Character Defects: Pride

Hank P.

In Step 7 of the 12&12, we read that “Humility, as a word and as an ideal, has a very bad time in our world.” Bill W. wrote that at the beginning of the 1950’s. If he were writing today, almost three-quarters of a century later, he would probably add that pride, by contrast, is having a decidedly good time.  

We need only google the word to see that, if for most of history pride was considered a vice which few would willingly admit to, it is now celebrated as the equivalent of a virtue by growing segments of society—a development which, not incidentally, the Big Book and the 12&12 anticipated. Pride and humility are effectively switching places, the latter coming to be seen as a weakness if not an outright flaw.

Thus, if it was hard for the early AAs to grapple with the roles of humility and pride in our recovery, it is even more difficult for us. We not only have to deal with our own natural resistance to the one and our equally natural inclination toward the other, but we also have to buck much of the culture.

For there is no question that, as we find it in the Big Book and the 12&12, the AA view of pride is that it is a singularly bad thing. There are 31 mentions of pride, 3 of prideful, and 1 of proud. They are all negative.  AA has nothing good to say about pride. It is a defect of character, period. Indeed, it is the worst of all possible defects.

And yet, leaving the excesses of our cultural moment aside, most of us cannot help but feel that not all pride is really bad. At one time or another, we have all used or heard someone use pride in a positive sense which doesn’t seem to be connected with anything harmful or defective. We speak of being proud of our children for doing well in school, or of our significant other for getting a well-deserved promotion at work, or of a friend for starting her own business. What’s wrong with being proud of others in these various ways?

Nothing, our two books would say if they were using pride to reference those kinds of attitudes in those kinds of situations. But they are not. They are using pride with reference to defective traits of character and their accompanying distorted emotions. In them, pride has one kind of meaning, the kind which is related to harm and wrongdoing and which, until recently, was the main connotation of the term.

Part of the problem for many of us is a linguistic one. This is the fact that the same term is being used for two entirely different things. One is a considered a defect, the other is not. Our two texts reveal an awareness of this when they qualify the term, as in “false” pride (12&12, S12, p. 123) and “unwarranted” pride (12&12, S4, p. 47). If there’s a type of pride which is false or unwarranted, then presumably there’s another type which is not. Yet our texts do not insist on the distinction, for their solution to the former lies, not in the latter, but in the entirely different disposition which is signified by the term humility.

Still, if we are to see where the defect really lies, we need to see where it doesn’t. Pride which may not be necessarily false or unwarranted refers to the pleasure or satisfaction we take in some good (e.g., an accomplishment, attribute, possession, association) which reflects well upon ourselves or those we love, as in the examples already cited. The false, unwarranted, or defective sort of pride refers to the pleasure or satisfaction we take in some good which reflects, not only or not so much well, but better upon ourselves, in comparison necessarily with others.

The problem of using the same term for two different sorts of pride exist in other languages. Some employ unique solutions. Spanish, for instance, uses its equivalent of proud (orgulloso) with two different forms of the verb “to be,” one (estar) to reference an ad hoc and limited response to a circumstantial good (our child doing well in school), and the other (ser) to reference a habitual state or condition (too proud to admit being wrong). The latter is the defect. (Spanish also has a term for pride which is always of the bad variety—soberbia—but which is not used in ordinary conversation.) 

Other languages use different terms to distinguish between the two sorts of pride. French, for instance, distinguishes between l’orgueil (the bad sort) and la fierté (the good), while Italian does the same with its two equivalent words, orgoglioso and fiero. (However, not everyone makes these distinctions.) 

Most languages, however, seem to use other, more standard solutions, like qualifying the term, as already noted. This is the function of the parenthetical “too” in the last example, where the adverb connotes excessive and therefore defective, pride, a connotation which also attaches to being “prideful,” (i.e., full of pride) as opposed to just being proud.

In English, the current tendency is to avoid the problem by abandoning the use of pride as a blanket term with uniformly negative connotations and employing instead other, related terms which more specifically reference the variety of its defective forms or manifestations. We have dozens of such words and expressions. The most common perhaps is ego (with derivatives like egocentric, egoism, egomaniac, egotism, and ego trip).  Ego is Latin for “I,” and thus it nicely captures what is at the heart of defective pride: an excessive concern with oneself. Others are arrogance, conceit, hubris, and narcissism, or being haughty, puffed up, smug, snobbish, snotty, stuck up, uppity, or vain.

The most common and broadest in AA are selfishness and self-centeredness, which the Big Book says are at the root of our problems and which, even better than ego, get at the essence of defective pride as disordered self-involvement. Others are boastful, braggart, cocky, grandiose, presumption, show-off, vainglory, and of course the many hyphenated corollaries of selfish and self-centered, such as self-importance, self-satisfied, self-sufficient, and self-reliance of the inordinate kind.

