How to Manage Pride—the Buddhist Way

How to Manage Pride—the Buddhist Way

Getty/Nuthawut Somsuk

These seven Buddhist methods to manage pride will help you become a more humble person and a better friend and community member.

In the 19th century, a wealthy man in Lithuania lost his entire fortune. Embarrassed by his reversal of fortune and upset with the state of his life, he isolated himself from family and friends. Incredibly, no one knew about his financial loss and circumstances. Eventually, he died of malnutrition. As word of his death spread throughout the town, people were shocked to learn how he died.

Rabbi Israel Salanter (1809-1883), a highly regarded spiritual leader in that Lithuanian community, conducted the funeral service and offered this important lesson: “This man did not die of starvation but of excessive pride. Had he been willing to admit his situation and ask others for help, he would not have died of malnutrition.”

That story from the Jewish tradition supports this wisdom from the Buddha, who cautioned people against pride, saying: “Pride of youth, pride of health, pride of existence—all thoughtful people should cast pride aside.” The issue with pride is that it is an excessive belief in one’s own abilities; a self-devotion wrapped in the illusion of self-sufficiency that restrains and imprisons a person from reaching out, asking for assistance, receiving relief, and evolving.

Here are seven Buddhist ways to manage pride.

Understand the Two Sides of Pride

There is pride that is positive and emotionally healthy that shows up as self-confidence, healthy self-esteem, and awareness and appreciation of one’s accomplishments and achievements. In an article from Tricycle: The Buddhist Review titled “Hang On To Your Ego,” Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes: “If your ego functions are healthy and well-coordinated, they give you a consistent sense of priorities as to which forms of happiness are more worthwhile than others; a clear sense of where your responsibilities do and don’t lie; a strong sense of your ability to judge right and wrong for yourself; and an honest sense of how to learn from your past mistakes.”

On the other hand, there is pride that is emotionally dysfunctional. That form of pride looks like arrogance, inflated self-esteem, and the feeling that one is superior to and more important than others. That is the pride or ego to manage and avoid, says licensed marriage and family therapist Dr. John Amodeo: “We’ve all been repelled by people who have an inflated view of themselves. They may talk about themselves excessively and rarely show interest in others … Instead of relating to us as equals, they display an obnoxious superiority that makes us feel small.”

Conduct an Emotional Inventory

It can be challenging to assess whether you’re simply a confident person or someone who is arrogant and whose pride is becoming an issue. The subtle grip of pride entering a person’s life was observed by the Seventh Dalai Lama (1708-1757) who wrote: “What is the wild horse that throws one from the mountain one is ascending? Pride, which thinks oneself superior and dwells on one’s own good qualities.”

To address this issue, it’s important to conduct an emotional inventory. Natalie Watkins, a writer with a degree in experimental psychology from the University of Oxford, put together a list of signs indicating arrogance and pride. Some of those signs include a struggle to ask for help, the assumption that you’re special or unique, an inability to change your behavior, and the inability to accept criticism.

Watkins offers this additional insight on her list: “Having one or two of these traits doesn’t necessarily mean that you are—or appear—arrogant. But if more than a few items on this list ring true, you might be more arrogant than you realize.”

Admit, Accept, and Apologize When You’re Wrong

Dr. Rebecca Li, founder and guiding teacher of the Chan Dharma Community, says in her 2023 Lion‘s Roar magazine article “Walking the Path of Right Action”: “As we maintain clarity of mind by engaging in meditative practices and become more familiar with how our habitual reactivities are triggered and unfold, we catch ourselves engaging in harmful actions. Noticing we’ve caused harm allows us to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions. When it’s skillful, we apologize and try to repair the damages done.”

This type of reparative action was taken by Tesla cofounder and CEO Elon Musk, who made headlines after smoking marijuana during a live podcast appearance. Tesla’s stock dropped nine percent after the interview, causing financial losses not only for Musk but for his investors. At first he downplayed the incident but later apologized, saying that his behavior was inappropriate and that he would strive to be a better role model.

Listen to and Accept Constructive Criticism

The ability to accept and integrate constructive criticism reveals that pride isn’t an issue in your life; that you’re truly interested in self-improvement; that you’re secure enough to listen when a weakness is brought to your attention; that emotional and spiritual humility is present in your life. “The one who praises you is a thief. The one who criticizes you is your true friend,” wrote the late Robert Aitken, a Buddhist author and founder of the Honolulu Diamond Sangha.

Consider this inspiring example from Ben Franklin, American inventor and diplomat. While in his late 20s, Franklin was unhappy with the quality of his life. Wanting to become a better person, he made a list of 12 areas in his life where he felt there was ample room for improvement. Franklin asked a good friend to look over his list and was likely hurt at his friend’s response. In his autobiography, Franklin wrote that his friend “kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation.” As a result, Franklin added humility as the 13th virtue in his project.

Cultivate Humility

“To be humble does not mean that we are ‘less than,’ but that we are ready to accept the possibility that there is some wisdom that we still do not fully possess,” says Tashi Nyima, the preceptor at Universal Compassion Buddhist Congregation in Dallas, Texas. Like Ben Franklin, be a person who embraces opportunities to practice humility. Author and rabbi Joseph Telushkin suggests asking these types of questions of yourself to bring humility into your life:

  • Do I respect people whose opinions differ from mine?

  • Do I try to better understand those who disagree with me on important issues?

  • Do I have the maturity to change my mind on a strongly held position?

  • Do I listen to others with the sense I can learn something from them?

  • Do I solicit and actively seek out perspectives different from my own?

Allow Others to Help You

Ross Nervig, assistant editor of Lion’s Roar magazine, tells of a bitterly cold winter night a decade ago when he sat on a city bus full of passengers. “We weren’t going anywhere,” he explains. “This bus had been sent by the fire department to keep us warm.” Looking outside the bus window, Nervig could see his apartment building on fire with “orange flames chasing black smoke into the sky.”

The following morning he and other apartment residents were being served breakfast in the basement of a nearby church. Sensing his agitation at being the object of aid, a kind Red Cross representative sought to soften his discomfort by offering Nervig this advice: “You have to let people help you now. Do this for them.”

Learn from Others

“Whenever I associate with others I will learn to think of myself as the lowest among all and respectfully hold others to be supreme from the very depths of my heart.” This is the humble approach taken by Geshe Langri Thangpa (1054-1123), a highly respected Tibetan Buddhist monk and author of Eight Verses of Training The Mind.

If we can think of ourselves as “lowest among all,” we can set pride aside and learn from anyone. An example of this comes from Zig Ziglar, an American author and motivational speaker, who once had his car stuck in the mud and had to call a tow truck to come pull it out. When the tow truck driver arrived, Ziglar was surprised and disappointed that he was just a teenager. Ziglar doubted that the kid would be able to help him at all.

That young man asked Ziglar for his car keys. Before handing them over, Ziglar assured the teenager that he had already tried to drive the vehicle out of the mud and it wouldn’t work. Nevertheless, the boy turned on the car, rocked it back and forth a few times, and drove it right out of the mud with ease. Sensing that Ziglar was embarrassed, the teenager sought to ease the embarrassment by saying, “Sir, sometimes I just get lucky. I won’t even charge you for this.”

The lesson: Don’t underestimate people or be dismissive. Be willing to learn from them and their life experiences.

Explore several Buddhist ways to find contentment.

How to Manage Pride the Buddhist Way

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