3 Reasons Why It’s Scary to Feel Good About Yourself
In the kind of psychotherapy I practice called AEDP, we often focus on feel-good emotions like joy and pride. Deepening the experience of being proud of ourself leads to positive change. In fact, pride in the self is considered a healing emotion.
The kind of pride that I am talking about here is not a false pride, like hubris or conceit, which is born from shame and insecurity. False pride would be considered a defense on the Change Triangle. I am talking about true and authentic pride that exists alongside empathy, compassion, and connection.
True pride in the self is an emotion that has the capacity to build core confidence. Experiencing pride in the self has the potential to not only change the brain, but to promote trauma healing. After deeply and physically experiencing pride in the self, a person “drops down" into the openhearted state of the authentic self. The openhearted state of the authentic self is a regulated state where we feel calm, confident, and connected to ourselves and the world around us. We are both strong and tender in this state.
I can usually tell when a client of mine is experiencing pride, both from their non-verbal and verbal communications. They may be wearing a smile on their face or suddenly sit up a little straighter. Or, they may use words to tell me. I was proud of myself for getting that promotion, for example.
When pride shows up during a session, I encourage noticing how it feels in the body. I ask, “What inside your body lets you know you're experiencing pride in yourself?” Emotions are above all physical.
If they struggle with my question, I help by providing some prompts. Do you feel physically bigger or smaller? Do you feel more or less energized? Do you feel lighter or heavier?
If a person shares that they notice energy in their body, I ask them to show me with their hands how the energy moves. Commonly people describe energy in their core radiating up and out through their chest. As people breathe, notice, and stay with these sensations (for maybe ten seconds at a time to slowly build their capacity), people report feeling bigger, taller, and more solid in the midline of their core. I feel like I’m sitting up taller and straighter.
Some people are ripe for experiencing pride. But very often, people are frightened to feel their pride, even when they can intellectually acknowledge their own virtues and accomplishments. They automatically block the experience with various defenses like changing the subject to tell me about their failures. Alternatively, a person might suddenly get very anxious — too anxious to stay with these expansive sensations. Why is it scary to feel big and proud?
Below are three reasons:
1. Fear of being noticed and hurt. Feeling physically bigger triggers core fear so it feels truly dangerous. The internal expansion that pride causes makes us feel like we take up more space. If I am big, I will be hurt. Staying small is akin to "staying under the radar."
2. Fear of being grandiose, arrogant, pompous, or full of oneself. If I allow myself to truly feel good about myself, I’m afraid I’ll become a monster. That is an example of how the messages from our parents and society get internalized. We here phrases like don’t get too full of yourself or you’re no better than anyone else. But children cannot discern nuance or take things their parents say with "a grain of salt." Children learn to stay small for fear that they are bad when they feel healthy pride.
Parenting tip: If in a moment your child feels authentically good about themselves, don’t squash them down. Instead, join your child where they are. "You must really feel proud of yourself for getting an A, playing a great game, helping out your friend, etc. "
3. Fear of hurting someone else. Many of us were raised by parents who pass down the belief that feeling good about ourselves makes others feel small or bad. They hold the belief that, “If you’re up, I’m down” and by extension, “If I’m up, you must be down.” My patients often express their anxiety about “bragging” in my presence. They express concern that I would get angry or feel hurt if they were to share their accomplishments. I assure them, There’s enough space in this room for us both to feel big and proud.
Feeling pride in yourself may not be an easy, nor a quick task. However, re-learning to experiencing this emotion must be a part of our healing journey. Through this effort, we learn first hand that embodying true pride won't lead to us being hurt, becoming a blow-hard, or hurting others. In fact, amidst our growing confidence and newfound security, we not only feel better about ourselves, but we actually grow more humble, kind, and empathic. Working to build our capacity to feel our pride is an excellent recipe for greater individual and collective wellbeing.
A+ for trying!