Crucial Differences Between Healthy and Unhealthy Pride
True, or “Authentic,” Pride Is World’s Apart From False, or “Hubristic,” Pride.
By Leon F Seltzer Ph.D. for Psychology Today
I’ve always regarded pride as a healthy human trait, linking it favorably to self-motivation, confidence, respect, and acceptance. But obviously the Bible views it differently, labeling it one of the 7 deadly sins. So might there be a “bad pride”—but a “good pride” also, absent all the former’s negative connotations? Additionally, might pride exist along a continuum?—as in, pride is positive up to a certain level, but beyond that it’s malignant? Or might bad pride—let’s call it “unhealthy pride”—be not an excess of “healthy pride” (or “too much of a good thing”), but a different facet of personality altogether?
Personally, I believe there are two distinct kinds of pride, rather than degrees of pride. And in this post, I’ll draw some sharp contrasts between these two types.
Ironically, pride might be likened to a fantastical double-edged sword, with a harmless rubber tip on one end and a destructive, razor-sharp blade on the other. And (staying with this metaphor) the stinging, pointed-edge side can easily “cut” others—and so injure relationships to the “point” they’re irreparable.
Let’s consider in detail the marked differences between healthy and unhealthy pride, which all too often are overlooked in the literature. Although good and bad pride represent seminal aspects of human personality, they’ve really not received as much critical attention as they deserve. And the fact that the term is so often applied to one or the other kind of pride without the author’s explicitly specifying which type is being referred to clearly indicates how important—for clarity’s sake—they be lucidly distinguished from one another.
As Thomas Scheff, Ph.D., emphasizes (in his Psychology Today post “Genuine Pride Does NOT Goeth Before the Fall”): “The English language, particularly, confuses authentic pride with what might be called false pride or egotism…[and] to the point that it taints the positive meaning of pride.”
So, here are 8 key features of this personality characteristic that can be deemed healthy (or, as often designated, true, authentic, or genuine), vs. the form of pride regularly viewed as unhealthy (or false, bad, arrogant, or hubristic). And I should add that as much as I’ve tried to keep these differences distinct from one another, there’s considerable overlap between them. Several descriptions might well fit a category other than the one I (somewhat arbitrarily) put them in.
1. Healthy pride is about self-confidence, reflecting an intrinsically motivating “can do” attitude. Those with such pride find their achievements richly satisfying and truly believe that “nothing succeeds like success.” The pleasure afforded them through achieving things, or simply handling them effectively, makes them eager to follow up on individual accomplishments.
Those with unhealthy pride, however, may be equally incentivized to succeed, but the dynamics governing their motivation differ markedly. They’re inordinately driven to succeed—and repeatedly, because they can’t really internalize individual triumphs. If they’re to hold onto their ultimately tenuous self-confidence, they must constantly “prove” themselves—and not only to themselves, but to others as well.
The reason for their constant struggles is that deep down the self-doubt, or feelings of shame, that plagued most of them while growing up, still—though below surface awareness—continue to disturb them. By way of compensation (or actually, over-compensation), their brand of confidence is likely to come across as cocky, or "bullheadedly" confident. And that’s a pronounced reaction to what psychoanalysts allude to as “narcissistic injury” (i.e., their not feeling loved by their caretakers simply for who they were, but only for the quality of their performance—which, typically, needed to be superlative).
2. Healthy pride represents a positive notion of self-worth, and it’s based on a history where personal effort and expenditure of energy led to success. And a major factor in the achievement of such individuals is that they’re not satisfied with mediocre performance, striving rather to do the best that’s in them. Which is why their sense of self-worth merits being seen as “earned.”
Opposite this is unhealthy pride, which depicts an overly favorable evaluation of self, based on giving oneself too much credit for accomplishments that, typically, may be rather modest. Such over-valuing of one’s abilities or achievements can also relate to attributing to oneself successes that belong as much (or more) to others involved in whatever task or project was successfully completed.
People with healthy pride genuinely feel good about themselves. And that explains why such pride is routinely associated with high (though not artificially high) self-esteem. Contrast this with the elevated self-regard of individuals with unhealthy pride, which finally is bogus in that it’s inflated and easily punctured by criticism—which, in turn, can lead to the powerfully overblown defense of anger or rage.
Beneath all their professions of superiority is an insecurity that makes it virtually impossible for them to admit when they’re wrong, or say they’re sorry—and all too easy for them to feel attacked by others. (In this respect, the reader might wish to read an earlier post of mine called “Our Egos: Do They Need Strengthening—or Shrinking?”. For here I distinguish between “strong egos,” belonging to those with healthy pride, vs. “big egos,” portraying the unhealthy variety of pride.)
