Snobbery and Pretentiousness

Twice within the last six months, I’ve heard the 18-year-old son of friends use the expression “put to shame.” The first time, he told me that Lea Michele’s rendition (Glee) of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” put Barbra Streisand’s version to shame (I beg to differ). More recently, he told me that a certain designer’s collection during Fashion Week in New York “put to shame” the work of another well-known designer. It got me thinking about the use of the word shame in this expression and what exactly it means.

Most of the online dictionary definitions focus on embarrassment or humiliation. The superior achievement of one person makes another feels humiliated or embarrassed. In other words, the expression involves a comparison between two people, one of whom is above the other. This pairing between a “winner” and a “loser” has been a theme of my writing on this website from the outset. In particular, I’ve focused on the way many people project their own shame into someone else and then triumph over the other person, as if humiliating someone else “proves” that he or she has gotten rid of all shame. Bullying serves the same function.

In middle school, a period when tweens and young teens feel anxious to find their place in the social hierarchy, when cliques form and divisions between popular kids and the outsiders become more defined, one unfortunate girl or boy is often ostracized and forced to carry unwanted shame for a group of persecutors. Most of you will have heard, read about or experienced this kind of scapegoating. The person who finds himself the target of such persecution usually has some level of shame already — a sense of being unlike others, lacking traits or qualities that other “normal” kids possess. The group likely intuits this shame and “projects into reality,” as we say. Two young men currently in my practice fit this description and found themselves teased and bullied as they came of age. The experience has left them cautious and watchful: in social situations, they strive to adopt behaviors that will allow them to fit in, to escape the feeling of being different, and to make sure no one can see their damage.

As we grow older and more “civilized,” this type of behavior becomes less overt but doesn’t go away. Popularity and exclusion continue to play a role in social relations. When we moved from Los Angeles into a newly developed community in Chapel Hill, where a large number of families bought houses and relocated at about the same time, the social order was highly fluid in the beginning. Large gatherings with many neighbors were the order of the day. As time went on, groups became more exclusive; certain families were dropped from the guest list and felt humiliated. Many residents in the community became preoccupied with who belonged to which crowd, who had the coolest parties, etc. I felt as if I were back in high school. When one of the families we were close with decided to “unfriend” us, because of some personality conflicts with another family they preferred, it was extremely painful. As much as I understood the dynamics, I struggled to fight off the feeling of being a loser, shut out by the popular kids.

As a child, I wasn’t bullied or teased but I always felt as if I were an outsider, unlike other kids. Although I didn’t understand it until many, many years later, I was struggling with deep shame about the ways in which I really was different. I had my group of close friends, other kids outside the mainstream who I’m sure felt a level of shame akin to my own. We compensated by becoming snobby and pretentious, by seeing ourselves as more sophisticated and worldly than our peers. I mean, how many 17-year-olds do you know who like to host bridge parties and cook gourmet meals together on the weekends? For New Year’s Eve one year, we made Beef Wellington and a croquembouche out of Julia Child. We went to plays and saved up for dinners at L’Auberge, a french restaurant in Hollywood. One girl in our group had an elaborate fantasy that she belonged to a secret and powerful dynasty, the Pembertons, and that soon, one of them would come to rescue her. We convinced ourselves that we were not the losers, the inferior ones filled with shame; our cultural pretensions “proved” we were better than everyone else. The 18-year-old boy I mentioned, the one who used the expression “put to shame” — he often comes across as snobby and pretentious, too.

Shame, shame, shame.

Early in my own therapy, my analyst began to focus on this dynamic, helping me to see the defensiveness in my snobbery and pretension; he focused more on the unbearable feeling of being small, though today, I’d emphasize the sense of defect, the underlying experience of shame. Over the years, I’ve made a lot of progress in coming to terms with my shame, but my character still shows vestiges of those early defenses. On occasion, I can still be quite sharp in my judgments of other people who appear to me to be ignorant or “uncouth.” Sometimes, I find myself feeling a bit smug in my “superior” knowledge about something cultural. I feel deeply scornful of the Kardashians, reality TV shows and the widespread “vulgarity” of our culture; I also know my contempt has its defensive function and I’m usually not taken in by it. By recognizing my familiar old defenses at work, I can disengage and bring myself back down to earth.

