Heroes, Role Models and Idols

Now that I’ve gone through all the responses to my last post and done a little more reading on the subject, I feel clearer about heroes and what we expect of them. While a number of people made idiosyncratic or very personal choices, the majority named men and women who tended (1) to have overcome some kind of adversity and (2) behaved in a selfless manner. I’ll be exploring these attributes further in the final section of my upcoming eSingle, The Hero as Narcissist: How Greg Mortenson and Lance Armstrong Conned a Willing Public, available some time during the month of April.

At first, I tried to make a distinction between heroes and role models, but the more I read about their defining features, they didn’t strike me as very different. Heroes and role models both tend to embody our ideals for human behavior. That’s a good thing, I suppose — we need to have ideals we can strive toward. But we can get into trouble when we idealize those people who embody our ideals, when we fail to see them as human beings with some outstanding qualities but flawed and fallible like the rest of us in other areas.

For some people, when their hero turns out to be only human, he goes from pedestal to trash heap. In those cases, the values the hero embodies don’t tend to go very deep. Such heroes resemble celebrities more than anything else, or “idols,” as one reader put it. Readers who responded to my last post had more nuanced views and understood their heroes to be flawed. For example, most people know that Martin Luther King, Jr. had serial affairs but that fact doesn’t detract from the admiration they feel for his other important accomplishments.

Like several of the readers who responded, I actually have no heroes. There are people I admire but I don’t look at them as heroes. Can you have category or niche heroes? I could say that Henry James is my writer-hero, not because I think he was an especially noble or selfless person, but because of the novels he wrote. I have any number of intellectual heroes, men and women I admire because of the incisiveness of their thought. Daphne Merkin is a kind of a hero for me, as well: I admire the way she’s willing to reveal herself in all her dysfunction, making brutally honest disclosures to shed light on her subject matter. Like my friend Bob Dick, Beethoven is a hero to me because he produced so much beauty despite major physical challenges.

But none of these people was particuarly selfless. To be honest, I don’t particularly admire selflessness. (That may sound surprising to hear from a therapist, but as I explained in this earlier post, I didn’t choose my profession because of a strong desire to help people.) I actually distrust people who appear to be selfless. In my personal experience, individuals who come across as selfless have a hidden narcissistic agenda; they may see their own goodness as a kind of superiority. The people I’ve known who were selflessly devoted to some cause often had great difficulty in their personal relationships and struggled with a lot of unconscious hostility.

I don’t mean to sound cynical. I just don’t hold up selflessness as an ideal. The men and women I admire most achieved something extraordinary in their field, and I don’t care if they did so for egotistical reasons. Most people who accomplish something truly great and lasting must have a strong narcissistic drive. I don’t mean the kind of groundless grandiosity that defends against shame, but something more like the conviction that you have something exceptional inside of you and you would like to prove it.

Ernest Hemingway said, “As you get older it is harder to have heroes but it is sort of necessary.” I agree with the first half of that sentence but question the way it ends. Is it really necessary to have heroes? You might remember the opening sentence of David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” I’d like to think that I will turn out to be the hero of my own life, that as I continue learning and working and writing, I’ll achieve something I consider excellent. In my personal relations, I do my best and I hope this will continue to be “good enough,” but the ideal I hold out for myself is to write something of lasting value.

I’m not asking for reassurance here; I don’t want praise. What I need to do is satisfy my own sense of excellence, my own ideals, and I haven’t yet done that. But I’m not old yet. There’s still time!

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. “I actually distrust people who appear to be selfless. In my personal experience, individuals who come across as selfless have a hidden narcissistic agenda; they may see their own goodness as a kind of superiority.”

    You seem to be using “selflessness” and “goodness” synonymously here, is that correct?

    1. For those people, selflessness and goodness are synonymous, but that’s not the way I see them.

  2. “I have heard a wise man describe two kinds of selfish people: the unwise and the wise. Unwise selfish people think only of themselves, and the result is confusion and pain. Wise selfish people know that the best thing they can do for themselves is to be there for others. As a result, they experience joy.
    We think that by protecting ourselves from suffering we are being kind to ourselves. The truth is, we only become more fearful, more hardened, and more alienated. We experience ourselves as being separate from the whole. This separateness becomes like a prison for us, a prison that restricts us. Curiously enough, if we primarily try to shield ourselves from discomfort, we suffer. Yet when we don’t close off and we let our hearts break, we discover our kinship with all beings.”
    Pema Chodron

