in an accepting, allowing or affirming way. Superiority hinges upon thinking of others as competition, assessing the competition, and not being associated with inferiority in any dimension. However, it is a delicate thing to feel superior, because one must constantly outdo others, be outdone only to become better, must always be right, and must never accept inferiority, in one’s self or in others. The cost of superiority, it seems, is maintaining a distance to others, and maintaining a distance from accepting one’s self as is.
Thinking about the superior, not as a way of relating to another person, but as a thing unto itself, as a category of persons, leads to the more explicit question: is there, then, an actual better, an actual superior person? Is there a tangible endpoint in personal development that is best, above all, unequaled, which champions the highest emotional, intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual values? That is a question that many people would look towards psychology, as a field, for the answer. Our psychological theories of superiority, maturation, development, cognitive capacities, altruism, and relational skills certainly have their “better” categories: Bowlby’s securely attached, Skinner’s adaptive behavior, Maslow’s self-actualizing experiences,Rogerian congruence, and the notable Adlerian superiority. These are some psychological categories of better, but they are not, as philosophers would note, ontologically better, or a real better. The difference is that psychology seeks to understand the human condition, not to identify what is real or not.
Sure, a psychologist can smell a superiority complex (a defensive stance wherein a person seeks to be better than others to overcome feeling less than others) a mile away. However, sensing that another person feels superior, and does not want to feel inferior, is the starting place of understanding another person and not the endpoint. With wanting to feel superior, oftentimes persons have idealized conceptions of what it means to be superior. The endpoint of development and superiority, one could fixate on, could be a noble Superman, strong Wonder woman, wise Yoda, humane Buffy Summers, or some other heroic, ethical, idealized person. Sure; having idealized images of persons that are maturing, growing, evolving, or better, can instill a sense of aspiration and guidance, but those dynamic images of persons do not exist without stagnant images of people that are somehow inferior, worthless, and less than.
Like Narcissus, we can spend our life not looking at ourselves, and avoiding introspection, only to become frozen when we do. Like Queen Niobe, we can define ourselves in a role, and weep for the rest of our life when that role is taken away, only to be turned into stone and continue weeping. Like Dorian Gray, we can forever try to capture and maintain our beauty, while avoiding any thought of who we have become. Like Lady Macbeth, we can pursue power for the sake of power, and hope to lose any lingering sensitivities. Like Peter Pan, we can vow to never grow up and to be happy, always. Like Tiana, we can dream of being happy but remain stuck, not even a person, until another person deigns us with what we cannot achieve on our own. These images, these characters, these archetypes, warn of how we can remain frozen, immobile, afraid, and shuttered off from what may help us evolve and grow. These are the images of striving to be better than, and also of not becoming better.
These images, of striving for superiority, help us along our own personal path, but not as a simple guide or simple warning sign. These and other stagnant images, wherein the person strives to be superior, does not grow, does not mature, nor become a full human being, are to be embraced and understood for those exact reasons: because it is painfully difficult to grow, in any direction; because we all, in our own way, want to be happy; because we all do the best that we can. We can learn from what we deem superior, as much as we can learn from what we deem inferior, but the point of there being a definitive superior or there being an inferior is misleading. If we can accept the idea that people do the best that they can, then notions of a fixed superior, being outdone only to become better, become less fixed. There is the possibility, then, that we can be close to others as they are, when we are as we are, without striving to be better.