Defense mechanisms don’t disappear once you understand them, and this is what it means to work with your defenses in an ongoing way. It’s the subject of the final section of my forthcoming book, Why Do I Do That?

* * *

Speaking of my book — I’m reading and getting ready to review Brene Brown’s new book Daring Greatly; I noticed on her website that she’s doing a kind of online book group where participants read a chapter or so a week then exchange written thoughts/questions about it on her website; she responds. If I were to do something like that with my own book, how many of you would be interested in participating? You could do it anonymously.

By Joseph Burgo

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


  1. Hi, Joseph, I would love to participate in an online book discussion. I’ve read your blog for a while and really enjoy it. I’ve been therapy for a few years and I find reading your blog gives me insight into my dynamics in relationships and with myself.

    Thanks again for your writings,


    1. This comment comes from an old friend of mine and refers to an occasion many years ago when I quite imperiously insisted that she was mispronouncing the word “lambaste.” She was pronouncing it correctly, where the second syllable sounds just like the word “baste”. Completely sure that I was right, and supercilious about it I’m sure, I insisted that it should be a short ‘a’, rhyming with “past.” Sigh.

  2. Hello, Joseph, I read your article and found it really interesting. I was just thinking about this topic over the past couple of days. I think snobbery and pretentiousness happens even more so, in heterogenous societies where… you’re deemed acceptable or not based on your ethnicity/ religion/sexual preferences/mother-tongue/socio-economic status… the victor setting the rules for the rest to follow… in a way, a survival of the fittest… in homogenous societies, the snobbery/ pretentiousness is probably more focused on personality/intellectual differences… I would be very interested in contributing to an online book group. I really enjoy the articles you write and your direct style. Looking forward to your book!

    1. That’s a very interesting observation. The heterogenous society seems to lend itself to a kind of splitting where it’s easy to locate the “inferiority” in a well-defined sub-group of others. I’m glad you’re going to participate.

  3. Hi Joe,
    Im new to your site, I would be interested in participating.
    This new research about shame, and all of its underlying components has fascinated me. Even though I have already completed my MA in Counseling Psychology, and I have years of experience researching and working with mental illness, I couldn’t seem to find the motivation to complete the steps necessary to receive full licensure after graduation. I loved my graduate work, and could spend hours researching, but for some reason I lost interest right before graduation and announced to my husband that I did not intend to work towards licensure or remain in my field after graduation. He was hurt and confused.

    I dropped out of the profession and took a job in city government. To be honest, I just didn’t have faith in the therapeutic process. Besides my work and the disappointment and frustration of working with the mentally ill in the state system ( which focused mainly on keeping patients sedated and compliant), I myself had attended therapy sessions for years. And while it offered some relief, it was usually short lived. Mostly I felt worse when I left than when I went in.

    I wanted to know why I did the things I did, why I continued the same destructive behavior patterns over and over even though i knew the painful results. I couldnt understand why certain situations would trigger such a deep emotional response, and why I seemed to lack a healthy sense of belonging and worthiness. Most importantly how I could break free from the emotional bondage so I could be a better mom, wife and friend. I sought counseling from Psychologists, LPC’s, LMSW’s and even Psychiatrists for years, and yet no one could really help me find healing and closure.

    Determined to discover what was wrong with me, and how I ended up that way, I began searching on my own. I read through the DSM looking for anything that might describe my symptoms. Maybe I have a personality disorder, or maybe a mental illness, but I became truley discouraged when the whole darn DSM seemed to describe me..Later, this self discovery phase would develop into a fascination with human behavior in general, so I decided to pursue it as a career. I wanted deeper understanding so I could help myself, and then hopefully give people what counseling had not been able to give me.

