Pride and low self-esteem are flip sides of the same coin

Sep 27, 2019

I think we all experience low self-esteem, but if someone accuses us of being proud or arrogant, we’d find it hard to acknowledge.

Actually, they’re intimately connected. With both low self-esteem and pride we hunger for praise, for affirmation from others, and suffer when we don’t get it. If the proud person is offended, the pride deflates and becomes low self-esteem; if the person with low self-esteem sees another who is better at something than they are, they take it personally and turn it against themselves.

In each case pride and low self-esteem are over-exaggerations of aspects of our character and they both have their source in an unhappy sense of self, in ego.

This seems ironic. Our clichéd view of “ego” has us think that it refers only to an inflated sense of importance. From the Buddhist perspective, all our unhappy emotions, such as attachment, anger, depression, guilt and the rest are symptoms of ego, of self-absorption.

According to this view, we all have a deeply ingrained neurotic sense of self that in its nature is unhappy, dissatisfied, bereft. Attachment to get what that self wants is the motor that runs us, which gives rise to aversion – anger, guilt, or depression, depending on our personality – when it doesn’t get what it wants, followed by jealousy, low self-esteem or pride, and the other unhappy emotions. These are the source of our suffering.

On the other hand, we have plenty of good qualities, and they are the opposite of ego. They come from a valid, healthy sense of self, which is rooted in a feeling of connectedness with others. They need to be acknowledged, nourished, grown.

The trouble is, we find it hard to distinguish the neuroses from the virtues, to unpack and unravel them: they’re mixed together in one big soup of emotion.

Humility, for example, is a good quality. It’s the ability to rejoice in the qualities of others, to be happy when others succeed. But it’s easy to mistake it for low self-esteem.

Equally, self-confidence is a good quality: we all need it badly! But, again, it’s so hard to not mistake it from pride, arrogance.

You could argue that the only person who can be humble is the one who is self-confident. No way can a person who has low self-esteem delight in the qualities of others – and nor could the arrogant person.

Pride, like low self-esteem, is the injured child within us: so fragile, so easily hurt, offended, always hungry for affirmation.

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