The Downside of Pride: How We Use Ambition to Mask Vulnerability and Weakness

Ambition and vulnerability struggle to co-exist.

The more successful and neurotic you are, the less likely you’re willing to exhibit your weaknesses. Most of our decisions are designs to cope with the world and the emotions it helps to produce. When we’re sad and afraid, we seek out comfort in others. When angry, we, ideally, attempt to resolve some significant conflict. Our lives may, to a great extent, be based on our values, but those values are ways to cope with our turbulent, and often unruly, feelings.

Consider existential dread: the anxiety we have about just being alive. At any moment, we may be plucked from our den and thrown into the void. So, how do we deal with that insight? Some may convince themselves of their own invincibility, while others might conceive of a pleasant eternal, afterlife, which produces a set of rules for getting into. Most of us behave more like those in the latter category. Thus, while an afterlife is out of the question, our rules, or values, make us feel strong; while failing to protect us from the eternal void, they make us believe that we can forgo its pull for as long as we wish.

And the highly ambitious among us are more terrorized by life, and its vicissitudes, than the average person. When I meet with an overachieving client, I’m often struck by how much pride they have in their independence. Deciding to abstain from asking for help seems to be the touchstone of their personalities. Essentially, they use achievement to maintain equilibrium. And, more than anything else, they fear exposure. The blueprints that most design to cope with sadness, grief, anger, anxiety (the existential kind too) entail some mix of personal and interpersonal elements. So, we achieve as much as we share. We pick ourselves up as much as we let ourselves go. This balance allows us to continue to move through life’s tempestuous sea because it entails flexibility. When we aren’t able to rely on our social circles, we can set and achieve personal goals. When sadness saps motivation, we’ll instead call a friend. This form of flexibility is highlighted by the use of our contexts to assess where help abides.

But the ambitious, regardless of initial motivation, create further avenues to personal pride. In their rigidity, pride is the sole source of their well-being. When they feel down and unmotivated, they’ll almost instantly create minor goals or new ways of working toward major ones. Considering asking for help isn’t a feature of their repertoires. Even when burned out and faced with the naked terror of their thoughts and fears, they still refuse to enlist another.

I often write about the necessity of pride, but pride has a dark side. What happens when you become absorbed in it and only turn to it for comfort? What about the hedonic treadmill and the short-lived highs that it produces? It can, sometimes, feel like a stairway to nowhere. Unfortunately, my ambitious clients are also the most paranoid. To them, vulnerability is akin to self-harm. As they struggle to trust others, they never connect. Consequently, they remain on the treadmill, which can transform into a prison.

Yet, while ambition and vulnerability appear to be terrible bedmates, one can posses both. The pinnacle of mental health is cognitive flexibility, the ability to seriously consider and choose the options your environment offers. If you solely focus on pride, eventually your major achievements will stop, or at least will stop feeling special (due to burnout and redundancy). And if you solely focus on your relationships, you’ll find yourself consistently feeling like you’ve wasted your talent, being unable to distinguish yourself from the rest of your group. To cope with life’s trials, we need to cultivate a flexible mindset. Otherwise, after each attempt to replenish our pride, we’ll just feel a little more empty.

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