3. Healthy pride is expressed in an assertive fashion, and it’s most often conveyed implicitly. It’s a quiet, self-assured affirmation of one’s capabilities. On the contrary, unhealthy pride is a far more aggressive—and explicit—declaration not of competence as such, but of personal superiority. It frequently takes the form of looking down on others, or putting them down, whereas healthy pride isn’t about announcing any supremacy, or “specialness,” but simply demonstrating one’s authentic abilities.
It naturally follows that people with healthy pride have far more satisfying and fulfilling relationships than do those with the unhealthy kind. For they prefer to work with others, not against them. More cooperative, confiding, and modest in their dealings, they’re also much more affable and agreeable—vs. the dogmatic, dictatorial, defensive, and distant manner of those with unhealthy pride.
4. Closely related to the above, healthy pride has nothing to do with comparing oneself advantageously (and frequently unfairly) to others, whereas a person with unhealthy pride regularly brags about their (often exaggerated) accomplishments. “Look at what I did!” might be their words, or sentiment, with the clear implication that no one else could possibly have done such a thing, or done it anywhere as well. For them, it’s not about doing their best, but about doing things better than anybody else.
On the contrary, someone with healthy pride might say: “I feel really good that I was up for tackling this, and it came out much better than I could have expected”—maybe even adding: “I don’t think I could have done it all by myself, so I need to acknowledge not only those who came before me, but those who offered me concrete suggestions when I was still learning how to do this.”
5. As Jessica Tracy, Ph.D. has observed in her Take Pride (2016), healthy pride is authentic. It’s an accurate, realistic estimate of one’s abilities, whereas what Tracy and other scholars call “hubristic” pride smacks of hyperbolic or distorted claims about one’s capacities. As such, individuals with this “false” pride are given to bragging and boasting, and exemplify dishonesty, arrogance and conceit. This self-aggrandizement—or better, grandiosity—is in fact at the very core of what most professionals regard as highlighting a narcissistic personality disorder.
Moreover, such narcissists may well feel compelled to attempt things beyond their capacity to achieve them, for they so much require the adulation that comes from doing something others might not even dare attempt. And this is one reason that people with unhealthy pride more frequently fail at their (overly ambitious) endeavors than do those with healthier, more realistic and "restrained" pride. Narcissistically driven to realize their supposed perfection, their better judgment is impaired—as is the acceptance of their innate limitations.
6. As understood by experts, healthy pride relates to a person’s acting pro-socially (e.g., see Kaufman, 2012). On the contrary, unhealthy pride links to what's generally deemed antagonistic, anti-social, or rule-breaking behaviors. The former individual encourages and galvanizes others, particularly since they’re likely to say: “If I can do this, so can you!” But one endowed (afflicted?) with unhealthy pride would imply—or outright proclaim—that what they did could only have been done by them and actively discourage others from following their example. For as competitive as they are, they’d much rather others not compete with them.
Authoritarian personalities, unfortunately so common in leadership positions, are essentially bullies. Assuming they know more than anyone else, their morally myopic perspective is characterized by smug self-righteousness and the belief that only they have the strength—or again, superiority—to be in control of others’ lives. And all too often their command leads them to take on a vaingloriously self-enhancing role that further fuels their unruly and (I might add) insatiable ego.
7. Those with healthy pride motivate and inspire others to take their lead and join them. They don’t so much “covet” their successes as evince the desire to share them. As such, others gravitate toward them, since they rarely feel threatened or intimidated in their company.
Compare this to individuals with unhealthy pride, who tend to “lord” it over others. They don’t want to share their successes, but rather do everything possible to make certain no one “trespasses” on them. In fact, in their general hostility toward others, they’re far more likely to initiate law suits against anyone whom they suspect of “stealing” what belongs exclusively to them. As a result of all this, if they gain adherents, it’s mainly because others are manipulated, intimidated, or coerced into following them.
8. Finally, healthy pride—unlike the unhealthy variety—isn’t egocentric. And that’s why those with such pride can take pride not just in their own accomplishments but in those of others as well. They can be proud of their children, their spouse, parents, friends, students—anyone whom they identify as showing the ability to advance themselves, or others, by putting forth their best effort.
Moreover, they’d never be proud of someone just because they won the lottery, for that would merely be a matter of luck. But for anyone struggling to overcome an impediment, or who made sacrifices in the all-out effort to do something remarkable, now that would be cause for them to be proud…and to celebrate the laudatory human potential to transcend—through sheer force of will and determination—typical deterrents to achieving something truly outstanding.