Blog Introduction

For more on the purpose and origin of this blog, click here for the inaugural post.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Pride: vice or virtue?

Our ego is like Houdini
One of my chooks is named Harriet, in honour of Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist. It's quite extraordinary. She and her mate Jellybean have a fabulous coop and quite a large run around the perimeter of our property. Yet if there's the slightest opening in the wire fence, she's outta that run! .

It struck me recently that our egos are a bit like Harriet. If there's the slightest opening for them to get out into the yard for a feed, they are there! By ego I mean that part of us that wants to stand on the podium in the bright lights and be admired. The part that puffs itself up like a pigeon trying to impress a potential mate.

This part of us is not bad. It's the expression of a very natural human instinct - the desire to belong. Under the surface, the rationale is that if we are admired then people will want to be with us. In evolutionary terms this was linked to survival and that need is still very much wired into our DNA. It's part of our genetic heritage and we need to own it and care for it.

The dangers
However there are two insidious dangers that lurk in our egos' shadows. The first is that the desire for power and privilege can ride in with the cavalry. Rather than simply wanting to belong we can get seduced by the 'worldly wind' of gain that tempts us when we sense that others are open to our influence. Secondly, we can get so infatuated with the pleasure of acceptance and admiration, that these things take on a life of their own. It stops being about the very natural need to belong and quietly slips into obsession with our selves - into narcissism.

An instance of this has been intriguing me for some time - that of pride. Religious traditions often speak of pride as a vice - even a deadly sin. Yet in day to day use, pride is often spoken of as a positive thing. I've long sensed that it's our ego riding in on the coat-tails of something virtuous. But then I'd also experienced it as quite a selfless and beautiful thing.

I've had quite a striking experience with this. In my mid twenties, as I began to show promise in the corporate world, a curious thing began to happen. Periodically my father would tell me he was proud of me. That had never happened before.

For the first few years I actually felt anger, sometimes even a bit of disdain when this happened. This was because, for the first couple of decades of my life, as I was emerging as a human being, I never received this kind of positivity. At that time of my life, when I wasn't convinced of my own worth, it would have really helped to have Dad reinforce it by indicating he was proud to be my Dad. That never happened - in fact the message I got more often was that he was indifferent about it. So I had to find self worth on my own - a longer and more painful journey than it might have been otherwise. Then as I began to achieve, it felt like he was taking some kind of compliment or kudos from the fact that I was achieving and that puffed his feathers.

To give some context, I'd spent most of my time at university living below the poverty line because Dad earnt too much for me to receive any governement assistance. Yet my parents gave me nothing. To be fair, they still had three children at home and school, so it's not like they were reclining in luxury but even a small amount of assistance would have helped and they gave me none. However, as they say, success has many parents. I was rather stunned when years later, in his speech at my wedding, Dad took some responsibility for my career success. It was an act of great restraint on my part that I let that go through to the keeper.

So as I saw it, when I was younger and hadn't yet proved that I was capable or worthy, when I needed to hear that he was proud of me, there was no such thing forth-coming. Once I'd proved beyond doubt that I was competent and an achiever, lo and behold, there he was lining up to have some of the glow shine his way. That's where the anger and disdain came from.

As the years went by and I started facing some of my own 'stuff', the anger subsided and was replaced by.... well.... nothing. The statements of pride continued into my thirties as my career success continued but more and more I just felt indifferent. By that time I certainly didn't need to hear such things - I'd earned my self worth the hard way but the upside was, it wasn't dependent on parental approval.

I could see that Dad got something for himself by having a successful daughter (by this time my sister was also studying medicine so there was pride flying everywhere) and that was okay. But it was a confusing experience. Part of me saw a person that was now reinforcing his own self worth with his daughters' achievements. However I'd dropped the judgment of it and could see that this might benefit him in the way that it might have benefitted me when I was younger. What I sensed though was that his pride was not really about me. It was about what my achievements said to the world about him.

