“I’m proud of myself for having graduated from college and for my accomplishments in life. I pride myself on being punctual and for having strong moral values. I’m proud of my beautiful home and garden.”
These are some of the things that might swell us with pride. But what exactly is pride? Does it serve us or trap us? How does it differ from dignity?
Pride derives from the French word “prud,” which is a late Old English word variously translated as “excellent, splendid, arrogant, haughty.” It is thought that “having a high opinion of oneself” might reflect the Anglo-Saxons opinion of Norman knights who called themselves “proud.”
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers multiple definitions for “pride.” A positive one is “A feeling that you respect yourself and deserve to be respected by others.” This seems like a healthy aspect of pride. But then there’s: “A feeling that you are more important or better than other people” and “inordinate self-esteem.” This appears to be a common, not-so-healthy conceit, reflected in statements like, “He had too much pride to ask for help” or “her pride prevented her from admitting she was wrong.”
Since “pride” has conflicting definitions, it may be wise to use a different word to affirm our worth and value.
From Pride to Dignity
We might believe that healthy self-worth means taking pride in our achievements. But if value is tied to our accomplishments or self-image, it’s built upon on a fragile foundation.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling satisfaction when we achieve some goal, such as getting a promotion or buying a new car. But if we allow these things to define who we are, we set ourselves up for misery. According to Buddhist psychology, suffering is generated when we cling too tightly to things that will inevitably pass.
A more genuine and stable self-worth is based upon validating, affirming, and valuing ourselves as we are. Self-worth is a function of living with dignity, which exists apart from any accomplishments. Achievements are ephemeral and can become a trap. If too much of our attention goes toward accomplishing bigger and better things in order to feel good, then we become addicted to external sources of gratification.
In contrast, dignity can live inside us regardless of our successes and failures. We don’t have to prove anything to anybody–or even to ourselves. If an enterprise fails, this doesn’t mean that we’re a failure. If an attempt to communicate our feelings to our partner falls flat, we might feel sad, but we can feel good knowing we did our best. We can experience the dignity of having reached out to connect or to repair an injury to the relationship. We can experience the dignity of living with integrity, regardless of the outcome.
Pride is Shame-Driven
Perhaps there’s a good reason why pride has been considered one of the seven deadly sins. We’ve all been repelled by people who have an inflated view of themselves. They may talk about themselves excessively and rarely show interest in others. They pump themselves up and come across as snooty–exuding an attitude that makes others feel judged.
Such over-confidence and arrogance push us away. Instead of relating to us as equals, they display an obnoxious superiority that makes us feel small. They have the knack of making us feel the shame that they refuse to face within themselves.
Pride is often driven by poor self-worth and shame. We feel so badly about ourselves that we compensate by feeling superior. We look for others’ flaws as a way to conceal our own. We relish criticizing others as a defense against recognizing our own shortcomings.
Pride prevents us from acknowledging our human vulnerabilities. This shame-driven pride makes us too uncomfortable to say, “I’m sorry, I was wrong, I made a mistake.” When pride rules, we believe we’re always right. This makes it difficult to sustain intimate relationships; nobody likes being with a know-it-all.
As the light of our dignity shines more brightly, we realize that we don’t have to be perfect. Showing vulnerability and humility invites people toward us. We become approachable rather than intimidating. We don’t see ourselves as better or worse than anyone else. We recognize that we’re all a part of the human condition; we all have strengths and weaknesses.
Pride is a burden we don’t need. Living with dignity allows us to move more freely through life.
It is freeing to hold ourselves with the dignity that comes from simply being human. We don’t need to achieve “greatness” in order to have worth and value. We’re great just as we are. We might be inclined to pursue excellence because it feels meaningful, enlivening, and expansive, but not because it defines who we are as a person. When pride substitutes for our human dignity, it disconnects us. Affirming our dignity and allowing others their dignity, we become more available to honor ourselves and connect with others as equals.
I take a lot of pride in being myself. I’m comfortable with who I am ~ James McAvoy