We do not always make the best choices. We often make decisions that thwart our desires or lead to outcomes that we would rather avoid. In particular our actions often stem from fear and pride rather than being driven by an objective view of what needs to be done in order to achieve our long term goals.
Fear arises from a misinterpretation of reality. There is an objective reality out there that we are trying to understand but we are getting it wrong. However our focus is still outwards on what is actually happening in the real world and as such we can reach that objective reality if we can correct for our fear.
Much more insidious is pride which disconnects us from reality. It changes our personal perception from focusing outwards on actual reality to focusing inwards on an imagined reality inside our heads. Over time everything becomes interpreted by how well it jives with this internal reality to the extent that any objective fact which contradicts it becomes dismissed as false.
To correct for this we must recognize that because fear and pride cause problems for us in very different ways we need to engage with them differently in order to make the good decisions that will drive us towards success.
Let’s start with fear.
Why do we fear? It is a core feeling arising out of our basic need to survive. Organisms feel fear in order to be alert for danger. Its purpose is to protect you from an external threat.
For most of human history that threat has been existential, it had to do with avoiding death. The tiger lurking in the bush. As a result we are designed to find it very difficult to avoid having our actions be determined by our fears.
But the thing about fear is that it is like having a well intentioned but stupid friend.
It is concerned about our well being, it’s just a poor judge of what is actually dangerous because it is rooted in the assumption that overreacting has a much lower negative impact over time than underreacting. In our caveman hindbrain, it’s always better to assume that rustle in the bush is a tiger rather than the wind because getting it wrong could mean death.
But that’s the point, fear is a reaction. Specifically an inner reaction to external circumstances. It looks outward to protect you from the world.
Often the interpretation of the outside world is not correct and fear drives you to make mistakes but it always starts from reality. It is always grounded in your (incomplete) perception of what is happening outside your head.
The antidote to fear is courage.
Courage doesn’t try to downplay what we are afraid of, it respects and accepts reality as it is but then acts anyway. Courage is saying, yes I think there is a danger out there but in order to achieve my goals I am going to confront and overcome that danger.
And almost always that danger turns out to be a perception of reality and not actual reality: what we are fearing turns out to not actually exist. But because fear is outwardly focused, at least it is possible for that perception to change.
Contrast this with pride.
Pride is the opposite. As with fear, pride starts from a good place, in this case from a basic sense of self-esteem and self-worth. Our self-esteem is the reason we think we are important.
Feeling good about ourselves is how our ancestors maintained social position and thus enhanced the chances that their genes would be passed on to the next generation. We are all descended from people who thought relatively well of themselves.
Self-esteem is about pushing back against external negative circumstances. Which is a good thing. Standing up for yourself, etc. The trouble is that unchecked, the healthy resilience of self-esteem can solidify into the vulnerable brittleness of pride.
Self-esteem bends but doesn’t break, new information can adjust it but not destroy it, it flows around and through challenge. Pride resists new information to the bitter end, mistaking rigidity for strength.
Something that is very rigid resists and then suddenly catastrophically breaks. Which means that the stronger the challenge the more vulnerable you feel because it could be the thing that is just enough to trigger destruction. This vulnerability is deeply unsettling and as a result pride doesn’t try and correct or accept your faults, it pretends that they don’t exist.
Self-esteem begins to shift into pride because we are programmed to avoid loss more than try to achieve gain. When we begin to doubt our self-esteem, we not only lose its direct benefit, all the resources we put into achieving it become wasted as well. As a result we not only don’t like to feel bad about ourselves, we dislike even more feeling less good about ourselves.
Our tendency is therefore that the more proud we get, the more we want to avoid anything that could call the basis of that pride into question.
And when we encounter something in the real world around us that could cause us to doubt that pride we pretend that it doesn’t exist. We change our interpretation of reality to match the judgement driven by our pride rather than call that pride into question.
Pride actually drives us to ignore aspects of reality and after a while that ends up with our ignoring reality completely. When facts in reality would lead to us accepting that we may have made a mistake we begin to exclusively look inward more and more to define reality a priori instead of looking outward to see what is going on in actual reality.
Our reality becomes strictly represented by our inner circumstance rather than by what is actually happening around us. Our decisions end up being based on a reality that exists entirely within our own heads. It may match actual reality every now and then but if so that is only by accident.
Pride fools us into focusing inwardly on ourselves, only trusting our judgement and only accepting that part of external reality which supports that judgement. It makes our perception a self-fulfilling prophecy in thrall to our judgement rather than an objective view of independent facts. It makes us self-centered and focused only on ourselves and our opinions. It shuts us away from taking in new information because it wants us to mistrust anything but itself.
In this way pride becomes a cunning enemy, whispering poison into our soul and weakening us from within under the guise of strengthening our sense of self-worth.
It seems like it’s about defending ourselves against other people but it’s actually turning us against ourselves, defending ourselves against our own opinion by only basing our opinion on our opinion and not on any objective facts.
Our pride turns self-esteem from a strength to a vulnerability. Instead of making us resilient it makes us brittle and resistant to growth and new information.
The antidote to this is humility.
Humility is the enemy of pride. When we accept that maybe we are not doing everything correctly, then that is the first step towards dealing with unvarnished reality rather than the reality we wish to be true.
By opening ourselves up to potentially looking bad, to our imperfection in reality, we give ourselves both the forgiveness to move on despite our flaws and the objective data to help us correct for them.
Humility is not about abasing yourself to other people, it’s about opening yourself up to reality. It delinks our self-esteem from our reality but in a healthy way.
It doesn’t say that we don’t make mistakes or are never wrong. It says that we have a fundamental worth independent of our mistakes and failures. Humility gives us a baseline level of self-importance that allows us to go through our lives and hold ourselves accountable to ourselves.
Humility is true strength, pride is weakness trying to puff itself up.
You deal with fear by accepting it and being courageous, you deal with pride by recognizing the core insecurity at its heart and accept yourself for having that.