pride picture boat

This morning I was at the gym, going through my routine. At one point I look up and see a mildly overweight woman with a personal trainer. The trainer has walked the woman over to a leg extension machine.

Before she gets on, he got a disinfecting wipe and cleaned off the machine for her. Then he set the weights for her and began explaining something to her (I don’t know what was said, I had my headphones on).

Generally speaking, when I’m at the gym, I try not to pay attention to anyone else. I don’t look at the tvs, I don’t interact with other people. I don’t listen to podcasts or talk radio, only loud, largely vocal-free music (usually a Minded Music Session). The time I spend at the gym is time for me. It’s to focus on improving my body and leave me alone with my thoughts.

Yet for whatever reason, this woman and trainer caught my attention. Perhaps it was the absurdity of wiping down the machine. It wasn’t dirty or covered in sweat. You’re here to workout, to push your body, and you’re worried about who sat down before you?!

Maybe how ridiculous it was to have a trainer walk her through a leg extension machine. It’s probably the easiest and most straightforward weight machine to use. Or the trainer’s little clipboard, where he was dutifully writing down every set for her.

But the real reason they caught my attention – I was distracted and not focused on why I was at the gym – to improve myself.

If You Rely On Others For Pride, You Lessen Yourself

A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you  — C.S. Lewis

It’s incredibly easy to look down on other people. Especially if you know you are more skilled or more advanced at them in some area or discipline. Maybe you’re more well off than someone else. Or a better writer. Or a marathon runner.

When you interact with other people within a certain domain who aren’t at your skill level, it’s easy to become dismissive towards them. Or view them with contempt – “you can’t even do that??”

That’s a type of pride distracting you. This type of pride leads you to be enamoured with yourself and your accomplishments. You look at yourself in comparison to other people, people not as good as you, and find them wanting. It makes you feel good. You’re superior to them in some way. Better than them. This is the negative, restrictive type of pride, better referred to as hubris.

Hubris is excessive pride or arrogant self-confidence.

But in looking at the origins of the word, there is something a bit more informative about the original meaning of the the word that is worth noting. In ancient Greek, hubris referred to actions that shamed and humiliated the victim for the pleasure or gratification of the abuser. 

That is, hubris is when you make yourself feel better at the expense of others – only feeling pride when others (or thinking others) are feeling less. You only feel good about your accomplishments and achievements when comparing them to others.

If you can only feel pride when feeling better than other people, than inherently you need other people to feel better about yourself. This is a limiting perspective. Moreover, you are reliant on being around lesser people in order to feel better. This likely means that you aren’t being challenged.

Choose To Focus On Authentic Pride

There is another type of pride, one that is beneficial and does not rely on others. In psychology this is often referred to as “authentic pride.” Below is bit from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology regarding the beneficial roll pride can provide regarding motivation. In particular, in provides the best description I’ve found for “authentic pride.”

Authentic pride is a specific emotion that derives from an appraisal of recognition for increasing self-mastery within a given context (cf. Tracy & Robins, 2004a). Like all emotions, it is temporally limited and tied to specific events in the internal or external environment. Consequently, one can feel pride about one’s self or one’s abilities, but this is distinct from the global valence-based attitude one holds toward oneself (i.e., self-esteem).

Pride and Perseverance: The Motivational Role of Pride (PDF) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, American Psychological Association 2008, Vol. 94, No. 6

The key takeaway, bolded, is that authentic pride comes from “recognition for increasing self-mastery within a given context.

Authentic pride is not regarding yourself as better than others within in some context, but being cognizant that you are better than you were before within that context.

It’s not about being better than someone else, it’s about being better than yourself, better than the way you used to be.

There is a phrase in Japanese martial arts, “Masakatsu Agatsu” – True Victory is Victory Over the Self. I’ve always felt that this type of victory, victory over the self, is where I have most felt “authentic pride.” Not in being better than someone else, but in being better than I was before. Like I said in the previous post on running towards danger:

Passing the Bar to become a lawyer, running a marathon, starting this blog, writing a book, getting married, having a child. All have entailed large amounts of uncertainty. Each time I’ve had to adapt to new situations. Learn new skills and be exposed to new people and ideas.

Sometimes the experiences have been painful, sometimes they have been joyful. But positive or negative, happy or sad, each uncertainty I’ve faced has made me a larger person.

In each of the above instances, after I was through it I felt an immense sense of authentic pride. I had changed who I was as a person. I had overcome challenges or exposed myself to new situations that allowed me to improve skills I already possessed or to acquire brand new ones. This pride was not reliant on someone else, it was generated from within. I was proud because I was better than the old me.

Your Victory Is Yours, No One Else’s

As I was looking at the woman at the gym this morning, I realized what I was doing. It gave me pause and, upon reflection, I felt ashamed. I was using her to feel better about myself. It lessened me and devalued her.

What she was doing had nothing to do with me. I had no real insight as to why she had a trainer. Perhaps she had an injury or she was new to exercise. Maybe she felt as though it was better to outsource tracking things so she could focus on her movement. Maybe the trainer was wiping things down because the woman is hypoallergenic or a hundred other reasons.

I should have been celebrating what she was doing! The woman was choosing to improve herself, be better than she was the day before. While I might view a personal trainer as a crutch that would hold me back, for her it might be a crutch holding her up.

My victory is not her victory. For me, victory in the gym is pushing myself to new limits and achieving new personal bests. For her, victory might just be showing up.

Relying on others being less than you for motivation and the smug feelings of superiority that come with it is hubris of the highest order. It’s not something anyone should want in their life. Instead you should feel pride looking back at where you were and how far you’ve come.

Even then, it should be only briefly, so that you can instead “look above” you and see how much more you have to grow.

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