In Defense of Healthy Pride

Enrico Gnaulati, PhD
20
1905

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.

20 COMMENTS

  1. I read and I think of a woman named Alex and I asked her if the girl who texted her boyfriend should got ten years. Alex said well yale swim team guy got probation due to his crime.

    I consider that often because every women I world got that story and it faded. Every girl watched mom not yell them the truth of his bad it was.

    So I remember my conversation with Alex. I piece this article and there is the morality issue in America and is pride.

    • That is true, women are taught to be modest. I was modest with my psychiatrist and he declared me to have “delusions of grandeur,” for believing a woman who was trained as an interior designer could be an interior designer. (???) So finally I bragged about how well I did on my SAT tests, the numerous people in my family who graduated Phi Beta Kappa and were Olympic athletes (all true), and he declared my entire life to be a “credible fictional story.” You can’t win with the lunatic psychiatrists.

      “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.”

      I agree with this, after the 2008 bank crash eventually destroyed the design industry which, for the company I was with, was by 2010. I ended up working at Macy’s for a while. I was in the jewelry department, and well surpassed my sales goals. This helped to inspire others in that department, eventually leading to our little jewelry department being the number one Macy’s jewelry department in the nation. And that store was likely a C grade store, in other words, not even one in a very wealthy area.

      Before I learned of how well our jewelry department had done, someone I had known through my design job, asked if I wanted to work in a more design related sales job, so I left Macy’s. Macy’s eventually called me back, and offered me a job in one of their interior design centers, with higher pay. Perhaps corporations should recognized the assets of their employees, prior to them leaving, even if those employees tend to be women who’ve been taught to be modest?

      • And I will also add, I did learn in my earlier experience in working for Marshall Fields, which was bought up by Macy’s, that those they promoted were the brown noses, not the hard workers, ethical, and intelligent people.

        The largely male owned, money only worshipping, corporations don’t know how to properly compensate and award the talented modest women, who work within their corporations.

        But goodness gracious, when the psychologists look at one’s years of artwork, which visually describes these mysonginist injustices, the misogynistic psychologists’, even the non-clinical ones, do want to control the ethical female artist’s work.

        The mysogeny of the “mental health: industry needs to end. As does the fraud of the “mental health: industry.

  2. I think all of Trump’s sayings and shouting signify that his self confidence is actually crock solid, rather than rock solid. His fear of reverses is the giveaway, but his fans will never see that- they’re not supposed to, and they work as hard as they can to stay hypnotized, in order to remain blind.

  3. The verdict was pithy. People say white privilege and alot country doesnt get it.

    Giving a probation and the elite families say thank you and go about their living. This is ancillary to white privilege.

    This is also ancillary to Tim Tebow stance on racial issues. That was illegal yale guys actions.

  4. Pride meet Vainglory, Vainglory, Pride.

    I dunno Doc, I mean i’m not going to mess with the 7 deadlies. It’s not the sin in and of itself, but the fact that it leads one astray and likely to commit others. So yeah I dabble a bit with pride and get to like it, but it becomes ripples in the pond. My healthy pride now becomes something I need like a hit of heroin, and i’m willing to hurt others to get it by for example slandering them. I might even get good at slandering them and get a degree to do it with style, for example use the slanderous labels in the DSM.

    Nah, not falling for the Devil in my ear i’m afraid, its a deadly sin.

    • Black pride, red pride, gay pride, mad pride, I think it’s all good pride. Pride is not healthy or unhealthy, it’s good or bad. White pride, for example, is bad pride.

      Our present meritocracy isn’t always meritocratic. That’s something you’ve got to realize. A person can take a lot of pride in a very bad thing, and that pride can become an impediment to people doing good things.

      I’d like to see more pride for the good that people have achieved rather than pride for the bad (i.e. selfish) things that they’d accomplished. Pollution, impoverishment, and war pride, for example, we might be more highly critical of those than we currently are. Pride for displaying a little self-control and suppressing one’s hubris? There you go, that’s another one, on the good side.

  5. Our society is set up to be cut-throat competetive, so the accomplishments of one person can easily be resented by another and lead to sabotage. Jealousy can be toxic and lead to dangerous situations and destruction, the opposite of “benign.” Knowing, owning, and being proud of and pleased with one’s own accomplishments can be enough to satifisy.

    If you are broadcasting your accomplishments, you are taking a risk. It might be courageous or it might be reckless. I think the motive behind disclosing one’s success is relevant, and that can vary. People project all kinds of cynical motives onto those who are speaking about themselves, in any capacity, and that factors in all of this, too. Insecurity vs. confidence can be a tough battle.

    Isn’t the opposite of pride, shame? Although there is a middle ground: it is what it is, to be human. Everyone’s on their own journey.

