Pretentious people – why do we smile at them?

Spiritual Questions & Answers

Being pretentious can be due to seeking social acceptance, status or admiration. But it hinders authentic spiritual living. pretentiousDon’t you just smile when you see someone with a ludicrous beard, use unnecessarily long words, speak with a very posh accent or wear very uncomfortable way-out clothes trying to look trendy? Name-dropping is an another example of acting in a pretentious manner. It’s like saying “I’m important: look at the eminent people I know,” when all the name-dropper has done is bump into them somewhere.

But, sometimes, when you spot people putting on a false show, you have to keep your smile to yourself, for they may not agree they are acting in a stuck-up way: may not realise they are behaving as if they deserve more merit than they actually do.

You may remember the story of the Emperor’s invisible clothes. A vain ruler, who cares about nothing except looking good, hires two swindlers who promise him the best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is hopelessly stupid. The Emperor and everyone else pretends that they can see the clothes, not wanting to appear stupid. Then a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all.

Agreeing about when someone is being pretentious can be difficult without knowing the person. Even then there is usually an alternative reasonable explanation. After all, the whole point of pretending to be something one isn’t, is about misleading others and often this means also misleading oneself.

“To say you want to be a director is to risk sounding obnoxious, pretentious, arrogant, and I think women are more fearful of sounding that way than men are.” (Nicole Holofcener)

Why do we fear sounding pretentious and smile at people who do?

Wanting to get socially accepted by being pretentious

Teenagers are well known to be prone to pretentious behaviour. Perhaps it is their way of getting noticed, finding social acceptance and thus to avoid being ignored? For example a so-called poseur (or poser) is a pejorative term often used by those in the goth, skateboarding, surfing and jazz communities, to describe an individual who copies the clothes, speech, and mannerisms of such a subculture, who is thought not to share or understand its values and attitudes.

Wanting social status by being pretentious

What we can accept about youth, we might feel more critical of in older people who for example try to enhance their own status by adopting the fashion and tastes of a social elite: pretending to be something one is not. We smile when we see snobbish servants of the landed gentry portrayed in television sitcoms as ‘putting on airs’ in this way.

Another way of aping those of high status is thought to be through conspicuous consumption – buying luxury goods such as expensive clothes, jewelry, cars. The comical figure of Mrs Bott in the William Brown stories comes to mind. In the end it is sad that one might feel there is something to prove about oneself to avoid being looked down on.

Wanting to appear better than others by being pretentious

Perhaps we can more easily forgive those who indulge in what we see as pretentious behaviour because they want to be noticed, or socially accepted: or even if they do so because they mistakenly believe their fragile self-esteem can be enhanced through increased social status. After all we all try to manage the social impression we make on others – like at a first date, party or job interview to mention just a few examples.

However, others try to put on a false show in many situations to gain unmerited admiration. When they get away with it they will be popular and attract a following. They run the risk – if seen through for what they actually are – of coming across as egotistical, big-headed and shallow. Taken to extreme, wanting admiration can amount to seeking glory at the expense of others. Many brutal dictators are said to have lived in a fantasy where they are the heroes. Was glory-seeking not the motivation of Hitler, Mussolini and Napoleon?

Pretentious behaviour and spiritual development

According to many spiritual theories, the way to grow and mature is to learn how to be authentic in what one says and does. This means being more aware of your feelings and desires, strengths and weaknesses. In addition to being more honest with yourself, it also involves being honest about yourself with others. This can be quite a challenge because one can no longer pretend to be something one is not. Being a genuine person one acts in accord with what one truly values and wants rather than merely to impress others for the sake of your own ego.

Emanuel Swedenborg’s visionary experiences of a higher heavenly realm is filled with angelic people who do not think or speak from self-interest yet experience the sublime feelings of content, joy and peace.   The way such individuals vary is seen in terms of the quality of their useful functions rather than any sense of social class, stigma, or fame carried over from the world.  No concern about status there or worry how others may admire one. Just an interest in allowing the divine life to flow through one’s inner being.

For Swedenborg an angelic attitude is to have an authentic charitable heart.

“People with whom no charity is present ..if they say anything good it is for the sake of themselves or of one with whom they seek to curry favour under an outward show of friendship. But people in whom charity is present think nothing else than good of the neighbour and speak nothing but good, and this not for their own sake or that of him with whom they seek to curry favour, but from the Lord thus at work within charity” (AC 1088)

Copyright 2015 Stephen Russell-Lacy

Author Heart, Head & Hands (

Posted on17th April 2015CategoriesLatest post, Other aspects of meaningTags, , , , , , ,,  Leave a comment

Inner life crisis – What does it mean?