    For me it is much more complex than someone being selfish or unselfish. Or someone being a hero or an idol. Maybe it is a definition and wording issue but the truth is we are all connected to and need each other. It is ultimately selfish in my opinion, to help someone else because the actions of us all ripple away and then come back to us eventually. Everyone in this life is a hero because we all walk around blind. And we all wait for death. And we are all scared. We don’t even know who the hell we are! But most of us wake up every day and go on. With all of this fear, depression, pain and sorrow. (thank god for rollercoasters and 5 year olds)

    You Joe, seem to me to be a wise selfish person. Because you do open your heart to the suffering of others. It is obvious in this blog and in your book and yes in your choice for a living. You also strive to see the real truth. You don’t like bullshit.

    Good luck with satisfying your own sense of excellence. I’m just glad you are writing this blog.

    I apologize for any reassurance or praise contained in this response.

  3. Very interesting. I recently learnt that Alice Walker’s daughter is estranged from her, I didn’t look into the reasons why (if they are public). But this is another indicator that the public appearance/ one facet of a person is heroic/admirable, but that the same person is different/more difficult in other areas of their life.

  4. I truly find it sad that in your personal experience people who “come across” selfless have a hidden narcissitic agenda while you don’t particularly care that those who achieved “great” things have egotistical tendencies. Clearly you choice of words even relay that you may carry the same hostility you question in those who are, rather appear, selfless. While “ego” rather than” narcissisim” was the word for the great achievers. I don’t say that as a self-righteous comment, but my experience is rather the opposite. How do you see your relationship to your own kids? If there is any selfless, self sacrificing may be better term it is with toward kids. Maybe I’m unaware of my hidden & unconsious agenda with my kids but I don’t think so. Although I aspire to do many great things, I cannot say I have not been “derailed” once a mother. Maybe my task at hand is giving to my kids the best I can so that in they can develop to be their best! I hope you will grow to someday see that a life service does exist.

    1. I like the distinction between selflessness and self-sacrifice. As a parent, I’ve had many many experiences of self-sacrifice — putting their needs ahead of my own wishes — but a big part of it has to do with my expectations for the parent I want to be. I’d feel bad about myself if I were a self-centered parent.

      1. I understand that! Much of what Ifeel Ineed to give to mychildren can be a matter of my own expectation to be a great parent or give them what I didn’t have so I can perhaps vicariously heal my own wounds… I have had many occasions where I’ve recognized that! I would say though that I am fortunate enough that what was asked of me, in relation to my kids, in many occasions were putting their needs ahead of my wishes. Though there has been occasions where I think I’ve had to put my emotional needs not wishes, well ahead of theirs … I was speaking though for many, in an all together different category, where self-sacrificial giving meant they put their kids needs ahead of their own needs, not wishes! I speak from experience of single parents with challenging special-needs kids where the other parent walks out. These parents who are left to tend for the kids and sacrifice many things I’d put in the need category, and often for years and decades. How about all the war torn countries around the world? I think maybe that is not the audience for these bloggy conversations…

  5. I would still differentiate between “selflessness” and “caring.” “Selflessnesss” is a false construct in a way because we can’t help but have a “self ” and factor it into our choices, but that doesn’t mean we can’t genuinely care about others as well. If heroism is the combination of true concern for others or something (some truth, some subject) plus exceptional courage, you are a hero.

    1. That makes sense, but somehow in our culture, we do expect selflessness of our heroes, more than mere concern.

  6. Hi Joseph:

    I almost always find great information and insights reading your blog; it is one of my favorites!

    I am a little bit uncomfortable with a portion of this post. Maybe it is because of your interaction with your clientele, but you seem to be suggesting that if you are selfless, then you are a narcissist. Shouldn’t we add the modifier “falsely selfless”? I know plenty of people that exhibit authentic selflessness who are far from narcissists. And isn’t selflessness a necessary condition for altruistic love?

    Just my two cents,

    — Phil

    1. I see your point. To me “falsely selfless” is redundant and I don’t believe in altruistic love.

  7. Since no one actually achieves selflessness, it is wise not to even imagine it. We might love our selves and others a little more without this over the top expectation. Thanks for these words. And, I hope with you that you can satisfy your own sense of your capacity for excellence! Loving ourselves helps us love others.

