Discovering the roots of my pride and learning to notice without judgement

Have you ever spent hours searching for something online – as if the very meaning of your life could be found in the next search result… or the next one… or the next one – and then realised afterwards that you didn’t really know what you were looking for?

Last week I did that desperate kind of searching for an online mindfulness course but I didn’t know until afterwards that I was actually seeking validation through a certificate to prove that I could do mindfulness, rather than wanting to actually learn mindfulness.

I’ve been down this route a thousand times before, although instead of mindfulness it’s usually things like coaching qualifications, a prestigious art course, dancing training and online diplomas. The list is endless and there’s usually a certificate or major self-improvement involved somewhere along the line.

It normally starts with a shame-based thought like ‘I’m not good enough just as I am.’

That thought triggers a feeling of invalidation.

Then, in response to the feeling of invalidation, I often start looking online for a way to prove myself and show that I am good enough just as I am – just as I did in this case. It makes perfect sense that I wanted a certificate when I felt that way.

Then, because I’ve just spent hours online and have been trying to prove myself, I usually beat myself up for time-wasting and pride.

But this time it was different: it was the first time I’ve asked myself ‘why?’ without judgement. ‘Why am I suddenly frantically searching for something that I’ve never given a second thought to previously?’ ‘Why do I need a certificate to prove that I can do something that I’ve been doing every day for over a decade anyway?’ ‘Why does this feel so urgent?’

And it’s the first time I’ve truly listened for the answer without beating myself up for the pride of selfish ambition and seeking other people’s approval. And that’s how I discovered that I was looking for validation – a perfectly normal desire, twisted by shame into something prideful.

If feeling invalidated is the root of my search for approval and selfish ambition, how many other problematic prideful behaviours are also rooted in shame?

A lightbulb moment for me a few years ago was discovering that the things that I hated about myself the most – things like pride, perfectionism, difficulty loving others and excessive shyness – were almost all rooted in shame and self-rejection. I know I’ve touched on this point in my last few blog posts but this has been a hugely important lesson for me: by shaming myself for behaviours that are rooted in shame, I’m actually making those behaviours much worse.

I’m just going to focus on the pride side of these shame-based behaviours in this post because otherwise it would be more of a book than a blog post. But if you have any particular behaviours that you want me to cover in a future blog post then please get in touch.

And, just to be clear, the pride I’m talking about in this blog post isn’t the type of pride where you celebrate your achievements or find reasons to love yourself – those things are really healthy and I recommend them! The pride I’m talking about is where you get all your worth, value and identity from those achievements, or from things like your skills or possessions. It’s also things like boasting, obsessing about what others think, thinking you’re better than others and wanting to be the centre of attention – these things come across as pride on the outside but are so often rooted deep in shame.

If you’re anything like me you’re thinking: ‘How do I tackle these prideful behaviours without being hard on myself? And are you suggesting I make excuses for them and allow them to continue?’

Absolutely not. What I will talk about in this blog post is something that’s helped me to stop these prideful behaviours in their tracks (which I’ve never yet achieved by being hard on myself) rather than making excuses for these behaviours.

Read on to find out how I’m overcoming different types of shame-based pride.

Obsessive thoughts about what other people think about me

Here’s an embarrassing secret about me: sometimes I think endless obsessive thoughts about what other people think of me and imagine myself being a hero in different situations. I even did so for a bit this morning.

Thankfully I’ve found the root of these obsessive thoughts and they’re nowhere near as persistent as they used to be. I know how to overcome them most of the time too.

The thing that probably helped me the most with this came during a video call with a good friend a couple of years ago. She asked me how I was in myself and I started telling her about my problem with pride. ‘I’m just so arrogant,’ I said. ‘I keep obsessively imagining what other people think of me and imagining scenarios where I get all the glory – ugh.’

What she said next stopped me in my tracks: ‘Why are you being so hard on yourself? Show yourself some compassion.’ Those words – which I so often said to other people but had no idea I needed myself – revealed a blind spot in my own thinking and helped me to see that what I’d been doing so far to tackle my pride wasn’t helping whatsoever.

It was time to try something new.

