The US basketball player LeBron James. Photo by John W McDonough/Sports Illustrated/Getty
Get comfortable owning and enjoying your achievements, big and small, and you will nourish your mental health and self-esteem
by Leon Garber + BIO
The US basketball player LeBron James. Photo by John W McDonough/Sports Illustrated/Getty
Of the seven deadly sins, pride is in many ways the most nefarious. In excess, it overshadows and engulfs the virtues of philosophy – self-reflection, critical thinking, consideration for the broader community, and the sense of one’s finitude and fallibility. And yet there are also good reasons to feel more pride – it’s positively correlated with life satisfaction and happiness, and negatively correlated with depression and anxiety.
Imagine a world wherein Albert Einstein wasn’t proud, where his theories appeared to him to have been created in vain. Without pride in his accomplishments, would he have had the motivation to persevere to achieve more? Discovery and creation are only one side of the proverbial coin of success; you have to believe that you’ve achieved it, too. In this Guide, I’ll show you why you shouldn’t fear pride, and provide you with tools to feel it more often.
Pride is distinct from self-esteem
This isn’t a Guide to feeling generally better about yourself, which is self-esteem. Pride can be thought of more narrowly, as the joy one feels due to a personal or collective achievement. You can be proud of yourself or your team for winning a game and, if you identify with a team or a country that you aren’t a part of per se, you can feel vicarious pride through that team’s or country’s achievements. Self-esteem, on the other hand, represents the general assessment of oneself.
Of course, pride and self-esteem are closely related. Some of us live and die with each accomplishment and failure, causing striking fluctuations in self-esteem. Consider bipolar disorder, previously known as manic-depressive disorder, in which periods of chronic low mood are interspersed with phases of intense energy. Patients with this diagnosis present with a particularly unstable sense of self. For them, a mundane win can prompt feelings of being amazing, while an ordinary loss can provoke a devastating sense of being terrible, triggering a manic or depressive episode, respectively.
However, most individuals cultivate a sense of self-regard by tallying up their proverbial wins and losses. For example, I might take pride in playing well in one basketball game; then, if I play consistently well, I will likely come to infer that I’m a good basketball player, thus fuelling my self-esteem. In essence, one can’t experience a high degree of self-esteem without first experiencing momentary pride.
Why pride is often seen unfairly as a sin or narcissistic
Culturally, the notions of pride and self-esteem are often conflated with the self-esteem movement of the 1980s and ’90s led by the Californian politician and amateur psychologist John Vasconcellos. Considered a colossal failure, the self-esteem craze of that era sparked seminars, books and programmes. According to the US journalist Jesse Singal writing in The Cut magazine in 2017: ‘The excitement was fuelled by a steady drumbeat of “research” purporting to confirm Vasconcellos’s theory that [low] self-esteem lay at the heart of many personal and societal difficulties, much of which was fairly anecdotal or otherwise low quality.’ Unfortunately, in trying to convince every kid that they were special, we managed to create a culture in which no one was. Psychologists including Roy Baumeister pointed out that the self-esteem movement likely had things backwards – it’s not that artificially induced high self-esteem is a panacea, but rather, as Singal wrote, ‘that people who are more talented or smart or successful have higher self-esteem because of their positive attributes and accomplishments.’
In short, authentic self-esteem is based on real qualities and a fair assessment of one’s strengths, weaknesses and achievements. Unfortunately, in bypassing reality, the self-esteem movement lost its credibility and, ultimately, its influence.
When considering pride, many of my clients jump to the conclusion that it must be narcissistic. Fearing hubris and an overestimation of their abilities, they simply abstain from it. To feel proud is to be self-important or worse, they fear. Especially if you’re a Christian, pride implies a sinful character. If you scroll through any of your social media feeds, you’ll likely discover a tonne of self-promotion, and you too might consider it narcissistic.
However, pathological narcissism (the formal psychiatric diagnosis is narcissistic personality disorder) isn’t the same as being prideful. Narcissism is related to an exaggerated sense of self-importance. For example, narcissism isn’t feeling proud of yourself for getting an A on an exam; it’s feeling proud of yourself for supposedly being the smartest person in any room where you happen to be. But you can feel proud of an achievement without overgeneralising your value. For example, although you might know that you excel in your mathematics class, you’re aware of your struggles in English. Excessive pride can be labelled narcissistic; but the variety of pride in which one also considers her limitations is anything but pathological. The fear of pride snowballing into narcissism becomes less frightening when pride is conceived of as manageable.
The US psychologists Jessica Tracy, Richard Robins and their colleagues further distinguish between ‘authentic pride’, which is grounded in specific things you’ve achieved through effort, and ‘hubristic pride’, which relates to a more general grandiose self-assessment. Similar to the individual with bipolar disorder, whose self-estimation turns with each attempt and result, Tracy and Robins argue that hubristic pride is a form of over-generalisation, wherein narrow pride leaps to a grandiose plateau. Instead of perceiving himself as a good basketball player, he might conceive of himself as the greatest of all. Often when people think of pride as unhelpful, it is this hubristic variety that they have in mind.
