Keeping up with the Spiritual Joneses: The other side of Ego that Spiritual Narcissism, Virtue Signalling & Moral Grandstanding have in Common

Aug 1 · 8 min read

When I say the word “ego,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Maybe “ego” immediately makes you think of a “big ego” — someone who thinks they are a big deal, superior to others, full of themselves, or too cool for school. The mental images associated may be showy or showing off — a seemingly luxurious lifestyle full of fancy things and experiences.

How often do you think of the other end of the ego spectrum?

Many of us may not even be aware of another side of ego. But, desire can manifest itself from different directions:

Aversion is the flip side of greed, the same desire from a different direction. — Stephen Mitchell paraphrasing Vicki Chang in Tao Te Ching

Just when we think we may have figured things out and are on the “good side,” we can get trapped by ego in the forms of spiritual, virtuous, or moral superiority.

Regardless of the buzzword — Spiritual Narcissists, Virtue Signalers, Moral Grandstanders, Social Justice Warriors, Slacktivists, (insert whatever term you want) — the common denominator seems to be: ego.

Let’s start with possibly the most dangerous: spiritual narcissism.

What is Spiritual Narcissism?

“You may rid yourself of all worldly addictions and aversions…the most deadly pretension may raise its head. You may begin to believe you are a spiritually superior person…” — Gerald Heard

I learned of the phrase “spiritual narcissism” from Jordan Bates of Refine The Mind and HighExistence (emphasis added in bold):

  • “No one ever told me spirituality could be a self-sabotaging ego trap. I spent about three years reading about spiritual teachings and incorporating them into my life before ever learning that spirituality has a dark side.”¹

Enter spiritual narcissism:

  • “Spiritual practices become narcissistic, though, when the ego-self hijacks the process and assumes that it is the object of self love, becoming enamored of looking in the mirror and claiming that its reflection is the true-Self. Then we lose our way, forgetting that the purpose of learning to love ourselves is to become more open, kind and effective in interactions with others, and instead of opening our hearts with humility and compassion, we assume a position of superiority — exactly what the ego desires for its safety. Spiritual narcissism sees self-love as the end goal. Spirituality to the ego-self is an object of attainment, much like fame, wealth, an expensive car and a sexy body. Spiritual narcissism creates the pretense of holiness as an ego strategy to mask insecurity, receive approval, or avoid struggle and growth. ‘I’m a spiritual person’ it proclaims proudly. ‘I travel to alternate realities, see auras, heal chakras, predict the future, talk to spirits, commune with angels, manipulate energies, meditate for three hours a day, harness the powers of the Universe to attract success…The truth is that I’m more evolved than you!’” — Rabbi Alan Lurie²
  • “Simply stated, spiritual narcissism is the unconscious use of spiritual practice, experience, and insight to increase rather than decrease self-importance…Spiritual narcissism infiltrates our egos when we start to identify with ‘trying to become holy’…Spiritual narcissism…makes the spiritual quest a self-aggrandizing process rather than a journey of deepening humility.” — Gerald May³

Although I wasn’t aware of the term “spiritual narcissism” until recently, I’m familiar with the concept. My first exposure to this idea was from Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (Book Summary):

  • “Trying to become a good or better human being sounds like a commendable and high­-minded thing to do, yet it is an endeavor you cannot ultimately succeed in unless there is a shift in consciousness. This is because it is still part of the same dysfunction, a more subtle and rarefied form of self-enhancement, of desire for more and a strengthening of one’s conceptual identity, one’s self-image. You do not become good by trying to be good, but by finding the goodness that is already within you, and allowing that goodness to emerge. But it can only emerge if something fundamental changes in your state of consciousness.”
  • “Without living in alignment with your primary purpose, whatever purpose you come up with, even if it is to create heaven on earth, will be of the ego or become destroyed by time. Sooner or later, it will lead to suffering. If you ignore your inner purpose, no matter what you do, even if it looks spiritual, the ego will creep into how you do it, and so the means will corrupt the end.”
  • “Unconscious people — and many remain unconscious, trapped in their egos throughout their lives — will quickly tell you who they are: their name, their occupation, their personal history, the shape or state of their body, and whatever else they identify with. Others may appear to be more evolved because they think of themselves as an immortal soul or living spirit. But do they really know themselves, or have they just added some spiritual­ sounding concepts to the content of their mind? Knowing yourself goes far deeper than the adoption of a set of ideas or beliefs. Spiritual ideas and beliefs may at best be helpful pointers, but in themselves they rarely have the power to dislodge the more firmly established core concepts of who you think you are, which are part of the conditioning of the human mind. Knowing yourself deeply has nothing to do with whatever ideas are floating around in your mind. Knowing yourself is to be rooted in Being, instead of lost in your mind.”

