Self-belief or self-doubt?

Bragging could reveal more about one's weaknesses than about one's strengths

In 1964, before his title bout with Sonny Liston, heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali famously announced: "I am the greatest!"?

It was quite a boast but, as events proved, not an unreasonable one.

He went on to win the world heavyweight championship three times - in 1964, 1974 and 1978.


Moreover, in 1999, he was crowned Sportsman of the Century by America's Sports Illustrated magazine.

In the same year, he was named Sports Personality of the Century by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

It is not unusual for top-class athletes to declare their prowess as Ali did.

Partly, I think, because it is necessary to generate an enormous amount of self-belief in order to become the very best at something.

As Ali himself once put it: "It's the repetition of affirmation that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen."


More often, however, bragging about one's qualities and achievements, far from being a sign of confidence and self-belief, is a sign of insecurity and self-doubt.

For example, I have never known a professional writer who felt the need to describe himself as a "published author".

But I have often seen self-published amateurs describe themselves that way.

It is a title that seems to be adopted only by people who do not really believe they have earned it.

In a similar vein, a study published last year in the Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin revealed that the times when people felt most insecure about their romantic relationships were the very times they were most likely to post positive images and comments about themselves on Facebook.

In my experience, people who feel secure in their relationships are generally content to enjoy them, rather than publicise them.

People who are comfortable with their religion rarely make a show of their spirituality; and people of good character seldom crow about their virtues.

People's boasts tend to reveal more about their hang-ups and about their weaknesses than about their strengths.

Nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer agreed. He wrote: "To affect a quality, and to plume yourself upon it, is just to confess that you have not got it.

"Whatever it may be that a man boasts of, you may conclude by his boasting about it that that is precisely the direction in which he is rather weak."

Danish academic and writer Poul Martin Moller (1794-1838) once wrote an essay on affectation.

In it, he suggested that people who habitually present themselves as having qualities they do not possess are not simply liars, out to impress others.

They are something more.

They are people with a strong need to think of themselves or some aspect of their lives as being other than they really are.

Moller wrote: "Affectation is not unalloyed falsehood; rather, it always contains an element of self-deception, for it is a part of the very concept of affectation that a person is striving to be what he cannot be."

That certainly rings true in my own experience.

When I was a primary school teacher, I had a colleague who would go on constantly about how much she loved her job. I assumed she did it to show off, and found her intensely irritating.

Before long, she suffered a mental breakdown brought on by work-related stress, and I realised I had misjudged her.

She had not been showing off - she had been struggling.

She had not been trying to convince us - she had been trying to convince herself.

•Gary Hayden is a philosophy and science writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2015, with the headline 'Self-belief or self-doubt?'. Print Edition | Subscribe