“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.” If that’s our understanding of pride, it seems healthy. 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, but not-so-healthy conceit. It’s 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 our sense of value is tied to our accomplishments or self-image, it’s built upon on a fragile foundation.
I’m not suggesting that we don’t allow ourselves to feel 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 a human being. Self-worth is a function of living with dignity, which exists apart from any accomplishments. Achievements are ephemeral and can be a trap. If we become attached to 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) to affirm our human dignity. 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 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 their wisdom or abilities. They talk about themselves excessively and rarely extend genuine interest toward others. They pump themselves up and come across as snooty. They exude an attitude that prompts a vague discomfort of being judged.
Such over-confidence and arrogance pushes 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. This shame contagion may prompt us to compete with them or run the other way.
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 limitations. We’re not shy to criticize others as a defense against recognizing our own shortcomings.
Pride prevents us from acknowledging our human vulnerabilities. The shame that drives 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, which 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 others. We recognize that we’re all a part of the human condition, with strengths and weaknesses that are a part of us, but that don’t define who we are.
It is very 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 connecting, not because it defines who we are as a person.
When pride substitutes for our need to hold ourselves with dignity, it disconnects us. Affirming our human dignity and allowing others their dignity, we become more available to relish our lives and enjoy connecting with others as equals. Pride is a burden we don’t need. Living with dignity allows us to move more lightly and freely through life.
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