  8. For myself, I’ve always viewed heroes and role models as distinctly different because of the selflessness. A hero is one who commits a selfless act at great personal risk (e.g. jumping on a grenade to save his/her buddies) while a role model is someone who, on a day to day basis, lives the life one would like to lead themselves. I personally find it much harder to view the role models as humans with human failures, as these types are indeed held as the ideal. A failure in the ideal results in fear (“Did I make the wrong choice in the type of person I chose to model myself after?”, and shame (“I made a poor choice in the person whom I’ve modeled myself after.”) A hero on the other hand is something of a one time deal. In the right moment, they did something immensely selfless. What came before or after is irrelevant to anyone but tabloid writers/readers, as the act committed is already done, the deed done and over with. That the hero was an abusive alcoholic doesn’t change what happened, nor would the hero becoming a the abusive alcoholic. While sad to see a hero fall from grace in the manner, it’s more acceptable because it’s the act that is the qualifier, not the person themselves.

      1. Perhaps, as for me, a hero without a heroic act is a “hero.” (Hard to do air quotes via text.) Another way to put it would be to say that it is the heroic act that determines just who is a hero and who is not.

  9. Throughout our lives we need to get better to be accepted. When I was in school, having a car would make you cool, at my age, it’s almost expected (at least where I live).
    Is this need to be successful just a fear that if we don’t become better that we will become obsolete?
    I wonder why we want to succeed and if such success will still have value when we are about to die and reflect back on our lives.

  10. Normally love your posts Joseph. But I haven’t taken anything away from this one. Perhaps because I don’t have any heroes or aspire to be one.

  11. I have a fictional character hero, because it’s what speaks to me, but also because I can’t trust people. I trust a very few people to some degree or another; my husband, my daughter (I trust her to be her self, and that entails a whole variety of things), my psychologist, whom I trust more, in some ways, than I’ve ever trusted anybody. The same could be said of my husband. A few friends I’ve made online, including my best friend, I trust to a degree but probably much less than most people would think.

    It has been proven to me over and over and over that people will betray your trust the second they think it benefits them. People will use you just because they can, just because you’re there.

    It isn’t that I don’t believe in heroes; it’s that I don’t believe in people. Although I inevitably end up finding myself being the poor sap who eagerly hopes the next person will be trustworthy.

    1. I understand what you’re saying. That makes sense to me. If you have a low opinion of human beings, it doesn’t make sense to hold ideal expectations for them.

    1. Do you mean “what will the excellence get” me? Increased self-respect. I think authentic self-esteem comes from living up to your own standards.

      1. I prefer to think that authentic self-esteem comes from knowing you are compassionate enough to yourself, and, indeed, to others, to tolerate NOT living up to them 🙂

        1. That’s a long process. I’m not sure I know how to answer your question, but I think it has to do with having a highly developed sense of self.

        2. Hi Gordon, there are various possibilities. One is our body – instinctive reactions of attraction and disgust. Remembering childhood and what we did spontaneously and feeling of resentment. Whether we feel enlivened by the standard and rise to it or feel burdened and depressed by it. None of these will give ‘the right answer’ I don’t think, they are places to begin.

      2. Hi Joseph, sorry, yes, I meant “what”. Interpretations as to Freudian slips are welcome.

        You may not be surprised to know that I want to know where these standards originated.

        1. They date from my late teens and early 20s, when I began to encounter first-rate writers and first-rate minds. They filled me with so much admiration.

  12. Will you mind much if you don’t write something of lasting value? I think anyone who has survived (and thrived) against the odds as you have should consider yourself to be a hero ( for having survived
    a mother who didn’t love you).

    Hope i don’t sound like too much of an acoylite for saying that. And I’m saying it for kind of selfish reasons…I consider myself the hero of my own life because I survived a narcisstic mother and family. And I hope that doesn’t sound too narcissistic either but I believe it. And that might have to be enough for me. I seem to have lost any ambition I had (and I did have some). It may come back but I seem to be happy enough with what I have (and I’m not successful in any outward way).

    I have thought that a person needs to be highly narcissistic to achieve – especially in the publishing world – I think it’s an advantage to be narcissistic anyway. Maybe I’m wrong about that. I hope so.

    I understand why many of the highest achievers are narcissists but what I don’t understand is why the public adores them so much and seem so disappointed when they turn out to have a big shadow side. Isn’t it a case of the more perfect these heroes seem the bigger the hidden flaws they have? That doesn’t answer why they are so adored though.