When the Big Book and the 12&12 talk about pride, then, these are the things they are talking about. When the 12&12 says that“[P]ride, leading to self-justification, and always spurred by conscious or unconscious fears, is the basic breeder of most human difficulties, the chief block to true progress" (Step 4, p. 48-29), it is talking about these forms of defective pride.

A full understanding of pride as a character defect requires therefore a full understanding of its manifold and specific defective manifestations in us, a task we undertake in earnest with Step 4 as we examine specific relationships in specific situations.  Otherwise, the term remains too general and too broad to be of much practical help—as well as too vulnerable to cultural challenges which can sow confusion and easily lead us into rationalization and self-justification.

Pride makes us particularly susceptible to this. The reason is that pride is the hardest defect to recognize in ourselves. This is so for two reasons. First, pride makes us think too highly of ourselves, making it more difficult to see our flaws. Second, pride hides behind those flaws, making it harder to detect its presence.  

These reasons help to explain why pride, as explained in our two texts, historically has been considered more than just another character defect. It is the deadliest of them, the seed from which they sprout and the root which sustains them. Pride “heads the procession” of the other capital vices or deadly sins: anger, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, and sloth. It “lures us into making demands upon ourselves or upon others which cannot be met without perverting or misusing our God-given instincts.” It is the main breeder of fear, “a soul-sickness in its own right” (p. 48-49). It leads us into “playing God” (Big Book, p. 62).

But if pride is the breeding ground of all character defects, humility is the nourishing soil of all the virtues. Thus seen, recovery is a lifelong process of surrendering the one and growing in the other. All of the 12 Steps, we are told, deflate our egos (12&12, S5, p. 55). The attainment of greater humility is the foundational principle in each and every one (12&12, S7, p. 70). The same is true of the 12 Traditions. They all aim to keep the self-asserting ego at bay and foster the spirit of humility which in the form of anonymity constitutes their spiritual foundation.

The pride that afflicts us as a defect is identified and surrendered as we identify and surrender it in every other defect. Similarly, humility is practiced and acquired in the process of practicing and acquiring every other virtue, for in some measure each requires that we humble ourselves.

We can move toward these goals as we work all of the Steps, practicing a day at a time all of their principles in all areas of our lives.

[Image: Hank P., AA #2 in NY, author of Big Book’s chapter “To Employers" and story “The Unbeliever.” For Q&A about the two, please click on links. For Hank’s role in AA and the Big Book, see William H. Schaberg, Writing the Big Book: The Creation of A.A., Chapter 9, “Hank’s Ideas,” and Chapter 20, “Hank Parkhurst: Managing Editor and ‘To Employers’’’, as well as appendices II, V, and VIII. For an audio of this post, please click on link.]

As Bill Sees It
"The prideful righteousness of ‘good people’ may often be just as destructive as the glaring sins of those who are supposedly not so good." – As Bill Sees It 

Big Book"There is a solution. Almost none of us liked the self-searching, the leveling of our pride, the confession of shortcomings which the process requires for its successful consummation." – Big Book 

12&12"P]ride, leading to self-justification, and always spurred by conscious or unconscious fears, is the basic breeder of most human difficulties, the chief block to true progress." –12&12  

Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age
"It would be a product of false pride to claim that A.A. is a cure-all, even for alcoholism." – Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age 

Life Recovery Bible"Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall." – Proverbs 16:18  
"God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." – James 4:6

"All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride." – Sophocles, Antigone  

"It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels." – St. Augustine  

"We are rarely proud when we are alone." – Voltaire 

John Milton
"Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” – Satan, in Milton’s Paradise Lost   

William Ernest Henley
"I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” – William Ernest Henley, Invictus  

Francois Duc de La Rochefoucauld
"Pride does not wish to owe and vanity does not wish to pay." – François de La Rochefoucauld  

Jane Austen"Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates to our opinion of ourselves; vanity to what we would have others think of us." – Jane Austen  

Théophile Gautier
"Pride leaves the heart the moment love enters it." – Théophile Gautier  

Samuel Johnson
"Pride is a vice, which pride itself inclines every man to find in others, and to overlook in himself." – Samuel Johnson 

Emily Brontë
"Proud people breed sad sorrows for themselves." – Emily Brontë 

William Blake
"Shame is pride’s cloak." – William Blake  

Baruch Spinoza
"Pride is pleasure arising from a man’s thinking too highly of himself." – Baruch Spinoza  