    Recently, I decided to seek therapy again. What I discovered was two-fold: 1) I had switched careers because deep down I felt like that for me to be a therapist would be disingenuous at best. I knew that I had not yet found emotional health, so how could I guide anyone else towards a destination I had not yet been able to find.
    And 2) I suffer from deep shame, and believe it or not it feels so good to say that out loud! After full catharsis, my therapist calmly smiled and asked if I had ever read any of Brene Browns work on Shame, I had not. I went home and listened to a short video of hers and then proceeded to read any and everything I could about shame. Finally after so many years of searching and reading, I had a name for what ailed me! I’ve done extensive work on myself, and armed with the knowledge of how shame develops and operates in my life I’ve made tremendous strides.

    Suffice it to say, I have a renewed interest in psychotherapy and Im taking the NCE in a few weeks…, and in the meantime I’ll continue to work with my therapist on removing that heavy iron clad coat of shame.

    Joe, I’ve spent the afternoon reading the different articles on your site, and you have some very interesting information and ideas. I look forward to more discussions in the future.

    1. Thanks so much. I’m familiar with the work of Brene Brown and I’m going to review her latest book next week. I like a lot of what she says but I think we’re talking about different varieties of shame.

      Congratulations on finding your way!

    2. What insight and self-awareness! I’m so glad you returned to therapy. You give me hope for my own therapy. Thank you for sharing your story.

  4. A great point, and I was guilty as charged of this as a teenager and young adult.

    Those grapes were sour anyway 😉

  5. Hi Joseph,
    I would be very interested in participating in your online book group. I have been in therapy for many years and am now almost finished my second year of a four year psychotherapy degree. I find your posts and videos really helpful and insightful both personally and academically. I wish you well with your forthcoming book.
    Regards, Liz.

  6. I was really bullied when I was younger-not sure how much of a negative effect that had on me, but I’m pretty sure I have that “basic shame” you talk about probably most people that have been abandoned by their parents [or just had unloving parents] have basic shame—inner sense of being different, defective, unwanted and so on. Sometimes, I will think about an experience I have had and as I am thinking, I recognize my basic shame and start crying. In addition, I have read that most people reared in an environment with alcoholic parents think they are different from others. Most people think about people as winners or losers…someone living on the streets is a loser in most people’s eyes…maybe we will feel sorry for them but we do not really want anything to do with them.
    Regarding your the online posting -sounds like a good idea, I may post on occasion-would not commit to a weekly posting though.

    1. Nobody needs to commit to anything. The idea would be to have a forum where readers could ask questions and relate their reactions to the book, but only if they wanted to.

  7. Joseph, I would be very interested to participate in your book discussion. I am a final year counseling and psychotherapy student and your posts have been very insightful for me over the last few months. You regularly touch on themes that we are covering in our studies and it gives me a different perspective on them.
    Thank you!

  8. I have a college-age niece and a college-age nephew. Both have their good qualities, but they are both – as I see it – also incredibly spoiled, entitled and often thoughtless and inconsiderate.

    One goes to BC and the other to Hampshire, both really wonderful schools that – by the way – cost about $50k a year.

    When I hear them whine about the food or the dorms or the amount of work or this or that, I often want to stand up and yell, “Jesus, you’re both such spoiled little s&!ts! Do you know what most people would give to have the lives you have and the opportunities you have!”

    It’s at this point that I start to check myself and wonder how much of my reaction is a kind of shame projection and/or anger based in envy. It’s certainly judgmental as well as superior.

    But at the same time, there’s some truth to my feelings about them. So what I try to do is experience my niece and nephew as having both good qualities as well as some less-than-admirable ones at times.

    This may sound like a no-brainer, but for me – and I’m guessing for others that have a very stark, black-and-white, all-this or all-that way of reacting to things – it actually requires a lot of work and practice.

    As a young person, I also adopted a kind of pretentiousness and superiority, which took the form of extreme cynicism, negativity and sarcasm. I think a lot of that was a response to a whole boatload of shame and anger. I was also bullied, but the bullying started at home with my father, which I believe made me more susceptible to it outside of the home.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences as a young person. Your description of your high-culture group of friends made me laugh because I had some friends like that. One friend was a total Anglophile who dressed in three-piece tweed suits and read nothing but British writers. He looked like he’d stepped out of 1914 London. Somehow, back in 1984, his style kind of fit it.

