With the rise of narcissism, humility seems to have been relegated to a second or third level. Many of the people who have become idols of the masses do not stand out precisely because of their humility but rather the opposite: they usually have a high dose of self-centeredness that borders on narcissism.
As a result, it is not uncommon for humble people to end up looking a bit odd, as if they were following a syncopated lifestyle that almost nobody understands and much less shares. And yet, humility is one of the most important values for our psychological well-being.
The tale that reveals the incredible value of humility
A fervent meditator, after spending years concentrating on a mantra, thought he had learned enough to teach the others. Although the student was not very humble, the monastery teachers were not worried, they thought that with maturity humility would also come.
After some years of successful teaching, the student thought that no one could teach him anything; but upon learning that an important master lived in a nearby cave, the opportunity seemed too exciting to pass up.
The master lived alone on an island in the middle of a lake, so the student hired a boatman to take him there. The student was respectful of the old master and, while drinking tea together, asked about his spiritual practice.
The old man said he did not have a spiritual practice, except for a mantra that he repeated all the time. The student was visibly pleased because the hermit was using the same method as him. However, when the master pronounced the mantra aloud, the student was horrified!
“What’s up?” The master asked.
“I do not know what to say. I’m afraid you’ve wasted your whole life! You are pronouncing the mantra incorrectly!
“Oh, that’s terrible! How should I say it?” Asked the old man.
The student pronounced the mantra correctly and the old teacher was grateful. He asked him to leave him alone to meditate immediately. On the way back, the student thought he had become an accomplished master and felt sorry for the hermit. He thought he had been lucky with his arrival since he could meditate with the correct mantra before he died.
However, when the boat was already in the middle of the lake, the boatman indicated astonished the arrival of the old man walkig on the water.
“Excuse me please. I have forgotten the correct pronunciation of the mantra. Could you repeat it?” Asked the odl man.
“Obviously you don’t need it,” stuttered the young student stunned by that miracle; but the old man insisted so much that the student repeated it again.
The teacher walked away repeating the mantra very carefully, slowly, again and again, as he walked along the surface of the water back to the island.
This interesting parable tells us how sometimes we are too full of ourselves to learn from others, so that we waste precious opportunities to grow, just because we think we are one level above the others. And it also tells us about the humility that contains the authentic intelligence and self-confidence, the humility from which the willingness to listen to others is born.
What is humility – and what is not?
Many people have a misconception of humility by associating it more with humiliation than with maturity and greatness. In fact, psychologists at the University of British Columbia believe that there are two types of humility. Selfless or humiliating humility is one that “comes from personal failures, involves a negative self-assessment and actions aimed at hiding that image from the others; which generates a disposition to shame, low self-esteem and submission”, as they pointed out.
Obviously, the humility that exalts and liberates is not that. What is not humility?
• It is not letting others pass continuously before us, in the literal or metaphorical sense.
• It is not being victims of the doormat effect and letting others trample us.
• It is not constantly sacrificing our interests and needs to those of others.
• It is not avoiding conflicts at all costs just to be kind.
• It is not hiding our feelings or silencing our opinions to agree with others.
The other type of humility, which these psychologists called “appreciative” comes from solid self-esteem, which allows us to appreciate the achievements of others without experiencing envy. That humility consists in accepting ourselves with our abilities and defects, without boasting of them. The psychologist Pelin Kesebir of the University of Colorado discovered in his studies that being humble implies having a “calm ego” and “the will to accept the limits of the ‘ego’ and its place in the grand scheme of things.”
In other words, a humble person knows what is good and what is bad and does not continually seek praise or confirmation from others. The humble person does not feel the need to proclaim his competencies and successes, it is not pretentious or arrogant.
What is the key to humility?
“Humility is not thinking that you are less, it is not believing that you’re more”, wrote the novelist C. S. Lewis and now science proves it. Duke University psychologists conducted a very interesting study in which, according to them, they discovered the most important essence or quality of humility. These researchers recruited 419 people and asked them to describe their main achievements in life and compare them with those of others.
Each participant then performed a test in which were analyzed different personality characteristics, including humility. The researchers also asked them how they thought the others should treat them based on the type of people they were and the achievements they had made.
The psychologists discovered that the people who obtained a high score in humility were not different from the others in terms of the importance that they attached to their achievements or competences, what distinguished them was a special charcateristc. Humble people recognized the importance of their achievements and the exceptional nature of some of their qualities, but they still did not believe they deserved a special treatment.
Humility as an experience of personal liberation
Humility is, above all, an experience of personal liberation. Being humble implies giving up certain highlights and patterns of self-magnitude thinking that lead us, on the one hand, to feel the need to compete or impress the others and, on the other hand, to think that we have the right to receive a special treatment.
Humility attenuates the impulse to oppose or overcome the others, or to react automatically to perceived threats to one’s sense. Getting rid of that need leads us to a state of inner liberation because we are aware that we don’t have to overcome anybody else than ourselves.
Humility implies an experience of personal growth in which we have developed a security such that we no longer need to place ourselves above the others, but neither do we put ourselves below them. It means that we have understood that we are all at the same level, from the apparently most “important” person to the least one, because everything that separates and stratifies us is nothing more than fictitious social constructions. Being humble is, therefore, recognizing that we are as valuable as anyone, neither more nor less.
When we reach that level of confidence and security in ourselves, our ego will be less threatened and less reactive, which will allow us appreciate, praise and encourage the others. That means we would maintain more authentic and assertive interpersonal relationships, as demonstrated by a study conducted at the University of the Commonwealth of Virginia. People will feel affirmed, appreciated, encouraged, validated and emotionally nourished, they will not feel they need to compete with us. And that will also make them appear more authentic.
Humility is, as Fritz Perls said, to be aware that “I am me and you are you; I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine.” And assuming that idea may be the most liberating act of our life.
Banker, C. C. & Leary, M. R. (2019) Hypo-Egoic Nonentitlement as a Feature of Humility. Pers Soc Psychol Bull; 146167219875144.
Arreola, S. (2019) A Story About a Man Who Was Forced to “Find Humility”. In: Medium.
Weidman, A. C. et. Al. (2018) The psychological structure of humility. J Pers Soc Psychol; 114(1): 153-178.
Kesebir, P. (2014) A quiet ego quiets death anxiety: humility as an existential anxiety buffer. J Pers Soc Psychol; 106(4): 610-623.
Davis, D. E. et. Al. (2013) Humility and the Development and Repair of Social Bonds: Two Longitudinal Studies. Self and Identity; 12(1): 58-77.