How Full Of Yourself Should You Be?

Not infrequently a client will say to me that she would like to be more confident, more self-assured, or more exuberant. Then there is a pause, and she says, “But I wouldn’t want people to think that I am “too full of myself!”

In my mind, and sometimes out loud, I will respond, “Well, who should you be full of? Someone else?”

I usually get a puzzled look, and sometimes a laugh.

As you can tell, being “too full of yourself” has always struck me as a rather curious expression. I’m mean, seriously, exactly who are we supposed to be full of? And if we are full of (or even partially occupied by) someone other than ourselves, wouldn’t that imply some kind of possession? (Shades of Linda Blair in The Exorcist!)

So I’ve googled the origin of this phrase and its various definitions. And I’ve been mulling it over for a while. What I’ve come to is that the word “full” in this context is meant to convey the idea of a vessel so occupied that there is no room for anything else. So that a person who is “full of herself” has no space or capacity to pay attention to, or be interested in, the ideas, thoughts, or feelings of any one else. She cares only about herself.

The phrase “full of yourself” has also become associated in our common parlance with arrogance, or conceit. A person who is “full of herself” is thus puffed up with her own sense of importance or superiority, of which she has an exaggerated opinion.

(I’ll be writing later about the narcissistic wound and its connection to being “full of yourself”. The sad truth is that lack of self, rather than an excess, underlies narcissistic superiority.)

But too often I notice that telling someone “You’re too full of yourself!” is not meant as helpful feedback. Instead, it is meant as a criticism of that person’s power, pleasure or presence. It is being used as an admonition, as a way to diminish another. To make them be smaller, quieter, or less confident.

Telling someone “you’re too full of yourself” may (unconsciously) be a way to avoid feeling one’s own insecurities or fears. After all, if you become more powerful will I celebrate your power, or will I feel threatened? If you feel more pleasure will I rejoice, or feel the absence of my own? If you have greater presence, will I feel enlarged or will I feel empty?

What to do?

Should we be full of ourselves, and risk having no room for anyone else? Or should we not be full of ourselves, but live small and diminished? Perhaps the better question isn’t whether or not we should be full of ourselves, but rather:

“How full of ourselves should we be?”

I like this phrasing because it considers the possibility that both of us can be full of ourselves without harming the other. I can be full of myself, and at the same time, I can be aware of your self. I can care about myself, and at the same time, I can care about your self. And you in turn can be aware of, and care about, me.

I’d like to be full enough that I know my own truth, feel my own feelings, think my own thoughts, experience my own body, exult in my own pleasures.

But I don’t want to be so “over-full” that I cannot respect your feelings, listen to your voice, hear your ideas, rejoice in your successes, and care about your losses.

Besides which, if there is no one inside of me, who will keep you company?

Photo credit: shioshvili via Flickr

About Karen Caffrey

I'm a psychotherapist in private practice in West Hartford, Connecticut. I enjoy helping people become more fulfilled and resilient, so they can lead better lives.
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