Thomas Jefferson
"Pride costs more than hunger, thirst, and cold." – Thomas Jefferson 

Benjamin Franklin
"The proud hate pride—in others.” – Benjamin Franklin  

Michel de Montaigne
"On the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.” – Michel de Montaigne  

Alexander Pope
"At every trifle take offense, that always shows great pride or little sense.” – Alexander Pope  

John Ruskin
"It is better to lose your pride with someone you love, than to lose that someone you love with your useless pride.” – John Ruskin  

Carl Jung"Through pride we are ever deceiving ourselves. But deep down below the surface of the average conscience a still, small voice says to us that something is out of tune." – Carl Jung 

Henry Ward Beecher
"A proud man is seldom a grateful man, for he never thinks he gets as much as he deserves.” – Henry Ward Beecher  

Friedrich Nietzsche
"I have done that,” says my memory, ”I can’t have done that,” says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually, the memory yields.” – Friedrich Nietzsche  

Andrew Murray
"Pride must die in you, or nothing of heaven can live in you." – Andrew Murray  

T. S. Eliot
"Most of the trouble in the world is caused by people wanting to be important." – T. S. Eliot  

Wellins Calcott
"If you see anything in yourself which may make you proud, look a little further, and you will find enough to make you humble." – Wellins Calcott  

Thomas Fuller
Pride, perceiving humility honorable, often borrows her cloak." – Thomas Fuller 

Francis Quarles"Charity feeds the poor, so does pride; charity builds a hospital, so does pride. In this they differ: charity gives her glory to God; pride takes her glory from man." – Francis Quarles 

Anthony G. Greenwald"The ego is a self-justifying historian which seeks only that information that agrees with it, rewrites history when it needs to, and does not even see the evidence that threatens it.” – Anthony G. Greenwald 

"Temper gets you into trouble. Pride keeps you there." – Anonymous  

D. L. Moody
"God sends no one away empty, except those who are full of themselves.” – D. L. Moody  

George Santayana
"The passions grafted on wounded pride are the most inveterate; they are green and vigorous in old age." – George Santayana  

William Cowper
"The proud are ever most provoked by pride." – William Cowper  

Franklin D. Roosevelt
"Never underestimate a man who overestimates himself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt  

Henry Fairlie
"The proud man sets himself up and, in doing so, sets himself apart." – Henry Fairlie 

C. S. Lewis"Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man . . . It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone." – C. S. Lewis  

Lewis B. Smedes"Pride in the spiritual sense is the refusal to let God be God. It’s to grab God’s status for oneself. It’s turning down God’s invitation to join the dance of life as a creature in his world, and wishing instead to be the creator, independent, reliant on one’s resources—and that is the great illusion." – Lewis B. Smedes  

Tim Keller
"Pride is that which claims to be the author of what is really a gift." – Tim Keller  

Pride - Anonymous
"Ego is just a small three-letter word which can destroy a big twelve-letter word called relationship." – Anonymous 

Bumper Sticker
"My autistic child beat your honor student." – Bumper Sticker  

Daily Reflections"Today I have been given the gift, through the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, of practicing the Steps and Traditions in my daily life, of my group and sponsor, and the capacity—if I so choose—to put my pride aside in all situations which arise in my life." – AA’s Daily Reflections   

Twenty-Four Hours a Day
"Pride stands sentinel at the door of the heart and shuts out the love of God." – Twenty-Four Hours a Day   

PTP123"There is an order to reality and my place in the universe, and when, out of pride I think I can make up my own rules and fail to conduct myself in accordance with that order, reality will sooner or later set in and forcibly conform me to itself.” – PTP123  

Pride is the very essence of our disease, selfishness and self-centeredness being the most general and broadest expression of it." – PTP4 

Simone Weil

For more PTP123 passages on pride, see pp. 35–35, 53–54, 70, 74, 81–83, 92-93, 121, 136, 157, 165, 168, 182. For PTP4 discussion, see in Chapter 11, "Shame and Pride," pp. 216–22, and in Chapter 16, "Pride," pp. 336–349. For more Big Book and 12&12 passages, click on and search pride. See also entries under pride in As Bill Sees It. On this site, see Appendix 4: Common Manifestations of Self: Character Defects – Pride, and The Virtue of Humility. In PTP's YouTube Channel, see The Scope of Humility

Additional Resources

  1. C.S. Lewis, The Business of Heaven, daily meditations April 1 – April 4
  2. Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies, by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung
  3. “Pride and Humility: Tempering the Desire for Excellence,” by Craig A. Boyd, chapter in Virtues & Their Vices, Kevin Timpe & Craig A. Boyd, Editors

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