Pride & Low Self-esteem (II): A Psychological Perspective

In the previous reflection, we attempted to get to the root of human problem by looking at both pride and low self-esteem. From a scriptural perspective, most of us would veer towards stating it as the problem of sin and pride. From a psychological perspective, however, most from the helping profession would pin it down to a low self-esteem, a low self-worth or a lack of self-acceptance.

There is truth and validity from both angles. We thus concluded that this pride vs. self-contempt debate may not be an either-or question but a both-and issue, two sides of the same coin. I alluded to the work of Karen Horney (a neo-Freudian psychoanalyst) who offers promise in dealing with this deadlock. This reflection attempts to distill Horney’s key thoughts with the help of another author, Terry D. Cooper (Sin, Pride & Self-acceptance), who based his book on the work of Karen Horney. Their insights are crucial for understanding how a vulnerable and insecure self underlie a prideful or arrogant appearance. And how a neurotic pride system underlies an appearance of self-contempt and low self-esteem.

The underlying cause (root) of pride or low self-esteem, according to Horney, is the basic anxiety we feel as a child – the feeling of being isolated and helpless in a potentially hostile world. Though not inherently destructive, it is the precondition of neurotic behavior. Specific dangers that arouse excessive anxiety includes “direct or indirect domination, indifference, erratic behavior, lack of respect for child’s needs, lack of real guidance, disparaging attitudes, lack of real warmth, having to take sides in parental disagreements, too much or too little responsibility, over-protection, isolation from other children, injustice, discrimination, unkept promises, hostile atmosphere.”

To alleviate such feelings, the child develops patterns of relating to others that are designed to reduce this. The more anxious the child is, the more he or she will rigidly cling to a particular pattern. Such patterns are called “neurotic trends” or interpersonal movements. It can move in one of three ways: (1) against others, [the self-expansive solution that implies hostility]; (2) toward others [the self-effacing solution that implies helplessness; and (3) moving away [the resignation solution that implies detachment].

1. Moving Against Others: The Self-Expansive Solution

The self-expansive solution is the attempt to alleviate anxiety by conquering, defeating, dominating others, and controlling one’s surrounding. Pride or excessive self-regard are needed to do these. Strength, leadership, heroism and omnipotence are prized, and there’s an exaggerated need to master everything in one’s life. Such a person adopts a “conquest mentality,” places premium on intelligence and will power while pushes away the world of feelings. His or her greatest fear is helplessness or failure, which must be repressed or avoided at all costs.

Because genuine affection has typically been lacking in childhood, such individuals convinced themselves that in order to survive, they do not need affection anyway. Their early experiences with neglect, humiliation and lack of sympathy have promoted a hardness toward life and others. They have a pervasive distrust in human closeness, which in turn blinds them to genuine a need for noncompetitive human contact.

Such people also have a fear of getting too soft. Their unconscious suspicion of unlovability pushes them to eliminate any softness in life, deny their own desperate longing for unconditional love and continue in vicious forms of competition. They do not relate to others, they dominate them; they do not share with others, they conquer them. They can be harsh and judgmental, proud of their keen powers of observation and ability to call “a spade a spade.”

2. Moving Towards Others: The Self-Effacing Solution

The 2nd way to reduce anxiety involves the attempt to accommodate others, win their affection or approval and reduce any possibility of conflict. The primary ingredient here is compliance, which produces feeling of safety. Adopting such a posture gives the person an image of goodness, love, and even saintliness. However, it prohibits any form of self-assertion, and the person tends to feel guilty, inferior or even contemptible. He or she feels it is a taboo (or sinful) to be ambitious or vindictive.

All things done for self is seen as selfish. Asserting even basic rights or making perfectly legitimate requests provokes guilt; he or she is very apologetic. He refrains from asking or does it apologetically, with a ‘guilty’ conscience. Such people have enormous difficulty giving themselves credit for any accomplishment. In conflict, the automatic tendency is to give in, forgive and take subordinate position.

On surface, such people have unshakable faith in the essential goodness of humanity. They find it hard to be discriminating and can’t distinguish between genuine friendliness and its many counterfeits. They are often naïve and easily manipulated as well as easily bribed by any show of warmth or interest – an easy prey for people who are out to take advantage. Their inner dictates tell them that they should like everybody and should not be suspicious. They also tend to discard or minimize evil traits such as cheating, lying, exploiting, cruelty.

