by Sarah Hunter, LCSW
This article is part of a series that will help readers understand the purpose of twelve basic human emotions: guilt/shame, pride, compassion, gratitude, disgust, joy, fear, curiosity, anger, love, sadness, and connection.
Humans are born with the instinct to feel good about learning and doing good things. The good feeling we get when we accomplish a goal, learn something new, or act in line with our values is called proud. Because human behavior is shaped by internal and external rewards and punishments, it is essential to make room for proud feelings.
For most young children, feeling proud comes quite naturally. Imagine a baby taking her first steps into the welcoming arms of a parent. The joy and excitement from that monumental accomplishment is felt on a visceral level by everyone watching. Similarly, the sense of accomplishment that comes from successfully completing a task such as using the bathroom, although quite unremarkable for adults, is exciting for children. In the early years, bathroom success is celebrated with cheers, high fives, treats and privileges. Of course, when mastery occurs, the fanfare ends. It is then reserved for a time when the child accomplishes something that is more challenging such as learning to talk, read, write, tell the truth, be a good friend, play a sport, and the list goes on.
When Feeling Proud Feels Risky
Human life is meant to be full of continued challenges, growth and progression. This means that the opportunity to feel proud never really ends.
Yet, as we move out of childhood, many of us start to disconnect from the joy of accomplishment. This is easy to do when our self-talk changes from things resembling what we tell young children “That’s so awesome!” “You did it!” “Look at you!” “I’m so proud of you!” to things like “I was just doing what is expected of me.” “Anyone can do that.” “It wasn’t perfect.” or “Others do it better.”
Feeling proud is a surprisingly vulnerable feeling. Our internal system knows the pain that comes from being criticized and rejected and so it creates protective barriers that get in the way of feeling proud. The fear sounds like “the higher I climb, or the more effort I invest, the more it will hurt when I fall or fail.” When there has been painful past learning, our system warns us not to climb too high. Getting too happy or excited about our accomplishments feels as unsafe as standing on the ledge of a cliff. To prevent the pain of the fall, our mind creates rules about what we can and cannot feel proud about.
For example, consider a teenager who struggles with math prepares and studies and earns a B+ on his math test. This is the best score he’s ever received. He reacts with an initial surge of pride but quickly tells himself “This is nothing to be proud about.” He thinks of his friend who gets A’s every time and tells himself “I’m not smart like her. She didn’t even have to study.” As a result, the surge of pride is gone, and the teen might even feel ashamed of himself.
Proud and Motivation
There is a consequence for not allowing yourself to feel proud. The biggest consequence is a loss of motivation. Proud feelings are motivating. They are designed to light up the reward center of our brain which makes us want to do more things that make us proud.
However, in the example of the teen above, he did a good thing (worked hard to study for a math test) and instead of feeling good is feeling ashamed of himself. If this pattern continues, it will be difficult for him to keep up the good study habits because he will start to believe “It doesn’t matter what I do. I always feel bad inside.” Why go to the extra work to study if working hard to earn a good grade feels the same as not trying and getting a failing grade?
Nurturing Proud Feelings
If you think that you or your child/teen is struggling with the inability to feel proud here are some ideas to help:
- Take some time to think about your inner dialogue when it comes to feeling proud. When you do something good, what do you tell yourself? When answering this question, many people discover they have developed “rules” for feeling proud that they did not even realize they had. For example, when someone outperforms you, a common reaction is to feel second best even if you beat your own personal record. You could frame this as a rule for feeling proud such as “I’m not allowed to feel proud about something I do well if there is someone who can do it better.” Some other common rules include “If the thing I did is easy for someone else, I shouldn’t be proud even if it was hard for me,” or “I can’t be proud because I didn’t do it perfectly” and “I’m not allowed to feel proud because I’ll get a big head and stop trying. I need to degrade myself in order to keep myself in check.”
- After identifying the rules your mind has created to interfere with proud feelings, take a look and decide what you want to do with the rules. Stating the rules explicitly like this makes them easier to scrutinize. You can ask yourself “Do these rules sound fair?” or “If I keep these rules am I ever going to be able to feel proud?” For most of us, there will always be someone who is better than us, there will always be things that are hard for us and easy for others, our efforts will always be imperfect and degrading ourselves actually makes it harder to stay motivated. This means our “rules” are not helpful in determining if we should feel proud.
- If you realize your rules are not working, it’s time to create some new rules. What would be a better setup for feeling proud? Maybe a new rule like “I can feel proud of myself any time I try my best.” Or “I can be proud of myself whenever I do something brave or take a risk.” Remember, your mind comes up with thoughts and ideas all day long, but you get to choose which ones you believe and which ones you dismiss.
- After you have decided to adopt some new rules that allow you to feel proud, it’s time to begin to find ways to intentionally nurture this feeling. One way to do this is to take time to write down your successes on a daily or weekly basis. Include things on the list that are big and small but that fit within your new rules for feeling proud. To really capture the energizing spirit of feeling proud try ending each statement with an exclamation point. A typical weekly summary for me might include: Took the dog for a walk! Weeded the garden! Talked to someone at church! Went to the meeting I wanted to avoid! Cooked! Had a moment of connection with my teen! Took a breath instead of yelling! As you write, slow down and pay attention to how you are feeling. What is going through your mind? How is your body responding?
For me, this was a difficult practice to begin because I felt silly for writing down things that seemed so insignificant. But, over time, this practice has increased my motivation to do those “insignificant” things because I have learned to love the good feeling that comes when I do them.
Remember, feeling proud feels good! Clear the way to enjoy the satisfaction of feeling proud about all the good things you do in a day, and watch for an increase in energy, motivation and enjoyment in life.
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