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How do we respond to boastful people?

I’m sure we all know one - that person, perhaps a family member, friend or colleague who always seems keen to impress others.  Perhaps it’s a regular name drop, a frequent retelling of some “impressive” achievement or yet another example of how clever they are.

We all respond to these people in different ways, and often it depends on our energy levels or mood.

Two classic responses are to ignore them or to try to find a way to put them down, bringing them down a peg or two with mockery or arguing to prove them wrong.  However, while these might bring us temporary relief, it’s possible that this will actually maintain the problem.

Low Self Esteem

Many people who regularly boast or constantly try to impress, do so in response to a deep need to be accepted and loved by others.  An inner vulnerability and low self esteem can result in over-compensating behaviour.  The logic makes some sense – if I feel unloved or unappreciated, then telling a story of how impressive I am or sharing some personal achievement should result in me getting the praise and affirmation I so deeply long for.  When talking to someone who doesn’t know me well, the chances of this happening are higher.  I get the buzz of being the centre of attention and being admired.  My vulnerable self-esteem gets a temporary reprieve.

However, when others mock me or don’t seem impressed, this causes me a problem.  My self esteem takes another hit.  This perpetuates the cycle, as I now have a greater need and so will continue to seek affirmation in the way I know best – try harder to impress.

Pre-emptive Appreciation

What should we do if someone we genuinely care about continues to be, let’s be honest, just plain annoying?  Well, firstly, we need to recognise that our negative response to their behaviour is also connected to our own self esteem.  When someone tries to puff themselves up and impress, if we are totally secure in our own identity, then we should be able to remain unaffected.  The problem is that if we have hidden our own lights under a bushel, or have had our own achievements overlooked, then another person’s boasting can be hurtful.  It is a reminder of how we have made our own sacrifices and our humility in the face of their apparent arrogance results in an emotional response.  Our actions then follow on from these emotions.

However, a second approach is counter-intuitive.  This is to give genuine, pre-emptive praise to the person who normally seeks it out by impressing others.  This suggestion can be difficult to stomach, as it feels like we are rewarding bad behaviour.  However, as many parents will know, when a child is hungry, their behaviour can deteriorate.  To reward bad behaviour with some kind of treat will only reinforce that bad behaviour.  However, a good parent will learn to identify the patterns and by ensuring the child doesn’t go hungry in the first place can vastly reduce the bad behaviour.  This isn’t rewarding behaviour that we don’t like, as the child hasn’t yet engaged in the negative behaviour designed to find a solution to its deeper need.  It is prevention rather than cure.

How does this translate to our situation in practice?  Well, it means thinking about the person we care about, and finding genuine points of praise and validation for them.  This isn’t the same as flattery or buttering someone up (that would be giving sweets to a toddler to keep them full).  Instead, it is recognising the deeper insecurity (that they are likely to be unaware of) and showing them that they are valued, appreciated and loved for who they are, not what they do.

The more you can do this for others, the more their sense of self worth can grow.  They will still occasionally boast and continue in their previous behaviours, but over time, you might find that this need decreases.  Good relationships require many more positive affirmations than criticisms to flourish.  Redressing this balance by pre-emptive affirmation can help.  It also role models to other people the behaviour of genuinely praising others, and this can result in a culture shift.  It certainly makes a change from the previous pattern.  The final benefit is for ourselves.  When we train ourselves to seek out positives in others so that we can genuinely praise them, we rewire our brains to look out for positives.  Research into cognitive bias modification is showing promising signs that focusing on positives can have a beneficial effect on our own mental well-being.

Article written by David Craigie, Chartered Psychologist and co-founder of the Craigie Partnership

(Job title and qualifications written to impress?)

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