The Two Prides

Pride is an unhelpful word because it is basically one name for two distinct concepts.

One concept is unabashedly positive; it's the pleasure a person feels when they experience a sense of self-satisfaction. Suppose you learn how to play a particularly challenging piece of music, or you run faster than you expected during a race. You'd feel pride. I don't know anyone who would argue that this kind of pride is a negative thing. This kind of pride is so positive that you can even feel it when thinking about other people. You can feel proud of your child or your spouse. You can feel proud of your friends or your countrymen. A simple pleasure, a simple self-satisfaction, felt for being connected to someone who accomplished something. Pride!

The other concept called "pride" is negative. That's what you feel when you're so afraid of losing face that you refuse to acknowledge your own shortcomings. Suppose you're having an argument with your spouse, and it turns out that you're wrong. Some people won't apologize. Some people won't admit to any wrongdoing. Instead, they'll huff and puff and harrumph and pretend as though, even if they were wrong, it was someone else's fault somehow. It's a deflection of negative feelings, and a protection against narcissistic injury. This negative version of pride is also a sense of being so self-satisfied that one can't see one's own weaknesses, as when a sports team with a winning streak starts to feel so confident that they underestimate the ability of the underdog team who goes on to beat them in the end.

As far as I can tell, the only thing these two concepts have in common is that they involve positive self-appraisal. Other than that minute point, they are completely different feelings, totally different emotions, and should have entirely different names.

I first became aware of the distinction when I was a teenager in religiously conservative Utah. There, the mormon church teaches emphatically that all forms of pride are negative. I think the basic idea is that the more highly you think of yourself, the less time you spend thinking about how sinful you are, and how inferior to god.

But what clued me in to the distinction between negative and positive pride was the fact that so many religious people I knew used the word "prideful" to describe people who were proud. That is, these folks didn't use the word proud at all. It was always "prideful."

When I look these two words up in the dictionary, the word "proud" gives me both a negative and a positive definition, reflecting the distinct concepts described above; the word "prideful," meanwhile, only gives me a description of the negative version.

Perhaps, in some years, "prideful" and "proud" will be the two names for the distinct concepts I've just described. At least they will be distinguished in adjectives. I guess that would result in a world in which "pride" is the positive name and "pridefulness" is the negative name, although that distinction doesn't presently exist today.

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