    1. Your description of your process and the way you understood it seems exactly right. Sounds simple but, as you say, it’s quite difficult to do. I was, and still am, an anglophile, but your friend in the three-piece suits sounds over-the-top!

  9. Great article once again. I’m putting together a presentation on Shame and Addiction for my addiction course. I got the idea from starting to read your blog a few months back. Toxic shame can be so self-destructive. You are right on the mark. Thank you for sharing your wisdom! Acceptance and Commitment Therapy seems to show improvement with shame from a study by Luoma et al. (2012). I would love to take part in reading and discussing your new book! Thanks again! Mindy

    1. Thanks, Mindy. I think we have a good number of willing participants now, enough to make it worthwhile.

  10. I had a similar discussion with my “tween” & pointed out to her the same dynamic plays with the “Moms” as what goes on with the kids at school & I’m not even sure its any more sophiscated, sadly enough …. Would love to participate in ur book.

    1. I know what you mean about the moms. I saw it a lot when my kids were younger — the “popular” moms and the moms who feel left out and excluded. Ugh.

  11. I too read your articles regularly and enjoy and learn from them. I’d be happy to participate in an online discussion, however you want to structure it.

  12. Joseph, I would very much like to participate in an on-line book discussion. I always look forward to your writings. I’m convinced you have much of value and meaning to share. Earlier, when you spoke about bullying and teasing in school – I remembered a time when an entire junior high school class of girls suddenly turned against me. I had no idea why. Two of the the “nerd” girls did not turn against me, so I hung out with them. It eventually passed and the “in” crowd accepted me back, but I’ll never forget the pain and exclusion I felt. Years later, in the work world, I observed co-workers do the same thing to others. Not much had changed. Playground stuff renacted in the office everyday. No doubt part of the reason I prefer the solitude of being an artist!

    1. Like you, I think that my preference for writing (the solitude of being an artist) and the one-on-one contact that’s at the heart of psychotherapy have to do with my early experience of not belonging.

  13. There is an english verb that I like: “to cringe”. My native language lacks an equivalent, and a literal translation of “you make me cringe” would read ambiguously “you make me ashamed” or “you make me shameful” (in other contexts there is a distinction). Related, of course, to contempt, snobbery and projection.

    Defense mechanisms don’t disappear… I think it’s the underlying sensitivity and aversion to shame that never disappears, and so defense mechanisms will always be needed. Awareness of this allows one to learn to avoid toxic defenses and use other ones that cause less problems, such as taking a deep breath and waiting for that feeling to pass (aka “defusing”), but all this process (recognizing oneself drifting towards an old bad habit and navigating around it) still eats some precious mental energy even after years of practice and progress.

    My own main problem at the moment seems to be maintaining defenses that are exhausting me and not just in the way mentioned above.

    1. “Defense mechanisms don’t disappear” — that’s a central theme of my book. The ability to see yourself “drifting towards an old bad habit” and struggle to do something different is at the heart of the work I do, with myself and with my clients.

      1. I think I really need to read your book then! I’m forever drifting back and forth between change and old habits. It’s quite dizzying and frankly this topic is very timely for me. Consider me in for the book club!

  14. I was an outcast, too suspect to associate with it would seem for those who become highly anxious at not being ‘in the swim’ of phallocratic ideology and its social formation. As a creative person I’ll always live a meta-narrative, swimming in the pool while at the same time watching myself and others doing it. It paid off. I’m a writer, and everything I’ve experienced converges upon the page. A good childhood might produce good citizens, but it can find you wanting when you have a blank page to fill. And of course, if I could be of service, it would be a pleasure to engage with your project.

  15. Shame is such a toxic emotion. I’m actively motivated to keep it from corroding the self-esteem of many of my clients, as well as my 11 y/o son.

    I’d be happy to participate in an online discussion about your forthcoming book.

    Congratulations :).

