David was an overly-serious professional who came to psychotherapy to work on his low self-esteem. Yet, whenever we discussed exercises that could strengthen his feelings of self-worth, something interesting happened: David resisted. When I asked him why, he admitted it was because he was afraid.
“What of?” I asked.
“Of becoming prideful,” he said. “I really need to be more confident but I’m worried that if the therapy succeeds and my self-esteem improves, I’ll become arrogant.”
“Trust me, there’s no way therapy will make you go from self-doubt to arrogant,” I assured him.
“How can you be sure?” he asked.
“I’m just not that good,” I said.
My joke was intended to break David’s tendency to over-think everything—while he believed he was merely being cautious, by constantly second-guessing himself he was actually sabotaging any steps he took to rebuild his self-esteem.
But David isn't alone: People with low self-esteem often worry that improving their confidence will make them arrogant.
The Difference between Arrogance and Self-Esteem
Boosting our self-esteem when it is low is important for our emotional health (read How Self-Esteem Functions as an Emotional Immune System), our happiness, and even our relationship satisfaction (read Why Some People Hate Receiving Compliments).
But what distinguishes between people who feel confidence and pride from those who are boastful and arrogant?
Psychologists distinguish between two kinds of pride. Authentic pride arises when we feel good about ourselves, confident, and productive, and is related to socially-desirable personality traits such as being agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable. Hubristic pride tends to involve egotism and arrogance, and is related to socially undesirable traits such as being disagreeable, aggressive, having low or brittle self-esteem—and being prone to shame.
People who seek to improve their self-esteem are essentially looking to generate feelings of authentic pride rather than hubristic pride—they want to become more confident, not arrogant. The good news is that authentic and hubristic pride are not actually on the same continuum because they represent two distinct facets of pride. People do not go from being insecure to being arrogant unless they were egotistical, selfish, and aggressive from the get go. In other words, the reason I could be so sure David (and others with low self-esteem) was unlikely to develop hubristic pride was exactly because he was worried about doing so. His worry indicated conscientiousness and agreeableness—traits associated with authentic pride not hubristic pride.
Couldn’t My Becoming More Confident Makes Others Think I’m Arrogant?
“Okay, so I won’t become arrogant,” David said once I explained about things to him. “But isn’t it likely others might perceive my new-found confidence as arrogance?”
“People’s perceptions of others are always filtered through their own issues,” I told him. “But the research indicates that is unlikely.” In fact, authentic pride tends to motivate us to display pro-social behaviors such as hard work, persistence toward our common goals, and generosity, while hubristic pride tends to motivate people toward anti-social behaviors focused on attaining dominance such as arrogance, aggression and hostility.
Both authentic and hubristic pride can afford someone status in other people’s eyes, but there is a significant difference between them. In one recent study, people were able to distinguish between displays of confidence and status that were attained through hard work and socially-valued skills (efforts which afford a person prestige) and status acquired through intimidation and aggression (which afford a person dominance rather than prestige). The study also found that people who displayed authentic pride were perceived as more likable than those who displayed hubristic pride. In other words, people can generally distinguish between confidence and good intentions, and arrogance and selfish intentions.
Once David understood these distinctions, he felt more comfortable moving forward and working on his self-esteem in earnest. After struggling with low self-esteem for many years, lasting feelings of true confidence were unfamiliar to him and his concerns about becoming arrogant resurfaced several times over the next several months. But by then he was able to comfort himself by telling himself the one thing he knew to be true: His very concern about becoming arrogant was the strongest indicator that he was exactly the kind of person who was unlikely to develop hubristic pride and arrogance.
For many science-based techniques to improve your self-esteem check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).
Copyright 2014 Guy Winch
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