I started by just noticing with compassion and non-judgement. I stopped beating myself up for the prideful obsessive thoughts and just accepted what I found – something that’s very difficult to do when it comes to behaviour that you don’t like. Things started changing straight away. It wasn’t that the prideful thoughts went away, but instead I found was able to more easily interrupt them when I didn’t beat myself up for thinking them. Eventually I started thinking the thoughts less often too but this was a process that took time and I’m still not fully there yet.

Something that I discovered as part of the process was the thought pattern that leads to the prideful thoughts about what others think of me.

It starts when I think a thought about a specific relationship or social situation like, ‘I’m not good enough to be that person’s friend’, or ‘I don’t fit in here.’

Then the thought leads to a sense of unworthiness.

The obsessive fantasies about what people think of me come in response to that feeling of unworthiness.

Then, what I used to do was beat myself up for being too proud or arrogant.

Can you see how beating myself up for something that’s caused by shame in the first place only leads to more shame? That then makes the obsessive prideful thoughts worse and they spiral out of control.

One new thought that I’ve found helpful to counteract the shame-based thoughts is ‘I am good enough.’ Sometimes it’s hard to believe and I have to repeat it again and again. Other times the new thought works straight away and the obsessive prideful thoughts just disappear.

(On a different note, something that helps me to overcome the anxious thoughts that so many of us have after a social interaction – thoughts like ‘I’ve offended them,’ ‘they’re judging me,’ ‘I said something stupid’ – is to ask myself questions, like:

  • Did I try my best?
  • Did I act out of malice or kindness?
  • If I think I’ve offended someone, did I do it deliberately?
  • Were my intentions kind and loving or bitchy and cruel?
  • If someone said something judgemental about me, what am I making it mean about me?

I’ve learnt to say in my head: ‘I give that person permission to think whatever they like about me.’ I’ve found this podcast episode really helpful in doing just that.)

Comparison and thinking that I’m better than other people

Not too long ago I knew someone whose life circumstances were similar to mine. I spent so much time comparing myself to her and finding ways in which I was better than her. I hated it. It made me feel terrible and I’d say it stopped us becoming close friends.

Of course I shamed myself for it. I accused myself of being too self-focussed, arrogant, unloving and obsessed with her.

It was only when I sat down and really noticed what I was thinking without self-judgement that I found the real reason why I did it.

The root of my comparison was a thought: ‘everyone else in our circle of friends is comparing her to me and thinks that she’s better than me in every way.’ It came as a shock because I genuinely thought that the root of my comparison was me thinking I was better than her, not the other way around. I discovered that I was even picturing those friends looking sternly towards me but smiling at her and taking her side in everything.

Those thoughts made me feel so insignificant and worthless.

No wonder I then started obsessively looking for ways I was better than her and trying to justify myself in my own head. When I then beat myself up for those thoughts I ended up feeling even more worthless. And so the cycle continued.

And guess what? In those times when I managed to stop myself imagining those friends comparing her to me, that was when I stopped comparing myself to her and thinking of ways in which I was better than her.

Boasting

I once had a friendship where our conversations would go something like this: she would boast about how important her job was and then I would counter-boast about how important my job was. Or I would boast about someone cool I knew and she would counter-boast about someone cool she knew. Then we would just go on and on and on boasting and counter-boasting until we got sick of it.

I’m not sure that we even realised we were doing it, and we certainly didn’t know the cause of it. Now I can see that we were both battling with shame and low self worth. Here’s how my thought pattern went:

She would boast about something and I would think, ‘she’s doing better at life than me.’

Then I would feel insignificant, and because I felt insignificant I would boast to try to prove my worth.

And here’s why it was a vicious cycle: I don’t know for sure but she may well have been thinking the exact same thought in response to my boasting as I thought in response to hers. Something like: ‘Helen is doing better at life than me.’ And then she may well have also felt insignificant which led to her boasting.

Understandably our friendship suffered – you can’t build a healthy relationship on a foundation of boasting and one-upmanship. Though I found that when I stopped boasting and started being more vulnerable with her about my struggles, her boasting seemed to lose its power over me and she seemed to boast much less too. Perhaps she no longer felt the need to boast because it was obvious that I wasn’t doing any better at life than she was.