  16. I have often wondered about ‘feeling different’ – as a kid and as an adult. I think i’ve decided that we all feel different, unique.. Some of us are just much more self-aware. And some of us are taught that our uniqueness is not ok in our homes growing up. Our parents project as well and so positive or negative feelings get passed along just like our physical traits… Our underlying sense of self-confidence (as we mature) dictates how we interpret our ‘differentness’ or uniqueness. The more enmeshed (from your previous posts) our parents are with us while we grow and mature, the more we rely on others to define us. I dunno. Just a thought or three.

    1. And very good ones. I think the generational transmission of feelings and self-image is a big issue.

  17. Shame. The earliest episode I recall is my uncle shouting angrily: Bad boy! Shame on you! And then he took me home and locked me up in a small and dark room. I don:t know how long I was there, probably a couple of hours. I was three or four and had done nothing wrong. Nor did I feel shame, but I did feel bad, and I felt fear, deep fear. My ma was due to give birth(which I hardly knew at that time) , and I was staying with me uncle and aunt for some time. My uncle was doing some repair in a poultry barn, I and a neighbor girl my age were with him. Suddenly we observed a hen laying an egg, and the girl told me that the hen “shit” an egg. I replied that the egg had come from the other opening, and then I asked if she knew that boys and girls were different. She said no. The little boy pulled down his pants to show her. His uncle noticed, and bellowed ” Bad boy! Shame on you!”

    Lots of shame followed later in life, Probably some before this episode, too

    Interesting post, as always.

    1. This is a kind of social shaming, where societal values are enforced through shaming (keep your genitals covered). Different from, but related to, the feeling of intrinsic shame I’m trying to describe.

  18. I would certainly participate. How can I obtain your book? I have already told my husband that it is what I want him to buy me for my birthday.

    1. It will be available on October 29. The eBook version will be available for immediate download but since this is a print-on-demand version, it may take a while to receive the book after you order it.

  19. I was bullied and left out. I did not belong to a group of “losers” either and was thus a loner. This probably means I’m even more snobby. I’m probably snobby at being snobby. Instead of going out drinking and partying like people my age I might stay at home, make myself a pizza and a chocolate milkshake to feel superior to those who would drink some expensive red wine and eat fancy meals because “they just want to feel superior”, and eat it while psychoalalizing other people my age who go out partying and drinking, trying to feel superior to them. But then I realize that i’m kidding myself because they are most likely happier than I am so then I start thinking I’m superior for realizing that dynamic instead of just going on with the contempt mechanism like other snobs would do.
    So yes, I want to feel superior to even those who feel superior and I’m probably writing this post to prove to you that I’m snobbier than you were when you were young, but still smarter than most snobs for realizing that.
    I think it’s called reverse snobbery. Still caused by shame. Shame everywhere.

    1. I know your experience has to be painful but your comment made me smile. All those convolutions! But I think you’re right, it all seems driven by shame. You appear to have a very good handle on what you’re doing and I expect you’ll move closer to the shame in time and find a better way to cope with it.

  20. Great posts. You’ve been on a roll this summer! Can’t wait for your book to arrive and I would love to participate in an online discussion.

  21. Dr. Burgo, thank you as always for your great insights. I certainly would participate in any discussions you have on your book – I have never done anything like that but would certainly be interested in participating. You thoughts on shame and defense mechanisms has certianly changed my perspective on the behavior of others and myself. What about annoyance – particularly towards people – why do we get annoyed – is that a defense mechanism – what is the purpose of annoyance? Thank you again

    1. I think I’d need to know the quality in the other that makes the person annoyed. It could be a defense; on the other hand, some people are downright annoying!