    1. Good questions. I’m not sure I have the answers, but I think it has to do with idealization, and our wish to believe that somebody “gets it all.” We blind ourselves to the shadow side they inevitably have, as we all do.

  13. I wonder if the hero thing is a two way process. Take someone who does a brave act, perhaps Rosa Parks (Civil Rights), she responds to injustice by her brave action in refusing to give up her bus seat. This refusal itself predicated on other’s actions over the years. Her action inspired others to take action in support and so on. Hero in whose eyes,? Hers or theirs or a bit of both, whatever, clearly some people have more courage than others and this perhaps allows the less brave amongst us to walk through the gap and continue the process of change. So in some way we do need heros if we want change. Of course the hero may have assumed the title unwillingly or have had it imposed but that’s another story.

  14. Just after reading your previous post about heroes, I read the following in a post at the Tomorrow’s Professor blog. Clearly, heroes are not the demigods they once were: “When [college] students were asked whether they had heroes, half (51 percent) said yes (Undergraduate Survey, 2009). When asked to name their heroes, they didn’t cite celebrities or corporate, government, or social leaders. Less than 1 percent named people like Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, Ronald Reagan, Rosa Parks, Al Gore, Abraham Lincoln, their teachers, or their professors. They dismissed cultural heroes. Student explained it this way: “With reality TV, you see these people who you might have looked up to just totally trashed and not doing moral enough right things. So why would you want to consider them heroes?” “In terms of cultural heroes…it’s hard because we don’t even see sports stars like that anymore. We don’t see politicians. We have a very cynical generation.” They saw the faults in these people magnified by the media, which made them unworthy to serve as heroes. “Hero is a cliché.” “It’s almost like when I think of hero, I think of superhero.” Instead, a majority (54 percent) of undergraduates with heroes named their parents. In total, two-thirds (66 percent) cited a family member. God and Jesus (8 percent) followed distantly behind (Undergraduate Survey, 2009). . . . The heroes of today’s students are a sharp contrast with their 1993 counterparts. Roughly the same percentage have heroes (55 percent) but who their heroes are has changed dramatically. Whereas parents were the most commonly mentioned heroes in 1993 (29 percent), the proportion of undergraduates who cite their parent now has almost doubled. Deities have declined significantly (15 percent) and public figures—entertainers (6 percent), politicians and government leaders (5 percent), and athletes (5 percent) as well as teachers and professors (5 percent)—have fallen off the list (Undergraduate Survey, 1993, 2009).” From “Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student,” by Arthur Levine.

    Fascinating that this change is happening at the same time that students are widely felt to have become extremely dependent and needy. So, for the majority of college students, their parents, who tend to those needs, are their heroes. Is that not some form of narcissism? “You’re my hero because you are devoted to my well-being”?

    I’m not sure how I feel about heroes. Like a lot of others, I don’t tend to have heroes. But I also don’t admire just people who have “achieved something extraordinary.” Some of the biggest narcissists I know are driven by the need to be bigger and better than everyone else. I admire people who seem at ease in their skin, who laugh at themselves and life, and who make other people feel better just by their lightheartedness. They’re my role models — though I don’t think one lifetime will be enough to get me there.

  15. You mention Beethoven in the context of heros, Dr. Burgo. As you perhaps know, the third symphony, the “Eroica,” was originally dedicated to Beethoven’s own hero Napoleon, but Beethoven angrily erased the dedication after Napoleon crowned himself emperor. In his “Keeping Score” series, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas does an extraordinary job of explaining the “heroic” aspects of this symphony as they relate to Beethoven himself. The final movement can move me to weep for Beethoven’s tremendous psychological struggle and his ultimate triumph, and for every person who has struggled with difficulties in their own lives and found a way to go on. Beethoven’s humanity is so encompassing.

    1. I didn’t know that about Beethoven erasing the dedication! Is MTT’s lecture available on YouTube or elsewhere?

  16. I like some of the comments trying to differentiate between selflessness, self-sacrifice, and caring, and altruism. I believe it depends on the context and situation…etc, that the word is used. In my personal life, and professional experience as a therapist I don’t view everyone who presents as or is called “selfless” (in some form) as having a hidden narcissistic agenda. Joseph, I feel you are painting with a broad brush, yet understand these are your experiences.