  6. Seems to me there can be a very fine line between pride and delusion, your above “political individual’ a good example. Pride grounded in something substantively material, be it ones acts or others responses to them (excluding sociopathic enablers, etc.-no need to elaborate here!) More…what happens when ones delusions become others reality and people suffer, either materially or psychically? Me thinks, at least for starters, it’s critical to call out the absence of pride, as well as the abundance of its delusional impersonations.

  7. The problem in a super competitive society like ours is that people take great pride in winning. Just look at Trump or the First Lady’s ‘Be Best’ motto. There’s no good in winning if you’re the only person on the dais celebrating.

    When you’ve been through hell, there’s nothing wrong with being proud of emerging intact on the other side. But if you’re not reaching back in to pull others out behind you, then your accomplishment eventually rings hollow as it was entirely self-serving. Unfortunately, cooperation and seeking a collective purpose is not heavily emphasized in this culture.

    Pride can be fuel for doing good, or it can be a stepping stone to vanity.

    • KS, I love your comment, it’s to the point and truthful, and you’ve inspired me to think a bit more deeply about this. Also, I think it’s the other side of the coin which I highlighted. To withhold support in the evolution of our fellow human beings is to not recognize that we are all connected. Life has its cause & effect ripples.

      I believe every human being is at least courageous, simpy for being here. I think we can take pride in however we evolve, and especially if we’ve been through hell. Most people, if not all, seem to have some version of it, and we all have things to learn, refine, adapt, and integrate as we go. But emerging from chaotic, confusing, and chronic darkness into the light, finally, is the most “winning” feeling I know, a gargantuan relief, even though by no means does this mean that life is perfect from that point forward.

      But most certainly, long standing burdens are lifted and new information is integrated, and we can feel that quantum leap big time, and more so as it begins to unfold a new reality. That’s a good time to reach out to others, if they are asking for a leg up. I believe this goes hand in hand, reaching out is part of the evolutionary process. It is how we expand further into ourselves, with great humility. I don’t believe humility and pride are antithetical. In fact, I think that’s a winning human combo, creates harmony and balance, high frequency energy.

      As I was writing out my comment above, I was kind of thinking about Facebook, along with social media in general, which I’d been on years ago but have since deactivated. That website is an exercise in vanity and was MADE to make others envious and jealous, at least back in the day that’s what it appeard to generate, although its purpose seems to have evolved into other things now, but I digress.

      I think the “winning” in our competition-based society is done by *projecting* success, whether it is real or not. So many people “win” at lying, which I think is an interesting factor in social competetiveness. I’ve known people who took *pride* in getting away with lying in order to appear as the winner at something–in other words, “cheating,” but that doesn’t seem to register these days as anything out of the ordinary. My disillusionment in society became profound as I kept hearing amid my grievances against the system, “Everyone lies,” and “everyone cheats.” Even an attorney once responded to me that “perjury is not a strong argument anymore, everyone lies.”

      (Considering that we’re all connected, this will always come back to haunt. It’s why I do my best to stay absolutely truthful when I communicate. If we’re lying to or cheating others, then we’re doing it to ourselves).

      Ok, then, so what happens when one refuses to sink to that level and is the one playing fair and being honest to the best of their ability so that the real truth comes to light, and NOT striving to fabricate things to come across a certain way? This would totally be at their own peril because they are going against “the lying, cheating norm.” In society’s eyes, they would be ostracized and come off as “the loser,” in a projected and highly stigmatized way.

      To me, however, that’s the real winner because that person is in their integrity, and in my experience, it pays off in so many ways, although society may not recognize it for a variety of reasons, but I think mostly because a rigid society simply “cannot be wrong!” Worst illusion ever, leads to marginalization. Truth is healing and leads to clarity; whereas lying is what keeps things vague and out of balance, fertile ground for conflict, illness, and all kinds of disasters.

      We still can take pride in what we know within ourselves to be true. I celebrate any step forward, or just the effort, which I or anyone around me makes. Life is unpredictable and the waters can get rough as we face our challenges. We are so doing the best we can with what we know from moment to moment, as well as rippling it outward best we know how. I think this will become more visible in the world as we move forward–I hope!

      And just btw, you made me realize that my issue with the mh industry is, precisely, that is all vanity.

  8. When does “pride” cross over into delusion, be it through intellectual insouciance or moral vacuity? I mean…the political figure represented in this article begs this question, at least for me. And what then, when ones delusion’s are internalized (co-opted) by others who, too, believe pride the agency of their beliefs and actions? Just thinking out loud here about pride as something real (i.e., something grounded in ones acts or other material interactions, etc.) as opposed to it’s more conflated impersonations.