What is pride?
So what is this pride thing? Is it an act of narcissism or is it a healthy process? To explore this I started by listing down as many common uses of the term as I could. Here's my list:
  1. they are a proud people
  2. I'm proud of you
  3. she takes pride in her work
  4. I'm proud of myself
  5. pride got in the way
  6. he's too proud to admit it
  7. a pride of lions
When I reflected on this I could see a theme. At its heart, pride has a feeling of being impressed by someone. However there are two quite distinct shades of this. One shade, let's call it narcissistic pride, is concerned with trying to impress others - trying to gain social kudos. The other, let's call it appreciative pride, is concerned with the appreciation of beauty or virtue. One is pigeon puffing, the other is beholding beauty. When I checked the dictionary definitions, the same themes came through.

Narcissistic pride
Looking at the list above some fit obviously into one camp or the other. There are three that seem clearly narcissistic. They are:
  1. they are a proud people - the context in which I've always heard this is that it's a group of people trying to be perceived by others as strong or self sufficient. The key here is that it's usually about trying to convey an image to gain admiration from those outside the group.
  2. pride got in the way - this usually means someone couldn't do the appropriate or helpful thing because the need to uphold a particular image of themself got in the way. Again, it's about wanting to be admired. We can sometimes inflict pain or loss on others in order to avoid the unpleasant feeling of an ego hit. Indeed many Asian cultures have the need to 'save face' built into their norms and there are negative social consequences if you cause someone, especially an elder or more senior person, to 'lose face'.
  3. he's too proud to admit it - this usually means he couldn't bear to own up to the truth, again because it would damage his projected self image. Sometimes this compounds itself when others point out the truth and the fact that we're fooling ourselves. This can damage the desired image even further. We can sometimes get quite aggressive and self delusional when this happens.
Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection
These three seem to be instances of our 'self' - the PR brochure we've constructed about who we are - getting in the way of reality. In my experience, when we're driven by the need to be seen to have certain characteristics, it's usually because we fear deep down that we don't have enough of them. Perhaps the 'proud people' want to appear self sufficient because they fear being dependent. They try to appear strong out of a fear that they might be inferior in some way. 

With the second and third example, the desired image can be anything: clever, always right, strong, funny, friendly, kind, wise, knowledgeable....the list of possibilities is long. However, whatever we have in that brochure about ourselves, we fear that not being seen that way would lead to some kind of loss. It's often the loss of respect, admiration, acceptance or liking by others because of our ancestral need for belonging. 

Ironically, it's often when we share our failures and vulnerabilities that we are more accepted, more admired and more respected than when we hide them. As part of the leadership program I run, I ask one of the past participants to come and address the group on the first day. The person talks about their difficulties, challenges, successes but also importantly, their failures in implementing what they learned from the program. The person I ask to speak is always someone who's courageous enough to share their vulnerability. There is always enthusiastic applause and heartfelt thanks given to this person by the participants. Afterwards I ask them to reflect on how they feel about the speaker. Without fail, they feel more respect, admiration, affection and acceptance toward the speaker than they did before. 

So what about the other instances? Items 2, 3 and 4 (I'm proud of you; she takes pride in her work; I'm proud of myself) seemed to have something in common. On the surface they seem to  be narcissistic pride. As the example of my father shows, 'I'm proud of you' can often mean 'my ego is puffing up by association with you'; that the light of your triumph or virtue is shining on me somehow. Taking pride in our work and being proud of ourselves can be the same process at play. Doing good work can puff the ego because I gain admiration from others; doing something I feel is virtuous can puff the ego because others see it and think well of me. This kind of narcissistic pride is the type I believe is prone to corruption into pursuit of power or self obsession.

Siddhattha Gotama's (the Buddha's) teachings point to this constructed sense of 'me' or 'who I am' or 'self' as one of the major causes of drama and suffering in our lives. Instead of seeing our behaviour honestly, as an ever-changing process that arises out of conditions (both inside and outside of ourselves), we tend to see ourselves as a fixed set of attributes - the ones we've listed in the 'me' brochure (for more on this see the post Bloody not-self). It's this list in the brochure that we're often trying to justify when we engage in narcissistic pride. I'm proud of you because you look smart. Smart's in my 'me' brochure and you're my child therefore it shows that the 'me' brochure's right. If anyone suggests otherwise (let alone points out the evidence that shows I don't always get everything right), they'll live to regret it because they are taking away my sense of worth and cutting me off from belonging. There's a sense that 'they' are depriving me of a deeply felt ancestral need. That hurts, therefore 'they've hurt me', therefore I'm justified in hurting them somehow. And funny enough, once all of this is said and done, I still feel that un-met hunger to belong. It's a painful cycle.

