Hands down, pride is the most controversial of all human emotions. There’s a longstanding history surrounding whether it is a virtue or a vice—whether it connotes justifiable self-satisfaction based on effortful accomplishment or inflated self-worth based on a sense of personal superiority. In the pre-Christian world, the Greek philosopher Aristotle considered pride to be the “crown of the virtues,” given that it was the natural emotion felt when a person’s dedication to excellence meets with fruitful outcome. Christian theologians, such as Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, singled out pride as the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, insofar as it reflected the human penchant for attributing life success to personal aspiration, not divine providence.
In the Trump era, the discourse on pride has become even more confused and confusing. True to form, earlier this summer President Trump tweeted that he was a “stable genius” and brazenly added that he was “great looking.” Many consider President Trump’s self-congratulatory remarks as proof of rock-solid self-confidence. For example, writing for The Telegraph, Chris Windle wistfully wishes he could “ooze confidence” like President Trump, speaking with utter conviction and seeming immune from any self-doubt and remorse. In this same piece, performance expert, Kate Marlow, is quoted as saying: “What he’s got isn’t confidence. It’s egotistical. His purpose is all about himself, his power and status.” Which all begs the question: How are we to differentiate the sort of healthy pride that accompanies hard-won, noble pursuits and is emotional sustenance for a person’s self-esteem, and toxic pride, aimed at winning admiration from others as proof of one’s superiority, possibly evoking the desire to use aggression and exploitation to attain power and dominance?
A useful categorization employed by philosophers and social psychologists pertains to the difference between “authentic pride” and “hubristic pride.” Jessica Tracy, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia has spent the better part of her academic career investigating the distinction, and distilled her findings in her compelling book, Take Pride: Why the Deadliest Sin Holds the Secret to Human Success. Typically, authentic pride involves the joy associated with achieving a valued goal and attributing success to one’s perseverance and effort. It has been aptly called “competence pleasure” (a term coined by Francis Broucek, in his book Shame and the Self), or the excitement experienced in the successful accomplishment of a pursuit that has been purposely and doggedly striven for. The focus of authentic pride is on the achievement, rather than on the personal attributes of the achieving person. In contrast, people who feel hubristic pride tend to think of themselves as superior persons deserving of special recognition, characteristically attributing success to inborn traits or abilities they believe they possess.
Ironically, authentic or healthy pride entails a dose of humility and often spurs people to recognize mistakes made and hurdles overcome while persevering in the attainment of a goal. It leaves room for recognizing a dependence on others for their contribution to one’s success. It can involve open-mindedness, or a willingness to admit error and learn from others whose ideas and influence might enhance the chances of achieving a highly desirable goal.
In contrast, people who display hubristic or toxic pride are unlikely to convey humility when highlighting their successes, instead smugness and arrogance, because they often believe that victory was the inevitable outcome of their innate greatness. In displays of hubristic pride there are few, if any, references to mistakes made and hurdles overcome in the pursuit of a goal because these would suggest the person is fallible, or error-prone. Others are not recognized for their contribution since this detracts from the admiration the hubristically prideful person relies upon. Not uncommonly, there’s a disinclination to admit error and learn from others—or to act close-mindedly—because what is tantamount for the person experiencing hubristic pride are his or her superior abilities and self-made triumphant moments.
In general, pride involves the pleasure derived from one’s achievements being made public in ways that elicit approval and raise one’s social standing. Pride may even have evolved as an emotion that propels people to gain social status. Along these lines, Tracy differentiates the underlying motives behind authentic and hubristic pride being associated with gaining social status. The former entails the raising of social status for “prestige” reasons, or people being recognized and exalted because their accomplishments have high social value. By comparison, the latter entails a “dominance” motive, or an unrelenting need to impress others and achieve power, fame, or fortune, even through recourse to deceit and exploitation, if necessary.
Healthy pride can also be distinguished by its interpersonal effects. A team of Harvard researchers, led by Alison Brooks, discovered that when a successful person exhibits authentic pride, onlookers are likely to experience benign envy, whereas when a successful person manifests hubristic pride, the chances are that onlookers will experience malicious envy. In other words, when people reveal how their pathway to success involved persistence and effort, overcoming failures along the way, it tends to inspire benign envy, or a desire on the part of onlookers to work harder to match this type and level of success. However, when people explicitly or implicitly convey that their pathway to success was void of failures and effort—somehow the inevitable result of their inborn talent—onlookers are likely to resent and undermine the successful person and his or her achievements. There are social costs also to appearing conspicuously proud, versus humble, in victory. Analyzing responses to videos depicting people in the context of winning situations, Australian researchers found that those who appeared humble in victory were perceived more favorably. In essence, healthy pride in the context of victorious moments involves “not grinning when winning,” or suppressing overt or smug displays of joy around those who have been outperformed.
What might this all mean for psychotherapists working with high-achieving clients who, surprisingly, demonstrate low self-worth; or, what is commonly labeled “imposter syndrome?”
Many such clients were either deprived of any achievement recognition by caregivers, or supplied with the sort of hyperbolic, generic praise (“You are a great person, you can become anything you want in life!”) that rendered it meaningless and incredulous. It might mean that there needs to be a treatment focus on engendering healthy pride, or recurrent invitation to speak up about accomplishments met with exquisite sensitivity shown by psychotherapists to wholeheartedly and genuinely underscore the hard work and persistence shown by such clients in the attainment of personally meaningful goals. Helping them own the successes they have earned in proud moments could bolster their self-worth. Being proud of clients during their prideful moments can anchor them to a primal motivational source that propels them to pursue what they care most about and have talent at, and imbue their life with meaning.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.