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Combatting Pride With Humility: 7 Virtues + 7 Vices For Our Vets

05/29/2013 01:01 pm ET | Updated Jul 28, 2013
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When we hear the word "pride," our first reaction is probably pretty positive. Team pride, military pride, school pride: these all show we're willing to honor and stand by the things that are important to us, regardless of what other people think. That sounds like a pretty good thing to me. So how on Earth did pride make the list of the seven deadly sins, let alone be named the one cardinal vice that trumps all the others on the list?

A little pride can be a positive thing, especially when it comes to military service. Pride is a cornerstone of the combat training that prepares our Warriors for the physical and emotional challenges of war, instilling self-respect and confidence in one's mission that helps our troops be unwavering during tough, split-second decisions on the battlefield. Pride also applies to our returning soldiers. Going to war is a tremendous challenge, and our Veterans should rightfully be proud of the sacrifices they made, and continue to make, to ensure our country stays safe and secure. In this framework, pride shows honor, self-respect and faith in one's actions.

That's healthy pride. When pride verges on ego, this vice gets really unhealthy really fast.

When ancient philosophers talk about the seven deadly sins, they're not defining pride as standing by your actions and beliefs. Pride's sinful form is when confidence becomes an excessive self-love that causes you to belittle others and demand you're always right. Pride is the constant need to out-do, out-perform, out-smart, out-earn, out-look and out-compete everyone around you. It's the inability to acknowledge the accomplishments of others. Excessive pride can lead you to hate or contempt your neighbors, your friends and even your family, all in the name of preserving your own ego.

How does confidence in your actions morph into the realm of egoism? In my life, excessive pride always surfaces during tough times when I'm struggling to deal with traumatic events. Just like little birds puff out their chests to look larger when big predators come around, we humans tend to defend ourselves against critics by inflating our egos. It's a form of healing, but not a good one.

When our Veterans return from war, they face a set of issues more complicated than most of us will ever encounter. On top of the logistics of transitioning into a new post-war normal, our Warriors are also coping with the difficult emotional side-effects of spending months, sometimes years, exposed to the horrors of war. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other invisible battlefield wounds cause almost one-third of our strong, virtuous military men and women to feel vulnerable, weak or ashamed as they navigate the waters of civilian life and try to find authentic well-being . A common response to PTSD and other emotional turmoil is to use pride as a way of covering up your perceived weaknesses. Sure, pride can make us appear confident to others, but hiding our true struggles won't help us turn our Post-Traumatic Stress into Post-Traumatic Growth, which is exactly the process we need to undergo to find true wellness after war.

We humans are a lot like onions: we all use vices such as pride to cover up and protect our true selves from a world that we're afraid will hurt us. But when we let pride become a protective layer, it not only keeps others from seeing our flaws; it also keeps them from accessing our humanity, our true emotions and our sincerity.

Pride is a shield that allows us to avoid trauma rather than confront, heal and overcome it. To get back in touch with our true selves, we need to start the painful process of peeling back that layer of pride. The best tool for combating this vice is humility, which also happens to be one of the seven virtues.

When we infuse our lives with humility, we accept and expose all parts of ourselves -- flaws and shortcomings included. For Veterans struggling with PTSD, humility is understanding that the emotional turmoil and trauma is a byproduct of war, not of any personal failure. Through humility, we gain the strength to be confident enough to show the world our flaws (which, by the way, are as innate to the human condition as breathing). Once our defensiveness and egoism disappear, we're left with our true selves. And what will quickly follow? A life in which we're thriving, not simply surviving.

Now, that's something to be proud of.