Thankfully I’m so much more aware of my own boasting and its detrimental effects and that’s led me to have mostly stopped boasting out loud, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes boast in my head about what I’ve achieved or what famous people I’ve met. Often, as in the previous example it’s because I’m thinking that other people are doing better at life than me or just that I’m not good enough for some reason. Just noticing the thoughts and feelings behind it has been so helpful in overcoming these boastful thoughts.

Don’t dig around for roots – a word of caution

I was going to end this blog post by giving advice about not digging around for roots but, as so often happens when I try to give other people advice, I ended up being the one most in need of it. So I will just tell you the story of what happened to me this week as a cautionary tale instead of giving you advice outright – after all it’s good to learn from our mistakes, and even better to learn from other people’s mistakes.

I was so privileged to be a bridesmaid at a wonderful wedding this weekend. It couldn’t have been more perfect (well, maybe with a bit less rain, though I did feel the epic thunderstorm during the reception really added to the fun). I’ve been thinking a lot of the-whole-world-revolves-around-me-type thoughts since that day, including thoughts about what men thought of me.

My first response to these thoughts wasn’t to ask ‘why?’ with curiosity and non-judgement, but to ask ‘what’s wrong with me?’ and start digging for the answer to that question. When I feel bad because of shame, I often believe the lie that God’s mad at me and start digging around for hidden sin and look for roots of my prideful behaviours in the wrong places, like believing that it comes from a rotten place inside me.

It never works and only makes me feel so much worse. You see, instead of treating my faith as it is – a relationship with God – I so often I turn it into a set of rules that I need to follow, and if I don’t follow them correctly then I always expect punishment. But it’s like I forget that the reason God hates my sin isn’t because he loves punishment and rules – quite the opposite actually – it’s because it gets in the way of my relationship with him. And I know in my head that there is no punishment – that it’s been taken away on the cross – but trying to get my heart to believe it when I feel crippling shame is so hard.

The Bible does say that pride is sin, and I’m not saying that shame-based pride is totally fine, but for me, repeatedly repenting of pride and thinking God’s mad at me actually makes my shame-based pride worse rather than better because it leads to more shame. Instead, God wants me to confess (once!), receive forgiveness and ask him for help instead of hiding from him or judging myself.

I’m someone who finds it hard to accept myself as I am so noticing without judgement – and most importantly without trying to change myself – can feel impossible. But it’s honestly been one of the most powerful tools that I’ve discovered. And it’s also what helped me to get to the bottom of why I’ve been battling with prideful thoughts since the wedding.

Yesterday morning, I realised that the painful emotion I’d spent several days hiding from was actually a strong feeling of being alone that started sometime during the wedding weekend.

Somewhere along the line I bought into a belief – actually a lie – that I’m somehow less valuable than others because I’m not in a relationship. And perhaps even also the lie that I can’t be loveable because no one loves me enough to want to be in a relationship with me.

In response to these thoughts and feelings, my brain’s been trying to prove that I’m loveable and valuable by imagining what people think of me, including what men think of me.

It’s certainly not something I’m proud of but it does make sense of why I had those prideful thoughts going around in my head on a loop. When I initially shamed myself for thinking those thoughts I only prolonged them and made them so much worse, whereas noticing helped me to actually discover and deal with the root of the problem. I was able to process the underlying feelings and completely overcame those prideful thoughts (for now at least).

To sum up the advice that I was going to give you but ended up having to give myself: don’t dig around looking for what’s wrong with you, instead just notice what comes up naturally without judgement.

I know from experience that it’s easier said than done but I hope and pray that this will set you in the right direction to overcome your obsessive prideful thoughts and behaviours as it has for me.

I’ll leave you with a helpful saying that I first heard from the occupational therapist who taught me mindfulness 11 years ago: ‘Just notice what you notice.’

Do you have experience of pride that’s rooted in shame? What’s helped and what hasn’t helped?

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Kirstie Gale
2 years ago

Always wise….
Always learning from you ….
Always seeing the writer in you ..