on taking oneself too seriously

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.

20 Comments

  • I think I agree with the definition you give. Basically, it’s just when you attribute too much significance to even the smallest things in life.

  • As I was reading the first couple of paragraphs, it immediately occurred to me to suggest Nagel. Then you went ahead and suggested hi, yourself. So obviously, your account of ‘taking oneself too seriously’ is probably right. ;)

  • Being of the persuasion that values self-reflection, I concede that I am a person ver likely to take himself too seriously. However, I think that taking oneself too seriously is better than not seriously enough. Though I am inclined to agree with your vision of the person who takes herself too seriously as one who does not take the objective view often enough, I do not think the converse is true. I don’t think that people who do not take themselves seriously enough are taking the view from nowhere too frequently. Rather it seems to me that they are also not taking it often enough. The difference between the person who takes himself too seriously and the one who does not take herself seriously enough is the reasons they have for not embracing the objective view. The former is perhaps too self-absorbed; the latter is too apathetic to engage with wither view. Thoughts?

  • Through the years, which are now a pretty good many, I’ve realized that almost everything in life is about balance. It’s okay to take yourself seriously some of time and lighten up at other times. Only a few people can really operate effectively outside of the bell curve. The other 95 percent will need to find a balance to maintain health and sanity. I think the true antidote to taking oneself seriously is to focus on others which is what is truly important anyhow. Too much introspection implies placing too much importance on oneself, which I might consider to be an ego trip. Just saying that this is how I feel about it after all these years.

  • “To be char­i­ta­ble, we should not assume that speak­ers have in mind some char­ac­ter­is­tic of per­sons that is eas­ily express­ible in other ordi­nary terms.”

    Why?

  • Christopher M wrote:

    I don’t quite get the connection you’re drawing between (1) failing to see things from the objective view and (2) working all the time and/or being unable to kick back and have fun. These seem like two separate things to me. I’ve known plenty of people who weren’t especially hard workers and had a good amount of fun, but who had trouble understanding that their own concerns, passions, values, and goals were not everyone’s.

  • On one hand… You’ve made a good argument here.

    On the other… This post generates an entirely new archetype of “Taking Oneself Too Seriously”, which is: writing a blog post about what it means to take oneself 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…”

    In the future, what I say about myself will inevitably include, “I work just enough, play in moderation, and take myself just as seriously as I should be taken.” In so doing, I will reveal my affinity for Epicurus.

  • I am secretly hoping (not secret anymore) there is some very deep irony embedded in this post. Not sure because I’ve never read the blog before.

  • delurking wrote:

    By your own definitions, my welfare is determined by how well I am succeeding in achieving my subjective goals. Therefore, the only time that an objective point of view is conducive to my welfare is when it results in the same conclusion as a subjective point of view. Thus, I am never taking myself too seriously.

  • I’m not sure I really agree with your assumption in the second paragraph of the post. “Tak­ing oneself too seri­ously” very well may be reducible to the list of potential corresponding phrases you dispose of there.

    That second paragraph is really an essential rhetorical moment in the post, from my perspective, since it serves to clear away a bunch of potentially bothersome easy explanations for the deployment of the phrase in conversations. So I think you should grapple with that a bit more before relying on the too easy conclusion as a lever to launch into your more detailed explication.

  • “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 … at a time when doing so would be conducive to her wel­fare.”

    It seems to me that “taking yourself too seriously” means the exact opposite of what you say. The correct definition should be: A person takes herself too seriously when she fails to assume the SUBJECTIVE point of view at a time when doing so would be conducive to her wel­fare.

    People who take themselves too seriously do so because they imagine some objective consequences of their actions (e.g. what others would say) that are not really there.

  • I would say that the definition of taking oneself to seriously set forth in your post is incorrect. Ironically, however, I would also say that your post itself is the definition of taking oneself too seriously.

  • I’m with Neal and CE – I think your second paragraph simply begs the question.

    Katja recently posted on the preponderance of language that, well, beats around the bush. In that spirit of generosity, I’d suggest that there is no canonical usage, and different speakers mean it differently. I suspect most use it as a substitute for “pretentious” but have no data to support that opinion…

  • ktismael wrote:

    I have always interpreted “take one’s self too seriously” to follow on Robert Anton Wilson’s “Cosmic Schmuck Principle”

    To wit:
    “The Cosmic Schmuck Principle holds that if you don’t wake up, once a month at least, and realize that you have been acting like a Cosmic Schmuck again then you will probably go on acting like a cosmic schmuck forever; but if you do, occasionally, recognize your Cosmic Schmuckiness, then you might begin to become a little less Schmucky that the general human average at this primitive stage of terrestrial evolution.”

    This squares somewhat with you “objective” view concept, but differs from your “works too hard” concept. The point is that we are all human, and if you don’t consider the fact that you could quite likely be ridiculous on a regular basis, then you are taking yourself too seriously.

  • “…when doing so would be con­ducive to her wel­fare.” Seems that the author takes own welfare too seriously. If one accepts that there is no universal definition of “self”, there is no fundamental reason to care more about “future self” than, say, for other people around you.

  • baakanit wrote:

    I agree with Lil D’ definition, in the context I use it is when people are pretentious and don’t show an ounce of humility.

  • Thanks! This brought needed clarity to my understanding of the phrase. Well done! I googled the phrase and chose your post.

  • Thanks, glad to help!

  • Just passing through…and thought I would post my pennies worth to this year-old discussion thread.

    Thank you for fleshing this expression out as you have. Because there is so much we take for granted with expressions spoken or heard without truly gaining some reasonable appreciation of them. I guess you can tell that I too am someone who takes himself relatively seriously.

    I came online to search for the meaning of the expression, “taking yourself too seriously”. And after reading what you have to say about it, esp. Thomas Nagel’s perspective, I wanted to amplify a particular aspect of Nagel’s contention on “taking yourself too seriously”.

    Before I do so I wanted to say that Doug’s and Kelly’s posts above are implying the idea that *your* raising this issue on your blog as in itself an example of “taking oneself too seriously”. I contend that by the same token anyone who writes a blog or responds to bloggers may also be persons who “take themselves too seriously”. But this can be contradicted by the very fact that a blog is a fairly public forum where a blogger’s posts can be dismissed as easily as they can be supported.

    Not quite sure what Vlad’s post above, especially the last paragraph is referring to.

    But I digress. I think the expression “taking yourself too seriously” also refers to an individual who adheres consciously and rigidly to their own views. And experiences different (others) opinions as dissonant. This aspect has been implied in your quote from Nagel. But I think this rigidity is inherent in it. To my mind this also means that the expression “lighten up” is not the only way to deal with someone who take themselves too seriously. Because it can also apply to someone who consciously rejects ideas, perspectives different from their own. This would quite naturally include those who do so out of ignorance and in other cases out of intellectual snobbishness if you will.

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