Pride is important to mental wellbeing
What if, in smaller doses, pride – specifically the authentic variety – is not only good but also necessary? What if, without it, we cease to care about ourselves? Pride is the joy of knowing that you have accomplished something you consider significant, usually because it’s also significant to the broader community, but not necessarily. Pride can be found in the student who improved her grade in maths class, the mother who calms her colicky child, or the football player whose team wins the Super Bowl. Pride is in the ordinary and the extraordinary. Most importantly, pride helps form the foundation of mental health. People tend to imagine a life with too much pride, but fail to consider a life without it.
When I was an undergraduate student, I took an unforgettable course in ancient philosophy. During a lecture on hubris, our professor, who was highly accomplished in the field, told the class that pride resulted from an error in reasoning. According to him, pride meant satisfaction and, thus, complacency. If you were to allow yourself to feel proud, you might as well kiss your future accomplishments goodbye. Holding on to this seeming jewel, I spent years suffocating pride. I would recall my professor’s prescription each time I felt even a sliver of joy. And I’d remind myself of the plethora of achievements that towered over mine. Pride devolved into self-censure, and self-censure into depression.
Indeed, an inability to feel proud of oneself is linked with several clinical disorders. Major depressive disorder entails a sense of emptiness and an inability to feel joy in any particular accomplishment. People with borderline personality disorder (which involves black-and-white thinking, an unstable sense of identity, and chronic problems with emotional regulation) will typically perceive themselves as wholly bad and worthless – they will tend to explain away their achievements, either negating them altogether or attributing them solely to circumstance. And obsessive compulsive disorder is characterised by self-doubt, which one can imagine debilitates the ability to feel pride.
Conversely, allowing yourself to feel pride boosts self-esteem, motivation and hopefulness. All three are crucial to one’s will to live, providing, in part, the ‘whys’ that help us carry the burdens of our suffering. When we feel proud of an achievement, we subsequently form a desire to recapture it. Additionally, pride can help us create personal ladders of success, so when you achieve anything of significance, such as writing an article, you can now consider trying a more challenging endeavour, such as writing a chapter in a book. Finally, a sense of pride provides us with self-efficacy, or the sense of our own abilities. It is only by recognising that your prior achievements matter that you can feel able to tackle future problems.
The clients I treat who struggle with self-esteem and an aversion to pride consistently disqualify their positives so, when they’re expected to perform on an exam or present in class, they consistently shirk from the test. When I encourage them to challenge the reasons why they prohibit themselves from feeling pride, I’ve seen how they slowly begin to see new tests and hurdles as more manageable and surmountable than before.
In the following section, I will help you explore your personal barriers to pride, and give you tools to help you feel it and benefit from it more often.
Challenge your unhelpful beliefs and assumptions
The first step to feeling more pride is to challenge some of the unhelpful beliefs and assumptions you might hold about it. One way I help my clients do this is by having them ask themselves a series of questions related to pride, and then talking through their answers with them. Here are a few of the questions I ask and some of the prompts I use in discussion:
If I feel satisfied and proud, won’t it sap my motivation?
According to research into the concept of the ‘hedonic treadmill’, the answer is no. It has shown that part of being human is that eventually we grow weary of our achievements and seek out more of them. Although we tend to believe that some accomplishment will foster a state of perpetual happiness, in reality, we get bored with what we own, including our own memories and successes. In acknowledging human nature, we’re reminded that stagnation is only a slightly probable outcome. Almost inevitably, after celebrating, you’ll strive for something else.
It’s also worth remembering that, according to research on the Big Five model of personality, the major personality traits change over one’s lifetime only slightly, on average. So, if you’re highly ambitious, driven and conscientious, you are likely to remain so, regardless of whether you allow yourself to take pride in your achievements.
Won’t feeling pride make me a bad person or narcissistic?
Some people fear that pride equates with sin. Perhaps you too feel guilty whenever you aren’t an exemplar of modesty. Some religious beliefs can fuel this tendency by adopting a dualistic perspective on humanity that sees people as either good or evil. But, I would counter, is anyone fully good? If you never allow yourself to feel any pride, you are holding yourself to an impossible standard, I would suggest. Similarly, in religious philosophy, pride is often conflated with arrogance, thus it’s seen as a misperception of one’s status in relation to divinity. Such a perspective teaches that we must remain constantly aware of our servitude to god. Yet, the authentic pride I am encouraging you to feel more of has no relation to the divine. In feeling authentic pride, one doesn’t blaspheme against god, as this version of pride isn’t synonymous with conceit.
Did I dismiss a personal achievement because I didn’t see it being as good as another?
People who find it difficult to take pride in their accomplishments often utilise a cognitive heuristic known as ‘disqualifying the positive’, which involves giving yourself reasons why something seemingly good that you did actually isn’t so good. Often, you’ll do this by comparison with personal achievements that you consider superior. Rather than celebrating and taking pride in positive feedback at work, for instance, you’ll instead feel disappointed that you weren’t the office top performer, as you’d managed before. Big-picture thinking is a helpful antidote if you’re prone to considering your accomplishments in this way. In addition to comparing your achievement with a better one, also try comparing it with a smaller one. You can compare it with your own less significant achievement or even one belonging to someone else. When considering the broad scope of possible achievements, yours will likely fall somewhere between tying your shoelaces and preventing a nuclear disaster – and there’s no harm in celebrating wherever it lies.
Am I denying myself pride because of unrealistic expectations?
Individuals struggling with unhealthy perfectionism consider perfection across the board as the ultimate achievement, meaning they deny themselves a sense of pride until that impossible goal is achieved. You might think this goal is rational. In my case, if I’m a good therapist in Brooklyn, shouldn’t I also be one in Thailand? Yet perfection is much more context dependent than it first appears. Ideally, we’d love to thrive everywhere, but akin to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which states that you can’t know a particle’s exact position and exact speed at the same time, if we adapt to one aspect of the world, we move away from thriving in another. Essentially, ultimate perfection doesn’t exist, and the perfection worth striving for is always relative. Think of evolutionary adaption: when a creature through centuries of evolution develops a coat, she’s now ideally suited for a cold environment as opposed to a warm one. Thus, our instincts lead us astray when we chase total perfection as an ultimate end. Instead, try to celebrate and take pride in your smaller, more modest yet still worthy achievements, such as a good grade, exercising when you don’t feel like it, and effectively handling a squabble maturely.
Use mental time-travel to gain perspective
Having challenged some of your unhelpful thoughts and beliefs about pride and success, here is a specific exercise to help you better appreciate your achievements. It’s based on the fact that, in the short term, it can be difficult to perceive your own progress. So, ask yourself if the person you were five years ago or even last year would be proud of the person you are presently. Imagine your younger self thinking about you as you are today. Would she be proud of you? Would it surprise her to know that you’re the person she’ll eventually become? Could she have imagined that she would achieve everything you have? When you see yourself through her eyes, are you marvelling at who you are?
I bet that the you of a year ago would have been amazed at the you of today, and the you of today will likely be amazed at the you of one year hence. Additionally, when your life is conceived of as a process rather than a destination, you won’t be as eager to arrive at its magical end; in fact, you’ll likely be in awe of its development.
I often ask my clients to consider the evolution of species, enquiring about whether they believe speciation occurs quickly or gradually. If you think of success in the same way – as a gradual process rather than a sudden achievement – you might find it easier to think of your own life in a broader, more positive way. Remind yourself that evolution occurs incrementally. Species adapt to their environments over millennia, so why can’t you be a bit more patient with yourself?
Take a realistic look at your role models
Next, consider people you look up to. They might be athletes, musicians, politicians or even ordinary people. Ask yourself how long it took for them to become admirable. Most of the time, when we’re comparing, we utilise the fallacy of comparing apples with oranges. So, we compare ourselves, in whichever stage of progress we happen to be in, with those who’ve already achieved what we wish to, which leaves us disappointed and devoid of pride in ourselves. But it isn’t usually a fair comparison because our heroes didn’t just morph into their present selves.
Consider your heroes’ life stories, and ask yourself how long it took for them to become successful. Are their stories full of progress and regression? And did each evolutionary narrative describe a slow progression? Remember, if success were instant and easily attained, one probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much. Usually, the more intense the struggle, the greater the taste of its fruits.
View your life holistically
A life without pride – living only to succeed while not enjoying that success – can soon become bleak. If this is you, you might find yourself asking: ‘What is all of this for?’
If your basic physical needs are dependent on continual success, you’re likely living in harsh circumstances. But that is not true for most of us, at least not in relatively safe, prosperous nations. Yet so many of us treat further success almost as a necessity. We filter out the positives and focus on the negatives, recalling years of sorrow. We give ourselves a plethora of reasons why we will be happy only if certain things become different. So, take a holistic perspective of your life and enquire into what’s good about it now. Not in the future after you’ve achieved X or Y, but right now. Just as we have the power to forgive ourselves, we also have the ability to feel proud of ourselves now. Throughout your life, you make choices, even if automatic, about whether to allow certain feelings in. You may have habituated to rejecting pride, but you can always change your mind to let it in. Most people’s lives have great aspects to them, things that they’ve achieved and people whom they love. I implore you to focus on them and take pride in them. For example, consider the degree of difficulty involved in receiving a promotion at work or maintaining your marriage, and all the effort you put into those endeavours.
Create time frames in which to feel pride
If you’re afraid of stagnation, then give yourself a time limit: I will feel proud about a particular achievement for one week, and then attempt to achieve something else. This is important for those who struggle with black-and-white thinking, believing that pride is a slippery slope to idleness. By setting a time limit in which to experience pride, you’re able to acknowledge its finitude. And the limit can be completely of your own choosing. Additionally, if you prefer to improve further and think that feeling pride isn’t motivating enough, consider some kind of external celebration that’s calibrated in scale to the achievement. For example, if you receive a good grade on an exam, consider the amount of effort you put into studying, and ask yourself how much of a celebration is therefore warranted, then allow yourself that pleasure alongside a set period of feeling pride.
Keep a record of your achievements
Keep a journal of your goals, documenting when you reach them and even when you don’t. A record of your moderate and major achievements will motivate you to set future goals and provide you with the confidence necessary to overcome setbacks. (It doesn’t make sense to document minor goals as you’ll likely have too many to count.) You’ll be able to assess how much you’ve done while also reminding yourself of how much is left undone. And your documented failures will allow you to remain humble. Narcissism doesn’t permit the acknowledgement of failure, so this exercise will be especially useful if you fear that pride invariably engenders narcissism.
You can share your record with others if you prefer feedback and are unsure of whether something is worth being proud of, but remember: if something is hard for you, regardless of whether it is hard for another, you should feel proud of yourself for having done it. And even if you continually fail at something, you can feel proud of yourself for all the attempts made. Cultivating resilience should be as important a goal – if not more so – as any external achievement because of its staying power; you might not be a champion forever, but you can carry grit into old age. This doesn’t mean that you should never give up – sometimes it makes perfect sense to switch course and there is no shame in that.
The importance of unconditional self-acceptance
I hope that I have convinced you of the value of feeling more authentic pride and provided some ways that you can begin to feel such pride more often. However, it is important not to take this exercise in pride too far and pin your sense of self-worth exclusively to external achievements, big or small.
The US psychologist Albert Ellis, the founder of rational emotive behaviour therapy, distinguished between conditional and unconditional self-acceptance. To Ellis, conditional self-acceptance is akin to what in everyday talk we call self-esteem, which he believed is always contingent on external factors, such as beauty, intelligence or one’s achievements. On the other hand, unconditional self-acceptance is founded on the decision to love oneself regardless of one’s attributes, achievements or society’s views of them.
Ellis maintained that external values are philosophically indefensible and that each of us possesses the ability to choose to accept ourselves as we are. Beauty, intelligence and achievement are meaningful only to people, he argued, but not to the unfeeling Universe, which couldn’t care less about those traits, or us. Since values are subjective and not intrinsic to the Universe, Ellis asserted that we should simply decide to value ourselves as we are, right now. Failing to do so inevitably leads to depression and anxiety, he warned.
No one can thrive continually. No one can always be the best-looking, smartest and most successful version of themselves. If we aim perpetually for that standard, Ellis argued that we’ll eventually become miserable due to inevitable failure, chronic upward comparisons, and the paranoia of better-qualified individuals replacing us. In fact, if we fall into such a perfectionist mindset, we’ll always find reasons for why we don’t measure up. For example, imagine being a brilliant student in medical school, where everyone has a high IQ, and scoring objectively well on an exam, but only mediocre compared to your peers. Success, in short, is always relative.
So, every time you begin to rate yourself based on some performance or attribute, Ellis would remind you that you’ve chosen to move away from valuing yourself based on your intrinsic worth. He would tell you to regularly reaffirm your decision to practise unconditional self-acceptance. Any time you consider that failing at something makes you less valuable or being rejected makes you unlovable, challenge your core beliefs and assumptions that undergird these harsh judgments.
The power to choose and recognise your own inherent value lies within your grasp; if objective value doesn’t exist – as we believe it doesn’t, because the Universe fails to provide us with a price list – then we can continually remind ourselves that we have the ability to value ourselves just as we are, simply because we want to.
The podcast SelfWork with the US clinical psychologist Margaret Rutherford provides a great exploration of self-esteem and perfectionism, guiding us on how to feel better about ourselves.
On her YouTube channel, the Dutch existential psychologist Emmy van Deurzen offers timely wisdom on shame and low self-esteem.
The book Pride: The Secret of Success (2016) by the US psychologist Jessica Tracy is a great primer on the different forms of pride, and why authentic pride is necessary for success and wellbeing.
In his book The Myth of Self-esteem: How Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Can Change Your Life Forever (2005), Albert Ellis distinguishes between conditional self-acceptance – meaning choosing to love yourself based on external achievements – and unconditional self-acceptance, implying the decision to love yourself as you are now. He argues that pride is always within your control.