Diane fired off another post on social media—this one poking fun at the “stupid, lazy people” who struggle to pay their bills. At the restaurant later that evening, she berated the wait staff for being “clueless about how to wait tables”. On the way home, she noted her husband was wearing socks that didn’t match his trousers and chided him for his lack of fashion sense. Her husband called her self-righteous, and now she’s wondering if he’s right.

What does it mean to be self-righteous?

Before we judge Diane, let me say I suspect we are all self-righteous at times. I know I’m guilty. Self-righteousness is when we act like we’re better than others by being critical of their weaknesses, mistakes, and vulnerabilities. Some signs we’re acting in a self-righteous way is when we:

  • Scrutinize and judge others—especially by their external appearances and actions, ignoring their inner character and integrity.
  • Are convinced we’re right or morally superior to those who are different from us.
  • Refuse to admit our own mistakes, flaws, and shortcomings.
  • See no value in learning from another person.
  • Resist outside information and influences and are unlikely to consider new perspectives.
  • Compare ourselves to others to benchmark our worthiness or goodness.
  • Have an inflated sense of our importance, achievements, or abilities.
  • Seek admiration and attention from those around us.
  • Lack of empathy for another person or group of people.

Even if we don’t act out as an over-the-top jerk, our self-righteous attitude might still show. We may be less patient, use sarcasm, roll our eyes, let out a heavy sigh, or say unkind things. Our behavior leaks out in these smaller ways when we are self-righteous.

The downside of self-righteous behavior

Being self-righteous hurts us. First, it’s off-putting to our family, friends, and associates. When we act self-righteously, it comes across as arrogance. Also, people generally don’t like to be judged. Our piety alienates us from them and damages our relationships.

In addition, it creates unnecessary adversaries. People’s reaction to smugness might be that they cheer against us and our efforts. Maybe, they sabotage our success because they can’t wait for us to get our come-uppance. Either way, they’re unlikely to be happy for our accomplishments.

A third problem with self-righteousness is that it stunts our personal growth. When we’re busy justifying ourselves and our behavior, we shut down learning different, and better, approaches. After all, what could we possible improve if we’re already the best?

If I’m acting in self-righteous ways, how do I change?

If you see you have some self-righteous manners and want to clean it up, what can you do? For effective behavior change, it helps to understand the source of our conduct: our thoughts.

The obvious reason why we may act self-righteously is we really do think we’re better than everyone else. How we respond to those around us reflects that belief.

The way to challenge our thinking is to ask ourselves some questions. Admittedly, this reflection is often humbling, but it’s necessary. Ask yourself:

  • In what ways am I not better than others?
  • What mistakes have I made that others have not?
  • How should I determine what makes a person valuable? Is it what they know, how much money they make, or their social status? Or, is it how they serve, love, or care for others? Using this criterion, how do I stack up?

Do I really think I’m better?

Here’s a surprising twist on self-righteousness: many of us who appear self-righteous don’t think we’re better. In fact, deep down, we worry that we’re not good enough—that we don’t measure up. We believe others see us as inferior.

As a result, we try to convince them of our value by putting others down. We attack traits such as someone’s looks, character, success, intelligence, and so on. Sub-consciously, we believe by making others look bad, we look better.

Maybe, we boast about our talents and accomplishments. Or perhaps we hold ourselves out as a more virtuous person. Again, the subconscious purpose is, we’re trying to convince them, and possibly ourselves, of our value.

The cure for this form of self-righteousness is to know our own value. When we are confident in our worthiness, there’s no reason to try to prove it to ourselves or convince others of it. To arrive at this self-assured place, ask yourself these questions:

  • What are the good or great things about me?
  • In what ways do I serve and make a difference to the people around me?
  • Whose life is different, and better, because of me?
  • What can I do to make a difference in someone else’s life right now? In the near future? In the distant future?

Self-righteousness hurts us by pushing away people who might make our life truly wonderful and fulfilling. Whether you struggle with a little or a lot of self-righteousness, it’s a mindset worth addressing.

Faith note

In religious circles, self-righteousness shows up as legalism. We think, God likes me better because I commit fewer sins, or have no sin at all, which of course is laughable. Maybe we think our good deeds, religious knowledge, or spiritual practices merit special treatment. Holding a position of moral superiority over another is spiritual abuse.

It should be noted that Jesus reserved his harshest words for those who attempted to claim self-righteousness. In Matthew 23, Jesus condemned the religious leaders for rigidly clinging to legalistic traditions to make themselves look better. Or check out Luke 18:9-14, where Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. He called out the Pharisee, who trusted in his own righteousness, and contrasted him to the tax collector, who recognized he was not righteous enough to earn God’s approval.

God sees and loves all his children. He created us uniquely and specially for a purpose. My purpose is not your purpose. It’s not better or more important than yours, nor is it worse or less important. It’s just different.

He also has us on different life journeys and timelines. It took me 40+ years to have my eyes opened to a relationship with Christ. Before then, people were justified as seeing me as a heathen, which is a humbling thought. Since then, they may still have doubts, which is also a humbling thought. My journey, your journey, everyone’s journey is different and between us and God. It’s not our place to judge others’ progress.