Mental and emotional health mean feeling good about ourselves. But sadly, such self-affirmation is often mistaken for pride, which is in stark contrast to the sense of dignity that is synonymous with healthy self-worth.

Exploring subtle differences between pride and dignity might help us affirm ourselves in a way that allows us to move toward a greater sense of well-being and happiness.

  • Pride Feeds our Self-Image
  • Dignity Nourishes Us

We may have different takes on how we understand the word “pride.” But a common connotation is that we cling to a haughty, boastful self-view. We may take pride in how much money we make, how orderly our home is, or how fit we are. Such pride often correlates to an inflated self-image. Our sense of identity becomes narrowly defined by what we do rather than who we are. Our perceived accomplishments and status feed a prideful self-image, but do not really nourish us.

Interestingly, although we may pride ourselves on how much money we earn, studies suggest that income above a certain amount doesn’t translate into greater happiness. A Princeton study revealed that making more than roughly $75,000 a year (depending on what state you live in) won’t significantly improve your emotional well-being.

Dignity is an expression of who we are. It is not about our social status, money, or achievements. We affirm ourselves and maintain self-compassion, whether we experience successes or failures in the world. Our dignity might derive simply from doing our best to live as an ethical human being. It might be based on our capacity for honesty, authenticity, and kindness. We live with a nourishing sense of gentle dignity as we become true to ourselves, honor ourselves as we are.

  • Pride Pumps Up Our Superiority
  • Dignity Contains Humility and Gratitude

Pride is often colored by a self-view of being better than others. We might judge people who are low-income or unemployed as being unambitious or lazy. If we enter a home that is disorderly, we might deem its occupants to be messy. If we pride ourselves on being fit, we might judge people who are out-of-shape. These judgmental perceptions might gratify us with an air of superiority. Pumped up with pride, we don’t allow others their dignity. We hold people to rigid standards if we are to respect them.

Dignity doesn’t require comparing ourselves to others. If we have a good job, we feel grateful, not superior. If we keep ourselves fit, we appreciate our commitment to our health and the good feeling it gives us. But we don’t feel better than those who can’t find the time, money, or motivation to work out.

Dignity is an internal sense of respecting ourselves. To the extent that we don’t judge, criticize, and demean ourselves, we don’t feel compelled to disrespect or shame others. We can allow ourselves to enjoy satisfaction and fulfillment — and hold ourselves with a humble sense of dignity for our successes — without demeaning those who are less fortunate.

True dignity bespeaks a generosity toward others. Pride is a commodity that we hoard for ourselves. Dignity contains a humility and gratitude that invites people toward us. Pride often exudes an arrogance and egotism that repels people.

  • Pride Depends on What Happens Outside Ourselves
  • Dignity is Internal

Pride is precarious and easily punctured. Someone insults us, leaves us, or injures us in some way and we feel devastated. We want to retaliate, like a mob figure who orders a “hit” on someone who didn’t respect him. The disrespect is too much to bear when our self-worth is so fragile that we demand that everyone admire us. We have little control over whether others respect us, but we have a great deal of control over whether we respect ourselves.

If someone rejects us, we might feel sad and hurt. Living with dignity means honoring and embracing those vulnerable feelings. When pride rules, we pile shame atop of our hurt, which greatly magnifies our suffering.

The shame that derives from injured pride often comprises the bulk of our devastation when someone hurts us. Our injury derives from how we think we’re being perceived by the other person. We think we’re not being respected and this activates inner feelings of not being worthy of respect. Pride is easy prey to our inner critic. Dignity doesn’t question our worth and value as a person. If someone breaks up with us, it’s a painful loss. But our grieving is not complicated by bouts of self-doubt and self-denigration.

Pride gives away our power. Dignity is not so concerned about how others perceive us; it rests securely on how we are holding and viewing ourselves.

Dignity allows for a courageous and humble vulnerability without this meaning that there’s something wrong with us. We might explore if we contributed to difficulties in a relationship, but we do so with dignity and self-respect. Pride often prevents us from looking at our role in an interpersonal conflict. Instead, we get fixated on blaming, accusing, or attacking. Dignity allows us to learn and grow. It’s not undignified to make mistakes. What is undignified is to not learn and grow from them. Pride keeps us spinning our own wheels — and staying painfully stuck.

Differentiating pride from dignity can help orient us toward what nourishes and sustains us. We can’t expect to always hold on to our dignity, but we can practice returning to gently affirm our dignity when we’re succumbing to pride or losing our way. Moving from pride to dignity invites us to continually bring gentleness toward ourselves—accepting and loving ourselves as we are rather than attaching to how we think we should be.

Wikimedia Commons image: File-Oxfam East Africa

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