Inner lifeJohn was going through an inner life crisis. But he could not fathom what was wrong. He and his wife were comfortably well off and had got the house as they wanted it. He had always been a confident person. Outwardly in their lives nothing much had changed.

Inner life problems

But, now for the first time he was getting low moods and experiencing unease with no obvious reasons. These feelings were sapping his self-esteem. He found himself voicing self-doubt and uncertainty about where he was going in life; questioning his lifestyle, his career and even his marriage. He felt he had been drifting along, no longer with any sense of direction. He had lost touch with the ambitions that he had once had.

When one’s inner life not in harmony with one’s outer life

Life may have become less hectic. But this had meant there had been opportunity for him to hear his inner self telling him things he did not want to hear; that being pre-occupied with paying the mortgage, keeping senior managers happy and cutting the lawn at home plus all the other work he had done on the house, was not really what life is truly about. He needed to let go of the old and do things differently.

The process of self-discovery is to do with uncovering one’s inner life. This is not uncommon especially in middle age when there is less focus on the normal hurdles of early adulthood. Anyone might also become exposed to their own complacency, noticing an attitude of smugness and self-satisfaction that previously lay hidden, appreciating the mixed motives often behind  what they do. They start to notice a real self lurking within the persona they had been living.

John started to see that some of the things he had done had stemmed from a self-centered orientation whilst in his own eyes he had been acting in a worthwhile way. He was beginning to grasp the extent he had been living in a fool’s paradise. No wonder his confidence was reducing and sense of contentment becoming elusive.

Inner life crisis an opportunity for self-discovery

I believe the inner life crisis is there for a reason. It is prompting an honest self-appraisal of what we are deep down.

“Count your rectitude as foolishness, know your cleverness to be stupidity”
(Lao Tse Tao Teb King, xiv. Taoist tradition)

Despite a spiritual awakening, we can resist new insight and turn back to the darkness that once enveloped us. Often the outward appearance of everything we encounter continues to seduce us. This can show in smug self-justification of established patterns of behaviour as if a radical response to the inner crisis were not needed.

We might find ourselves thinking, `No matter what the current economic climate, I’m too astute and knowledgeable a person to go under.’ Or  `No matter what my weakness for sexual excitement might be I’m too good and worthy a provider, and family carer to be rejected by my partner.’

But, if instead we were honest with ourselves, would we no longer need to make up excuses? If we are genuine with others is it not less draining than constantly trying to hide our true selves from them?

Authentic relationship is the key to inner life harmony

My belief is that only by an authentic relationship with others, with whatever notion of God we hold, and with ourselves, can we hope to stop self-deception.

In line with this spiritual philosophy, those of us with a deep trust in a higher truth about life and the provision of a spiritual destiny, are never likely to lose hope, whatever in life threatens us. The spirit of truth and love lives on. However, such faith does lead to consequences. For there can be no new birth without some pain – there is no letting go of former things without some pain of loss.

“I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
(John 3:3)

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems


Personal change — Is it too late?

Personal change
Time for a personal change?

It’s never too late to make a personal change – or so my mother used to tell me. But sometimes I feel I’ve missed the boat. Others have said the same thing. The more we indulge our weaknesses, the more our flaws seem to take hold; and the more we avoid those difficult challenges, the more dissatisfied with ourselves we become – and wonder whether ingrained personal habits can ever be broken.

Stopped making personal change?

Some of us may realise that we’ve stopped moving along our path in life. Stopped making any personal change. For the warning signs have appeared – a medical complaint caused by an unhealthy lifestyle, a developing coldness due to the neglect of one’s close friends, a loss of interest and energy for something we should be doing that we know deep down is important.

Not moving along life’s path is literally true for me. In my case it is a canal tow-path near my home which I should be using for much needed daily exercise. They say, ‘A healthy mind needs a healthy body’, but mine is getting to be no longer ‘fit for purpose,’ sadly through a long time of overindulgence.

Reasons for no personal change

Sometimes I think I’m just naturally lazy and so have been quick to forget about the problem. And when I’m shaken out of my complacency, I only make an effort to make personal change in stops and starts.

Perhaps that’s the trouble with our failings  – we don’t like to dwell on them.  Our mistakes sometimes need to have catastrophic consequences before we wake up and take notice; before we see the need for something important to make a personal change about.