As I thought this through, it occurred to me that we often refer to pride as a positive thing. On the weekend of my father's funeral, one of our few national newspapers, The Australian, published a half page article in which I was featured, photo and all. Many of the people who were gathered for Dad's funeral said to me 'your Dad would have been proud'. I guess in one way they were saying they were impressed but also inherent in those comments was an assumption that Dad's pride would puff my pigeon.

It can appear that we're giving someone a gift when we say that we or others are proud of them. For people who are short of feedback from the world, maybe we are helping their momentum in a healthy direction. However at some point, when we're fully fledged beings interacting with the world we have the opportunity to earn the belief in our worth for ourselves. At that point, pigeon puffing serves as a temptation to keep relying on others for it which, unless used as an opportunity for practicing mindfulness, can keep us locked in to reactivity. On the helpful side, it becomes a flag to let us know that an opportunity to face our fears is present; an opportunity to disempower the demons that scare us into old unhelpful patterns of behaviour.

It was hard to know how to respond to the comments made at Dad's funeral because there wasn't any pigeon puffing for me, yet I knew that the people commenting were well intentioned. They thought this would feel good for me because we all know what it's like to need affirmation from others and get it - there's a sense of empathy and connection in sharing our vulnerabilities. So I just said 'yeah, I suppose he would have been'. This seemed like an honest thing to say. It didn't feel like the right time to verbalise the thinking in this blog post.

It depends on the motivation
However these three examples are not so black and white. Whether they are narcissistic pride or appreciative pride depends on what drives them. The driving force can indeed be the desire for an ego feed, but it's not necessarily always the case. To say 'I'm proud of you' can also be a way of saying 'I'm really impressed with what you did' or 'I feel admiration for you'. This often co-arises with affection for the person. To take pride in our work can mean we feel an intrinsic sense of satisfaction from doing something well. Indeed 'endogenous satisfaction' as psychologists call it (satisfaction inherent to the task) is a motivating force. Similarly, being proud of myself can mean I feel the sense of satisfaction that comes as an inherent part of behaving in a way that's consistent with my values.

A few years ago I was a dedicated viewer of Australian Idol. One contestant was affectionately known as 'Mutto' (Australians frequently add 'o' or 'ie' to a shortened name for people and things that are familiar or loved e.g. 'servo' for a service station, 'barbie' for a barbecue). Mutto was in his late 20s/early 30s - relatively old compared to the other contestants. He was my favourite because not only was he sexy, he was courageous and had a depth and sensitivity that rarely seems to go with masculine men. The night Mutto was eliminated from the show, he was beaten by a young girl, Lisa, who had sung the same song on about 5 different occasions. She was a one trick pony. She was the cutesie girlie contestant who appealed to other teenage girls because she was like them. I found her annoying. Mutto had shown far greater range of ability, gusto, courage and talent than Lisa, and had done a fantastic performance that evening. Regardless, the teenagers obviously voted more. He was eliminated. She stayed. 

Mutto on Australian Idol
When Mutto was interviewed by the host at the end of the show, he was gracious, accepting and good humoured. It was clearly an un-just result and he was disappointed. However he was incredibly good natured about it and not the slightest bit resentful or acidic. As I watched this, the words came into my mind 'I'm so proud of you!'. This was clearly not narcissistic pride - I don't even know the guy. His virtue was in no way a reflection on me. When I thought about it some more, what I meant by those words was that I was deeply impressed by him. He upheld values of kindness and grace in a deeply disappointing situation. I really felt admiration.

As for the final item in my list (a pride of lions), in some ways it doesn't seem relevant but in one way it is. Why is a group of lions called a 'pride'? Why not a group of geese or a group of mice? Perhaps because lions are strong and powerful and we associate this with pride. In reality, it's highly unlikely lions feel pride as they are unlikely to have a notion of self. We are projecting our own associations of pride with strength and privilege onto them. However they do conform to social rules where the strongest individual receives the greatest power and privilege - things that do tend to go along with narcissistic pride in humans.