What are the underlying needs of such people? It’s an excessive need for affection, love, sympathy and approval. Love is the answer to everything; so, they dare not risk its loss, even at the price of their own integrity. A typical example is that of a woman who unduly accommodates her partner: he becomes her sole center of existence, and everything revolves around him. Her mood depends on his attitude (positive or negative). She dares not make plans of her own, fears antagonizing and losing him, and even allows him to abuse! (This phenomenon is called “codependency”).

Horney says that on the surface, the self-effacing solution looks like an inordinate low self-esteem and highly depreciating attitude. Yet below this layer she maintains that there is an unconscious pride system that insists they “not be like others.” After all, they have higher standards and a rather grandiose image of radical selflessness and perfect self-sacrifice. And it is precisely pride behind their self-effacing attitude that often makes it hard to give it up. Their demanding selfless image insists that they eradicate self-concern, yet their unconscious need to maintain this image promotes self-concern! Modesty is of supreme value, yet unconsciously, they are proud of their lack of pride!

It is not uncommon for self-effacing persons to marry self-expansive persons. Unconsciously, self-effacing person envy and admire self-assertive, self-confident and even aggressive behaviours in others.

3. Moving Away From Others: The Self-Resignation Solution

A 3rd way attempts to resolve anxiety through detachment, aloofness, evasion. Relationships are perceived as sticky, messy, and one is far better off isolated, building a world unto oneself. Self-sufficiency and independence are cardinal virtues. Such people avoid feelings of needing anyone or being close to them, as being close brings up engulfment fears. His or her constant underlying fear is getting so attached to someone that he/she needs them.

The detached person’s concern is also, “Will he interfere with me? Will he want to influence me, or will he leave me alone?” They are hypersensitive to pressure coercion or influence. They constantly fear being “taken over” by someone else’s wishes.

Another prime characteristic of such a stance is the elimination of any form of ambition. Such people are masters at finding reasons for not doing things – they don’t like to expend any energy and don’t like goal-directed activity. For them, the secret of happiness is not to desire very much!

In that light, they also tend towards “resignation.” There is, however, a difference between constructive resignation and compulsive resignation. In constructive resignation a person realizes the futility of many ambitions and drives for success; they have mellowed expectations of life and cease to be demanding. They reckoned that the rat race is not worth it. They renounce nonessentials so that one can focus on ultimate matters. There’s a healthy detachment.

In compulsive resignation though, such people want the absence of conflict. They try to escape all forms of obligation and responsibility, and their unconscious motto is, “We don’t want to be bothered.” In a sense then, they become spectators of their own lives. And unfortunately, this becomes a process of shrinking, restricting and curtailing life and growth.

Common Bonds in All Three Movements

In his insightful analyses, Terry Cooper noted three common bonds in all three movements.

1st, they block the possibility of genuine intimacy with another. They forbid the potential of an equal regard relationship. The “move-against” must dominate, conquer and control; the “move-towards” becomes too needy to share a mutually strong relationship; they know nothing of win-win solutions because of the denial of their own genuine needs and wants. The “move-away” has too many engulfment fears that regard intimacy with suspiciousness.

The 2nd common bond is the inevitability of egocentricity. This means far more than selfishness or self-adoration, but in the sense of being wrapped up in himself or herself. It may not be apparent as he or she may be like a lone wolf or live for and through others. They find it difficult to address others in their own right when they can’t get pass outside the prison of their own needs.

A 3rd common denominator, Cooper notes, is the unconscious sense of being unlovable. Such people feel that others may love their looks, intelligence, status and power but beneath this surface lurks a deep-seated conviction that their essence is somehow unlovable. There are three reasons for feeling unlovable: (1) Their own ability to love others is impaired, (2) the extent of self-hate and its necessary externalization, and (3) expecting more of love than love can possibly give; thus, they are constantly dissatisfied.

While each person has the capacity for all three of these unhealthy movements, one will typically dominate. This pattern, starting in childhood, often carries into adulthood. New experiences will be understood or interpreted through framework of one of these dominant patterns. These patterns are also compulsively driven, and though the solution may be inappropriate, somehow the person simply continues on or “must” act in his or her particular way. A person may occasionally shift pattern, but this is not often and not the norm.

From Horney’s psychological perspective, this is our human dilemma, the problem of our precarious nature. None of them provide the security we crave; none of them can save us from this human dilemma. What then? What’s the solution? Read on to Part III of this series of reflections.