We may want to find peace and contentment. The trouble is such feelings are denied us as long as we turn our backs on what we see to be the truth; the truth that we can cause harm to our body by neglecting it, or the truth that we can do damage to our most valued relationships by not nourishing them.

Need for personal change

Going out for a daily jog – or in my case a regular brisk walk every day, perhaps in cold wind and rain – may not seem like a deep issue; but something on the surface of life like this can be a spiritual matter if we do not follow our inner conscience. If I do not take control of my body what chance have I of taking control of my life? I do make the effort but somehow I seem to need an extra lift to keep at it. To make that personal change I really want.

Unaided personal change

To be honest, and I know it sounds pathetic, but after many years I’m beginning to wonder if I can win this battle unaided – not to mention a few other personal trials I’m facing. Many alcoholics accept that the fight to beat the demon drink cannot be won through one’s own efforts alone and have surrendered to what Alcoholics Anonymous term a ‘higher power.’ When the going gets really tough and we realise we are just not strong enough to make that very important personal change and find a way through, then perhaps we likewise can humbly ask for help from the spiritual force in which we believe.

As the Christian mystic HT Hamblin pointed out, our seeking must ultimately be not through mental effort, but through acceptance and surrender, ‘turning the heart to the Christos’. This means accepting the ‘disciplines and chastenings’ of life, working through them and learning as much as possible from them and then leaving the outcome entirely in Divine Hands.

In other words, seeking a way through our troubles and failings is usually something to do with moving away from self – from self-indulgence and self-importance. We may all be complacent about some of this but how much happier we could become by both facing the need to change and asking for help – however long it takes in relation to different aspects of our character.

I’m focusing on just one issue at the moment, but I’m becoming aware of other ways my life needs turning round. I don’t know if all my troubles will be cured but I believe I can only do what I can do and leave the rest to God’s Power.

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

First published as Facing the Cold Wind and Rain in New Vision Magazine March/April 2010.

Self-esteem – How to find it?

self-esteemPsychologists have found that self-esteem goes along with being confident and assertive, having good physical health, and pleasing relationships. Yet some people have low self-esteem. They feel bad about themselves. What do you think of yourself? Are you pleased with who you are or ashamed? When someone makes critical remarks about you, is it water off a duck’s back or do you fold inwardly?

How can one feel better about oneself? The answer depends on who you are.

A way for those feeling low self-esteem

Many people with low self-esteem may not necessarily think they are `worthless’ but nevertheless they do feel as if they do not matter much and have little to offer. As a child you may have had somewhat critical parents and taken on board their repeated judgments about you. Perhaps you rushed home from school proudly telling mum or dad `I came second in class’ only to be asked about who came first. How crushed a child would feel — especially if the parents found it hard to express warmth and affection.

If we have a poor sense of self-worth, we often experience an inner voice unfairly criticising our thoughts and actions.

This voice makes snap judgments and jumps to conclusions merely on the basis of superficial information. It prevents us from trying new things and puts us down. It compares us unfavourably with other people and attributes any success we may have merely to chance. Our failures are only to be expected. If we interpret what we do as a failure, then it is a short jump to saying `I am a failure’.

Cognitive-behavioural counselling might help those who are able to learn to recognise this unhelpful voice,  challenge it and find more realistic habits of thought.

A way for those feeling low self-esteem

Repeated abuse, whether verbal, emotional, physical or sexual, drums in a message that the child is inherently bad, and deserving of punishment. If this was your experience of childhood why not try to get some in-depth psychodynamic counselling to explore the roots of your problem?  You can be helped to see past experience through the eyes of an adult and find a more realistic and coherent narrative about yourself. You can’t change the past but you might be able with professional help to come to terms with it and learn to move on.

Self-esteem for Christians

If you are a Christian and do not feel good about yourself, you may be wary of self-esteem as promoting too much self-centredness or disguising the need for God. The trouble is a punitive idea of God is still around and some Christians have felt what they believe to be their basic sinful human nature deserves his condemnation.

If your relationship with God is undermining you then perhaps you could ask whether your image of God is at fault and needs ditching in favour of one that makes more sense. Why not replace him with a God who is not harsh like the one depicted in the Old Testament, and not one with anger appeased by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

An alternative religious view sees us as being neither inherently good nor bad, instead, being born with both positive and negative inclinations. We recognise in the baby’s ignorance of right and wrong an innocence of all blame. We are surrounded by a complex interweaving of problematic situations, interpersonal difficulties and social wrongs that influence our behaviour. We cannot be personally responsible for everything that is wrong in life. We need to distinguish between unrealistic and realistic guilt.