    I can see how “some” people might try to shore up themselves by describing and/or acting selfless, without ever having developed a strong ego – sense of self. An example could be a person who wishes to lose themselves in meditation and the lessening of ego perhaps through some Eastern or Western traditions, when they have not developed a strong ego. However, I have seen the description of selfless used and the people it is attributed to, who have a strong sense of self, and are caring, and can practice self-sacrifice, and have a healthy narcissism. Many times a story, fictional or non-fictional, could use the words selfless or selflessness, and I don’t think, ahh, hidden narcissistic agenda….just as I could see someone described as “caring” or “self-sacrifer” and see they might have a hidden agenda. I believe that all words can be appropriate, and in depends on the context, person, and situation.

  17. A lot of the people that I admire have overcome a lot. Also, their methods seem to have success. A lot of people who want to help others have gone through a lot themselves so it is not surprising that they may have rage issues. But they make choices to try to do positive work and not seek revenge. They may want to sincerely help others not to feel pain because they have felt a lot fo pain. I think a lot of good points have been made and they are often semantical points or points where qualifing may be important. Of course, there are people who do things just for show. There are those who may feel superior at times. I personally have a lot that makes me humble as I can’t do a lot f things. I may have anger about some things. Yet, I know I have been blessed to have an education and try to encourage others. People sometimes volunteer as it is less pressure. However, some volunteer positions may have a lot of pressure. I personally would not seek such. When I can do something productive, it makes me feel good. But I don’t like people to go overboard with praise especially if what I did was very small. I never had children and I’m not a nurse. Parents and nurses sacrifice in ways that I may never sacrifice in a lifetime. I don’t put people on such a high petastol these days that I would be devastated if I were to find out that they aren’t as good as they seem to me. I don’t need them to be that good. I do need to believe that people do help people because everyone needs help sometimes. Although I disagree with Dr. Burgo a lot about his sentiments here, it is actually one of the reasons I respect him. He doesn’t worry about being good like a lot of people do. From what he has written, he does have a strong sense of integrity(posts about billing insurance companies back when he accepted insurance). He does want his clients to make progress and does feel a lot of empathy towards them. He seeks to help them feel acceptance. If that isn’t helping peopel, I don’t know what is? The fact that he wants to be compensated financially does not detract from the good. I realize he said that he is drawn to the work because he finds it interesting. A lot of people who do good probably pick their profession because they like to solve problems or make a difference and not because they are looking to be made a saint. People have different talents too and some are inclined to help on more personal levels. It’s sad when there are those who give helping a bad name. My grandma was just an average woman. She did teach Sunday School and was a room mother. She probably fits the person that Dr. Burgo describes as unasssuming. But I would interject that she was very special. She came form a home with good parents although she said she didn’t really know her dad until he lived with her towards the end of his life. When I asked my mom how she pictures her mom(as it what age and such she said that she didn’t really picture her but could conjure up an image if she wanted. She just remembers how it felt to be around her and how gentle she was. Well, I have thought a lot about this post and know this is long. If Dr. Burgo’s goal was to be through provoking, he has certianly accomplished that!

  18. I’m pleased to learn we both hold Beethoven in high regard, despite his deep self-absorption! I bet if someone aspires to selflessness their heroes/role models would be quite selfless.
    I don’t aspire to selflessness, and I don’t really want other folks I know to be that way. At the same time, I’m glad some folks are, but I’d not really want to know them much. I’ve often said if Mother Teresa came to therapy with me, I’d be working toward having her get a fulfilling personal life. And after I realized that wouldn’t work, I hope I’d recognize her wonderful work on behalf of the poorest of the disenfranchised, and support her being the saint she felt called to be — which I sure don’t want anyone I know and love to become. Well, I guess I’m not in charge of the whole world, only my own inner world. Dr Bob

    1. I love your treatment goals for Mother Teresa, Bob! I bet you would have encountered some stiff resistance.

  19. Love this topic. Along with the chapter on idealization in your book, it’s helpful to look at who I admire and why and how – if the people are real in my life – I’m NOT being me (undefended). Loved Sioux’s post about students today seeing their parents as heroes. (Not a problem I’ve ever had!) And have to wonder about those dynamics complicating individuation and emancipation. But my favorite was the David Copperfield line – am I going to be the hero of my own life or not? What a question! Thanks for that question alone. I do not know how to be that – I do look for heroes, (secretly ) and in books, but I need to do this.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *