Here’s three things I know that I know:
First, self-respect is non-negotiable in a life powerful, meaningful, authentic and well-lived. At the end of the day, self-respect might well be the greatest gift we can give our spouse, our mate, our life partner. Self-respect is about selfhood, healthy boundaries, real depth, and the strength to endure great intimacy over a lifetime. Self-respect is a good, good thing.
Second, pride is non-negotiable in the human condition. Inherent. Unavoidable. No. 1 on Thomas Aquinas’ list of Seven Deadly Sins for two very good reasons: 1) it’s the most common sin, and 2) it’s the sin that makes the other six possible.
Pride is a bill of goods. Pride promises righteousness, safety and security. It delivers only alienation, self-importance and aloneness. Pride is crap.
And third, I’m 55 years old and I can’t always tell the difference!
Pride is the master of disguises. It can look like self-respect. It can feel like self-respect. Pride is bewitchingly seductive. It will make you fiercely proud of having achieved a moment of self-respect. Likewise it will convince you to respect your tenacious grip on pride.
Pride is not self-respect. Self-respect is not pride. But sorting these two foes out is an equation that will confound you coming and going.
I remember the wife, betrayed by the husband. Both have fought valiantly for the marriage. Both have turned their naked souls inside out in therapy. There has been authentic anger, authentic remorse, real accountability, and real forgiveness.
They’re gonna make it. Out of the ashes of infidelity they will build a marriage they have never seen before. A marriage they could never have imagined. But, at the end of a session, she asks to speak to me alone for a few minutes. The husband supports her request and exits. Her eyes fill with tears, and she asks me, plainly,
“Am I a fool to forgive him? Do I have any self-respect at all?”
She caches the inquiry as self-respect, but I smell pride. Pride is tempting to her leave. “Forgiveness is foolishness,” I tell her. “Love must make us fools.” I normalize her foolish feeling, leaving pride no purchase. She smiles, nods and rejoins her husband in the waiting room.
I remember another woman, betrayed by another husband. Actually, she has just discovered his third infidelity. He sits like a stone while she wails in incredulity. I had no idea there were so many ways to ask the same rhetorical question: I notice that, no matter how much I protest, yell, scream and weep, you keep having sex with other people — why is this? She tells him, again and again, that no one else could have possibly put up with this. That he should appreciate her enduring his inexcusable behavior.
I smell pride again. Only, this time, pride is tempting her to stay. Insisting that she stay. And stay and stay and stay. Stay until this man finally admits he loves her and adores her and understands how lucky he is to have her. Because nobody says “no” to me! I think of the great Maya Angelou quote: “When someone shows you who he really is, believe him.”
A friend offers you money during a difficult time. The friend says, “We’ll call it a loan if you’d like, but there’s no schedule for paying it back.” A voice inside you protests. Tells you not to take the gift. Is it the voice of pride? Or the voice of self-respect?
A family member, a friend or your spouse tells you to get some help. Maybe find a good therapist. You resist. You set your jaw and shake your head and say, “I should be able to figure this out by myself.” And it feels like self-respect. But the reason you can bet it’s pride is because there’s no such thing as a human being who can in every case “figure things out by him/herself.” Life is bigger than you. Life is bigger than me. Sometimes we need help.
The doctor can’t believe his ears. The man whose finger he’s about to stitch has refused the injection of anesthetic. What sort of macho pride is this! But the doctor doesn’t know the man was a hapless drunk for 20-plus years. The man has spent his life running from pain. Now sober, the man welcomes the work of suffering. Is grateful for it. In this case, his is the voice of self-respect and redemption.
Self-respect? Or pride? I don’t always know the difference.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.