Here’s a short video of Eckhart Tolle verbally describing the desire to be a spiritual person. The video animation is distracting, so I recommend closing your eyes and just absorbing the audio:

Spirituality becomes narcissistic when the unconscious ego hijacks the process in an attempt to strengthen one’s conceptual identity and self-image — one assumes a position of superiority where self-love, self-enhancement, self-aggrandizing, and self-importance mask insecurity.

What is Virtue Signalling?

“Signaling virtue is a vice.” — Naval Ravikant

Let’s start with a definition and short video from the person who coined the phrase “virtue signalling” (also spelled “virtue signaling”), James Bartholomew:

  • “‘Virtue signalling’ — indicating that you are kind, decent and virtuous…It’s noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things. It is camouflage. The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are. If you were frank and said, ‘I care about the environment more than most people do’ or ‘I care about the poor more than others’, your vanity and self-aggrandisement would be obvious…Anger and outrage disguise your boastfulness.”4

Isn’t it ironic that something people use to try to look positive uses negativity? Virtue signalling almost seems to be like busyness in the sense that it’s an overt expression intended to increase one’s status.

  • “Virtue signalling is the conspicuous expression of moral values. Academically, the phrase relates to signalling theory and describes a subset of social behaviors that could be used to signal virtue — especially piety among the religious. In recent years, the term has been more commonly used within groups to criticize those who are seen to value the expression of virtue over action.”5
  • “It’s an abdication of responsibility with the mask of social virtue…I don’t trust the activist ethos at all. I think everything about it is superficial, and trendy, and too easy, and it externalizes the blame — the evil is always elsewhere — which is a dreadful mistake to make because the evil isn’t elsewhere. That’s the thing that you understand when you’re wise. The evil is not elsewhere. It’s you because you’re not everything you could be. You should work on that before going and telling someone else that maybe they’re not who they should be.” — Jordan Peterson

Signalling virtue is an ego-building vice — valuing the expression of virtue over taking responsibility and action.

What is Moral Grandstanding?

“Grandstanding is the use of moral talk for self-promotion.” — Brandon Warmke

  • “No matter what we believe about morality or politics, we’ve all used moral talk to project an impressive and morally respectable image of ourselves. Suppose, for instance, that one of us, in an effort to impress his friends with his sterling character, says, ‘I have long stood on the side of the disadvantaged and this case is no exception. I will not tolerate this injustice, nor should any other good person.’ We call this moral grandstanding.” — Justin Tosi & Brandon Warmke6
  • “Grandstanders want others to regard them as being morally respectable, or even morally remarkable, and the contributions they make to public moral discourse are intended to satisfy that desire. To grandstand, then, is to use moral talk for self-promotion.” — Justin Tosi & Brandon Warmke6
  • “Grandstanders are moral show boaters. They use public discourse as a vanity project. They’re less concerned about saying what’s true, they might be less concerned about helping other people, they’re less concerned about contributing to a conversation that might be productive. More specifically, someone might want to be seen as having spectacular super human insight into what is just.” — Brandon Warmke
  • “Grandstanding is a use of moral talk that attempts to get others to make certain desired judgments about oneself, namely, that one is worthy of respect or admiration because one has some particular moral quality — for example, an impressive commitment to justice, a highly tuned moral sensibility, or unparalleled powers of empathy.” — Justin Tosi & Brandon Warmke7
  • “According to philosophical accounts, Moral Grandstanding is the use of moral talk to seek social status…Specifically, moral grandstanding was associated with status-seeking personality traits, as well as greater political and moral conflict in daily life.” — Joshua Grubbs, Brandon Warmke, Justin Tosi, Alicia James8

Grandstanding is using moral talk for self-promotion, status-seeking, and ego-building — a vanity project to convince others that one is morally respectable or remarkable.

Ego is the Common Denominator between Spiritual Narcissism, Virtue Signalling, and Moral Grandstanding

On the surface, they all have to do with preaching and/or looking the part instead of taking responsibility and living it. Talking the talk, but not walking the walk. “Do as I say, not as I do” syndrome.

On a deeper level, the root is ego:

One can go far as to say that on this planet ‘normal’ equals insane. What is it that lies at the root of this insanity? Complete identification with thought and emotion, that is to say, ego. — Eckhart Tolle

These tactics are all just adding content to your mind, identity, and personal narrative in an attempt to build yourself up. There’s a vast difference between looking spiritual, virtuous, or moral and being spiritual, virtuous, or moral.

How do you keep yourself in check?

Give up defining yourself — to yourself or to others. You won’t die. You will come to life. — Eckhart Tolle

The paradox is that you can’t add anything to be more — you can’t add content to your mind to be more spiritual.

You’ll often find that the truly spiritual humans have no need or desire to broadcast it.

What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments.


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