Disentangling narcissistic pride from appreciative pride
So how do we bring mindfulness to what's going on for us when we feel something that appears to be pride? How do we know whether we're pigeon puffing or beholding beauty? Whether we're reinforcing our delusion of a fixed, unassailable 'me' as advertised in our PR brochure, or whether we're appreciating virtue or intrinsic satisfaction? It's important to have awareness of this so that we can catch our Houdini-ego in the act - not to criticise ourselves, but to see our own patterns so that we can know the processes that create our unnecessary pain. So that we can stop running from the pain and get to know it. As we see these patterns clearly, they begin to diminish. This is a fundamental part of Gotama's teachings.

What's on offer here is an invitation to tune in to our motivation when we use the term pride. Here are some questions for reflection and some practical suggestions:

  1. Is there an internal swelling of self or is it an external appreciation of someone or something outside of ourselves? Is there a sense of grasping that wants to drink in more of that feeling if it could get it? Is it really a sense of satisfaction or admiration rather than pride as such? Maybe it's a mixture. How astutely aware of the feelings can we be? 
  2. More accurate language - if we find that what we're feeling is appreciative pride, try using non-pride language. If we said 'I'm so impressed with what you did' rather than 'I'm so proud of you', it would make it that bit harder for our ego to ride in on the coat-tails of appreciative pride. The same would be true if we said 'I feel really good about the results of my project' rather than 'I'm proud of my work', or if we said 'I feel good about the fact that I didn't retaliate when she provoked me' rather than 'I'm proud of myself for not retaliating'.
  3. If we find that some narcissistic pride has crept up on us, can we accept it with empathy? The quality of gentleness is important here. Can we be gentle and non-judgmental knowing that it represents a natural human desire to feed a deeply embedded human need? 
  4. Can you get curious about where it came from? Is there a part of you that is uncertain about your worth or value? See if you can honestly be with that part of yourself rather than just feeding its hunger. Lately when I recognise my ego jumping the chook-run, I think of myself as a child with my little blonde pigtails, vying for attention in a large family led by a father who wasn't terribly interested in children. I see that little girl, I smile at her lovingly, knowing the ancestral need that drives her; the need to be seen and to matter to her caregivers. I give her a hug. It's quite a powerful way to deal with it - accepting her, empathising, letting her know she's loved, attention seeking tendencies and all.
  5. If you discover there's a part of you that's hungry for power or privilege and is using position, accomplishment or reputation to get that, can you find the sense of scarcity that's driving this hunger? Can you be with that fear-of-not-enough without escaping the chook run to feed it? What are the thoughts, narratives or mental movies that play in this pen? Can you hold your seat and be with them, know them, be gentle with them? Can you start to see the effects on yourself and those around you of automatically feeding these hungers? What are the costs?

In the stories that chronicle the teachings of Gotama he is often visited by a demon named Mara. Mara turns up disguised as whatever he thinks will knock Gotama off track. How did Gotama vanquish this demon? With the simple phrase 'I see you Mara!'. When we can see and name and know the demons that lure us into automatic reactivity, they instantly begin to lose their power. It's like playing hide and seek - you find Mara and he has to leave the game. For today anyway.

1 comment:

  1. A related and very interesting article from Psychology Today which looks at other vices that sneak in with virtues. Buddhist literature has a nice term for this which a 'near enemy' - something that looks/sounds a lot like the virtue but comes from a different and less healthy motivation. E.g. a near enemy of compassion could be pity.

    I actually disagree with the assertion in this article that strengths can be over-used, I think that all examples they give are cases where there is the absence or presence of something other than the virtue that creates problems. E.g. it's not an over-focus on balance that creates compromise or mediocrity, it's a lack of flexibility that allows any given day to be out of balance if circumstances require it as long the overall balance is there. Another example: perfectionism is not the overuse of striving for excellence, it's the presence of an obsessive need to control played out through task focus.