I have recently noticed that it has somehow become somewhat fashionable to voice one’s disapproval of people who “take themselves too seriously.” For example, someone might say about herself, “I work hard, but I play hard, and I try not to take myself too seriously,” thereby insinuating that something is wrong with taking oneself very seriously. This phrase kind of baffles me. I need to figure it out, especially because I get the feeling that I am a person who does take herself very seriously, whatever that turns out to mean.
To be charitable, we should not assume that speakers have in mind some characteristic of persons that is easily expressible in other ordinary terms. So, taking onself too seriously must not be reduced to simple arrogance, selfishness, egoism, self-absorbedness, pretentiousness, etc.
In wracking my brain for alternative meanings of the phrase, I was reminded of The View From Nowhere, written by philosopher Thomas Nagel while he was still awesome, before he jumped the shark. Nagel describes two distinct viewpoints that human beings commonly assume: subjective and objective. From the subjective point of view, our own lives (desires, plans, projects, ambitions, hopes, loves, etc) seem to be of the utmost importance. We doggedly pursue our own ends (whatever they may be), day in and day out, and often at great cost. However sometimes we are, for various reason, compelled to assume the objective point of view, or “the view from nowhere;” this is a presumably uniquely human capacity. When we do our best to mentally and emotionally detach from our particular lives and to think about stuff in general as if disembodied, we come to question the importance or value of the things with which we are preoccupied from the subjective point of view. Startled by this finding, we can’t just reject the objective point of view altogether because we have a prior belief that impartial views ought to be taken as normative over partial ones. Still, we find ourselves psychologically incapable of rejecting the subjective point of view, even if we’d like to do so. According to Nagel, the problem of the meaning of life is just that these two viewpoints irrevocably clash and cause a philosophical sort of cognitive dissonance.
If I were able just to choose a meaning for “taking yourself too seriously,” this is what I’d say: A person takes herself too seriously when she fails to assume the objective point of view (i.e., to “look at the big picture” or to “put things in perspective”) at a time when doing so would be conducive to her welfare. Something along these lines may actually be what users of the phrase have in mind. They imply that they don’t want to be, or to be around, people who work all the time and/or who are unable to kick back and have fun. And we can understand relaxing or having fun as a manifestation of a person’s belief that life is short, being a perfectionist about work isn’t valuable, and that one ought not “sweat the small stuff.” These attitudes are just reflections of one’s having assumed the objective point of view in a way that promotes the person’s welfare across her lifetime.
But to say that all ambitious and work-oriented people necessarily take themselves too seriously would be inaccurate. Whether or not taking oneself very seriously is a vice will depend on the context, as well as on individual differences in temperament and character. For at least some people who apparently take themselves very seriously, living in the way that they do is in fact maximally conducive to their individual welfare. “Lightening up” or “taking it easy” would make them not better off but worse off.