  22. Hi Dr. Burgo,
    I of course identify with this feeling of being the loser in my school years and have also had the experience of trying (not succeeding very well though) at using the defense of being pretentious and better than everyone else to cover up the fact that I feel like such and idiot most of the time. I think my pretentiousness mainly sneaks out in trying to be kinder or more loving (ie; better in some spiritual way) than everyone else. It is a subtle contempt for others but still pretentious.
    The thread of the concept of shame through all of your posts I know is intentional; and it feels right from my own experience that the basic sense of being damaged and empty colors much of my life. Mainly in dark colors. I know you have also written about self hate and I think what you say is that basic shame ends up stoking the fire of hate (be it at others or self) as a defense against feeling that horrible damage and emptiness of the original insult. Right? Sort of?
    This brings me to Love. And I mean the real Love. I read something yesterday from Buddhism. “Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by Love alone is healed”. It really touched me. The same paragraph quoted “There is a truth even bigger than our sorrows”. I took this to mean that we somehow need to get beyond (or try to heal) these sorrows with the bigger picture of forgiveness and Love. This part made me cry because I know that I live in my sorrows much of the time (which is ok) but it is also a kind of self hate to not allow myself to feel love (from others and myself) and try to go a little beyond these sorrows (grieve them maybe?). I feel stuck in my sorrow and feel separate from everybody.
    This brings me to therapy. Therapy seems like one place that us wounded, damaged and ashamed humans can get a small mirror of some of that Love we missed out on so terribly at such tender ages. This kind of seems like the point of your life and work and blog in a way. Healing this damage through the kind of controlled and boundaried love of therapy. I know many therapists and psychologists would never acknowledge this underlying essential component of therapy but I know you openly acknowledge it (Love I mean). I hope to find some way to Love myself at least a little better, because this hatred is so exhausting and I’m sure is the cause of much of my pretentiousness and so many other troubles you write about here. See! I knew I could get back to the point of this particular post!
    I’m sure I won’t be able to resist participating in the discussion on your new book. Thanks

    1. Of course I’m on the same page with you. I do think therapy is a place where a kind of loving relationship occurs that can lead to healing of a sort. It’s not the same as having had a decent childhood, but it’s the next best think I know of. And the point, of course, is to then develop more reciprocal and loving relationships with other people, to let yourself be seen and known and to find the shame you have always felt doesn’t mean you can’t be loved. I really do believe in the redemptive power of love, as long as we don’t think about it in some sentimental, idealized way.

  23. Hi Joseph,
    I’d love to be involved in a discussion of your book.
    I can’t wait to buy it.
    Thanks for all your great work.

    1. Thanks, Louise. I’m going to do a revamp of the website just before the book comes out and I’ll have a link for the discussion page.

  24. I would love to be a part of the online book group. What a cool idea. I just found your blog 2 weeks and love how much I have been learning through yourself and your readers.

  25. (Going back to the discussion about shame) Well — I don’t know. When I hear that something puts something/someone else to shame, it seems to me there’s usually a healthy sense of pride and self-respect behind it, and that someone is (or should be) spurred to do better. The someone may even be the speaker himself.

    Most of Europe currently puts our ed system to shame, and our STEM professors have been saying for years that they can’t find enough qualified American applicants to fill the graduate programs. I talk to friends in Europe about what their kids are doing, I see how little my kid’s doing (and getting praised to the skies for it –she doesn’t need anyone to tell her it’s nothing that deserves that level of praise, either), it’s worrisome and painful — but it also spurs a competitiveness that’s enjoyable. Sure, we can homeschool, and yes, friends and I can write solid curricula for other homeschooling parents, make videos, provide support, work on legislation so that we can recoup the ed dollars, so that able parents who aren’t well-off can also try it. Maybe we can’t change the K12 institutions much, but we can certainly make alternatives.

    The thing is, I know we can teach the kids well, and I know the kids can learn. They want to. It’s so funny and gratifying and heartbreaking, watching them eat up long division. They so dig making the connections themselves. We can totally do this. Which is why, when I say, “they put us to shame”, it’s…it’s like “they won fair and square, let’s pick it up.” Not, “We are worthless losers.” See the difference?

    1. I do see the difference and I think you’re right about another way to employ that expression. I just don’t think that’s the way the kid I described was using it. You’re getting at an appropriate kind of shame and I completely agree.

    2. Absolutely right…However if we are pointing out to someone other than ourselves,they might not take to it kindly…their instincts told them to deny the truth…my boss,hubby n mother-in-law resorted to denials…what a shame…we could have tackle this problems of shame together and probably emerged winners big time…pointing out doesnt really sound like…’come lets look at this problem of ours…this socalled shame that we are keeping secrets within us…’

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