According to this view, the justice of God can only hold us accountable for the things we intentionally do believing them to be wrong.

Self-esteem for the spiritual sensitive person

I would say to the spiritually sensitive person that feeling good about what you do is very different from feeling you are good. We can humbly acknowledge that all that we achieve that is good in our lives is due to a spiritual force which is greater than we ourselves.

Paradoxically the result of this is that we would experience a greater sense of worth. We would see that all the worthwhile things we do is a result of being a willing channel for the power of divine love and wisdom.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Inferiority – How to heal this feeling?

inferiorityDo you feel lower in status or ability than others? Perhaps you find yourself engaging in self-disparaging self-talk from time to time. ‘I can’t do this as well as them’; ‘I fall behind because I’m basically too slow’; ‘They look down on me because I’m not good enough’. Here we have a sense of inferiority causing doubt and uncertainty, feelings of not measuring up to standards, and a lack of self-worth.

Consequences of feelings of inferiority

As a result, others around you may note that you are the sort of person who seems unsure of yourself often seeking attention and approval, someone who feels inadequate to deal with anything without relying on them for encouragement and reassurance. When these feelings of inferiority really get you down then you have a state of mind that you may inwardly realise needs healing.

Being at risk for a sense of inferiority

To have a sense of inferiority, you don’t have to be a member of an ethnic minority, be poor and out of work, have a physical disability or have a childhood memory of failing to live up to parents expectations, but, if you do have any of these, you may be more at risk.

Perhaps you happen to believe that people who are successful are more important, or that people of a certain race, or state of health are at the top of the list. Maybe your self-criticism has some measure of truth but, even if true, does this make you a lesser mortal than the majority of humanity? An inferior sort of human? Doesn’t everyone have their own weaknesses as well as strengths?

Some healing suggestions

Open yourself to healing by:

1. Catching yourself running yourself down. Instead get into the habit of being fair and reasonable regarding your strengths and weaknesses. What you say to yourself may be unfair if you are exaggerating your negative side.

2. Affirming the idea that no matter how others denigrate you, we all deserve respect and happiness because of unconditional love that is the spiritual source of all things. A good parent loves the disabled child as much as the able-bodied one not because of their abilities but because of their needs.

3. Watching out for manipulators – individuals who seem to like to put you down in subtle ways that are not obvious. Perhaps this can be heard in their tone of voice, sarcastic asides, and focusing on negatives about you without much in the way of any positives. These people want to feel superior and so they try to cause you inferiority feelings. They are practised at knowing how to detect weaknesses and once found, they use someone’s weaknesses against him or her.

4. Remembering a spiritual perspective. I really believe that healing of the spirit will happen if you have a deep desire for living a full life of usefulness unencumbered by self-doubt, and anxiety.


There is a story in the Bible about a loving mother who approaches Christ for help because of her concern for her suffering daughter said to be possessed by demons. The mother is a Canaanite – a nation in the story the Jews despise.

As a woman she is a second class citizen in a culture dominated by men. This was the case two thousand years ago in Palestine and is still the case in some parts of the world now. Considered more like property, she functions more like a servant, and a producer of children than someone to be cherished as a loving companion. She has a husband who by law is allowed to divorce her for any reason. Enough, one might think, to give anyone strong feelings of inferiority.

On top of that she is intimidated by this religious teacher – first ignored, then told to go away, and then suffering his stinging words saying his mission is not for her people’s benefit and that she is nothing better than a dog.

Nevertheless, she is not put off by his inattention and rudeness but shows humility and love in her renewed plea. As a result the story tells us the healing takes place.

In his book 12 Miracles of Spiritual Growth, E. Kent Rogers suggests that if we are possessed by feelings of inferiority, we would be wise like the woman in the story to be persistent in our efforts to find healing and be willing to struggle with God as the source of all healing.

If we are tired of the way our self-depreciation, inhibits our ability to love and connect with others, if we are saddened by the way our self-hatred affects others negatively then we will be empowered to tenaciously petition God for healing until we receive what we want. “(E. Kent Rogers, Swedenborgian writer)

So if you are troubled by a feeling of inferiority why not be persistent in humbly asking for help in private prayer?

Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems