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Pride - A Deadly Sin or Killer App?

Of the three pro-social emotions that DeSteno has focused on in his research (see previous post if this isn't familiar), pride stands out as “not like the others”. Clearly pride has a bad rap, it’s hard to be seen as a positive influencer when you’re one of the seven deadly sins in Christianity, particularly, the most egregious of the seven! DeSteno continuously qualifies the term with “healthy” to help the reader disassociate from the sinful kind. As a society we seem to do this implicitly when we talk about things like, “pride in our nation”, or “black pride”, or “take pride in…”. We intuitively know the difference so I’m not going to bother qualifying my use of pride, you know what type I’m talking about.

Still, at first blush pride seems more like an intra-psychic phenomenon than a social one. Cognitively it relates to a positive evaluation of oneself. It can be compartmentalized, we can think of ourselves as good at a particular activity, or with respect to specific qualities (e.g. loyalty), and or more globally in the sense that we feel we are “a good person” overall. All of us want to see ourselves as “good”. Unfortunately, we often resort to very questionable behaviors in order to demonstrate to ourselves or others that we are in fact good enough. This is the psychological terrain in which we must take care. The goal is to bolster our legitimate pride without over inflating, or conflating reality, to make us feel worthy rather than being worthy.

The map for navigating this tricky terrain includes helpful landmarks. First, we are all born good enough. It is our birthright to be loved and to love ourselves. You can see that that the challenge begins early. Our egocentric society compounds the challenges by placing enormous emphasis on being the best, fueling a competitive mindset that dichotomizes us into winners and losers measured by how much money we make, how much prestige our jobs have, how famous we are, and so on. The alternative view places value on things we actually have control over, and things that are beneficial not only for ourselves but also for the community we live in.

If we shift our perspective from “how have I dominated others” to “how have I contributed to the benefit of all” we get a radical change in how we build pride. There is still an internal, personal aspect, but the narrative is more along the lines of: “I worked really hard on that”, “I did my best”, “I stuck to my values”. These reflect characteristics that are primarily internal (and could be applied to anti-social goals), but they no longer dichotomize the self into good/bad or winner or loser.

It is a small step from internally focused sources of pride to pro-social sources. If one holds the wellbeing of others as important, then behaviors such as “I was helpful in class today”, “I contributed to the team”, “I volunteered at the homeless shelter today”, directly reinforce socially oriented values such as generosity, compassion, and justice. Embodying these values in turn reinforces personal characteristics of generous, compassionate, fair, etc. This brings us full circle to how pride fits in with gratitude and compassion.

Whether or not pride is a pro-social emotion, or a deadly sin, lies in what values and behaviors we believe are worthy of pride, and what behaviors express and reinforce the feeling of pride.

I think there is a very important, even critical subtlety to be appreciated here. I know many individuals who are role models of socially generous, compassionate, and just individuals; and still, they suffer from low self-esteem and struggle with inner critiques of not being good enough. The goal for all of us must be not only to value and manifest pro-social characteristics, but we must also appreciate ourselves and value our selves when we exhibit these characteristics. We must embrace, with gusto, “I am good enough”, good enough to be loved, good enough to love myself, and worthy of caring as much about future-me as future-them. Because, if we have our values straight, future-me is interdependent on future-them and that leads to a win-win.

To assist and reinforce this personal aspiration I have recorded a guided meditation to cultivate pride. It is an adaption of the Great Ball of Merit that I introduced in my previous post, only this time we focus on our own acts of kindness. You can find the audio-only (mp3) file on my home page. You can view the video on my site or directly through YouTube here.

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