We may have different takes on the word “pride.” A healthy pride might arise from seeing our children doing well or making a contribution to the world. But pride can be a slippery slope toward arrogance, which is why Christianity viewed it as one of the seven deadly sins.
Coaches may drive players to win at all costs (including cheating) in order to bask in the pride and glory of winning. Political leaders have often mobilized national or ethnic pride to invade other countries. Much of the misery in the world stems from pride run amok. Brimming with pride around our religious or political ideology, we justify atrocities in the name of God, truth, or justice.
A character in a novel by the 18th century writer, Samuel Johnson, said is well: “Pride is seldom delicate; it will please itself with very mean advantages.” Since a delicate pride can so easily solidify into a destructive pride that distances us from ourselves and others, we might want to differentiate such pride from a dignity that truly honors ourselves and others.
Pride Feeds our Self-Image
Dignity Nourishes Us
A common connotation of "pride" is clinging to a haughty, boastful self-view. We may take pride in the status of our bank account, our academic degrees, or how fit we are. Our sense of identity becomes defined by what we do rather than who we are. Our perceived accomplishments and status feed a prideful self-image, but they don't really nourish us.
Interestingly, although we may pride ourselves on how much money we make, 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 where you reside) won’t significantly improve your emotional well-being.
Dignity is an expression of who we are. It's not about our social status, financial assets, or worldly achievements. Whether we experience successes or failures, we maintain self-compassion. Our dignity derives from doing our best to live as an ethical human being. We live with a nourishing sense of gentle dignity as we become honest with ourselves, kind toward others, and respectful of life in all its forms.
Pride Pumps Up Our Superiority
Dignity Contains Humility and Gratitude
Pride is colored by a self-view of being better than others. We might judge people who are unemployed as being unambitious or lazy. If we enter a disorderly home, we might deem its occupants to be messy. These judgments might furnish us with an air of superiority. We don’t allow others their dignity. We fail to respect them as human beings who are probably doing their best. Plato offers a wise suggestion: "Be kind, my friends, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."
Dignity doesn’t require comparing ourselves to others. If we have a rewarding job, we feel grateful, not superior. If we stay fit, we enjoy the physical well-being it offers without thinking we're 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 or criticize ourselves, we don’t feel compelled to disrespect or shame others.
True dignity allows for generosity toward others. Pride is a commodity that we hoard for ourselves. Dignity contains a humility and gratitude that invites people toward us. We recognize that we're all in it together.
Pride Depends on What Happens Outside Ourselves
Dignity is Internal
Pride is precarious and easily punctured. We feel devastated when someone insults us or leaves us. We want to retaliate, like a mob figure who orders a “hit” on someone who was disrespectful. Disrespect is unbearable when our self-worth is so fragile that we demand that everyone admire us.
If we're rejected, we might feel sad or hurt. Living with dignity means honoring and embracing our vulnerable feelings. When pride rules, we think something is wrong with us for hurting; we judge ourselves as weak. Piling shame atop of our hurt magnifies our suffering.
The shame that derives from injured pride often comprises the bulk of our devastation when someone hurts us. Believing that we’re not being respected activates feelings of not being worthy. The more we live with dignity, the less we question our value as a person. If someone breaks up with us, it’s painful. But our grieving isn't complicated by bouts of self-doubt and self-denigration.
Pride gives away our power. We try to control how we're being seen. Dignity is not so concerned about how others perceive us; it rests securely on how we're viewing and holding ourselves.
Dignity recognizes that being vulnerable doesn't mean something's wrong with us. We can courageously explore how we might have contributed to difficulties in a relationship, but we do so with dignity and self-respect. Pride may prevent us from looking at our role in an interpersonal conflict. Pride is allergic to taking responsibility for our actions. Instead, we get fixated on blaming, accusing, or attacking.
It is not undignified to make mistakes. What is undignified is to not learn and grow from them. Pride keeps us stuck--spinning our own wheels in the quicksand of narcissism.
We can’t expect ourselves to always maintain our dignity; it is prone to being eclipsed by our fears and shame. We can practice returning to affirm our dignity when we’re succumbing to foolish pride or losing our way.
Differentiating pride from dignity can help us embrace what sustains us. Moving from misguided pride to life-affirming 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.
John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT, is author of the award-winning book, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships. His other books include The Authentic Heart and Love & Betrayal. He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for 35 years in the San Francisco Bay area and has conducted workshops internationally on relationships and couples therapy. website: www.johnamodeo.com
Flickr image by Pedro Ribeiro Simões
© John Amodeo