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The value of humility

After many years of working with clients on self-esteem issues, I've come to believe that there are four letters that can do more good for your mental health than anything else: I'M OK.


For the past few decades our society has been obsessed with cultivating high self-esteem. Everyone is awesome! You can do anything! Everyone is a winner!  And yet the rates of mental health problems continue to rise. The generation of kids that were praised at every turn, got a ribbon at every sports day and a prize in every pass-the-parcel are getting a rude shock when they enter the wider world to discover that they aren't good at everything, that not every thinks they are special, and that not everyone can get the prize job. It seems that boosting self-esteem isn't the answer to our woes. So although it may seem counter-intuitive, can I suggest we give humility a try instead?


One of the ironies of human psychology is that low self-esteem often leads to increased self-importance. When we feel that we are not good enough we can become increasingly self-absorbed, spending much of our time in relentless self-analysis, trying to work out what is wrong with us, trying to 'fix' ourselves and just generally beating ourselves up for being a loser. Perversely, this prolonged self-absorption can create an exaggerated sense of our importance, with a belief that everyone is judging us, that our mistakes are catastrophic, and that our failures let everyone down. 


CS Lewis famously suggested that “true humility is not thinking less of yourself: it is thinking of yourself less.” A bit of humility can pull us out of our self-absorption, allowing us to instead pour our energy into building relationships, exploring new spheres and cultivating a meaningful life. 

Humility can offer a more balanced approach to self-judgement. "I'm such a loser" becomes "what right do I have to expect to be perfect at everything? I’m human and I’m fallible". "Everyone thinks I'm an idiot" is replaced with "people have better things to worry about; it's not all about me". Rather than seeing your failures as a disaster, you can recognise that you are not the linchpin that holds the universe together, and that your flaws are a very small matter in the grand scheme of things. 

Now, I should clarify that this form of humility does not equate to debasing yourself or seeing yourself as unworthy or inferior. Humility can sit comfortably side-by-side with a fundamental belief in your own worth. (Brene Brown explores this issue beautifully in her much-viewed TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability.) It is more about developing a sense of perspective; an understanding that you are merely one of seven billion imperfect people muddling along and doing their best in an imperfect world.

Humility can also act as an antidote to self-pity. “Why me?” becomes “Well, why not me? Why should I be exempt from the problems that everyone else faces?” It allows us to see our personal suffering as part of the broader human condition, something that connects us with others rather than isolating us.  This is the basis of compassion: the word comes from the Latin compati meaning literally ‘suffer with’.  Instead of wasting energy agonising over the injustices of life, we can channel it into connecting with others and dealing with the challenges we face.


Humility can aid in understanding our flaws and problems, but it can also help us to become genuinely better people and to achieve more highly. Humility allows us to stay curious, keep learning and improving. It lets us approach life with more agility, as we can readily admit our mistakes and try something different. It allows us to say “I’m sorry, I was wrong” and mean it. It can facilitate genuine connection with others by allowing us to consider other points of view and to balance our needs with those of others. Embracing our cosmic insignificance in a positive way can also make us braver – more willing to show enthusiasm, to have a go, to risk failure – all crucial factors in cultivating an authentic and meaningful life.

In his book Humilitas, John Dickson suggests that it is the quality of humility that can transform ‘good’ into ‘great’. When we examine great people in history, the likes of Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt, we see that humility allowed them to see beyond themselves, to appreciate the bigger picture, to risk failure, to remain curious and adaptable, and to relate to everyone they met. They saw their own efforts as part of a much larger story, and if they held power, it was only in the service of others. Similarly the greatest artists and performers are driven by a humble conviction that there is always more that they can learn, explore, understand or create. 

The opposite of humility is often seen as pride. However, pride in itself is not necessarily a bad thing - taking pride in your work or in your behaviour can be a positive thing, suggesting that you are on track and doing the things that are important to you. (As a side issue, I’d suggest that you only get to be proud of things that you have achieved through your own efforts. You don’t get to be proud of things that you have because of luck, such as good looks, intelligence, inherited wealth or family connections. Of those, you just get to be grateful. Tim Minchin takes this idea even further, in his brilliant speech to a graduating class.)

I see the negative opposite of humility as arrogance, where pride is mixed with self-importance and self-righteousness (case study: see Donald Trump). Arrogance locks people into a rigid belief that they are always right, condemning them to eventual failure by removing the ability to admit to mistakes or absorb the wisdom of others. If we look at history's greatest failures, such as Hitler and Napoleon, we can see that a lack of humility led to their downfall. Unable to acknowledge that their plans could be thwarted or that their strategy was faulty, they pushed on to catastrophic defeat. Arrogance can be often be deadly: see the driver who is convinced he can handle any speed, the doctor who won't admit the possibility of misdiagnosis, and the mountaineer that won't listen to warnings of dangerous weather. 

Arrogance also shatters meaningful relationships by riding roughshod over the needs or opinions of other. Arrogant people almost always end up lonely and bitter.  

We need to be equally cautious of arrogance’s quieter cousin, smugness. Smugness says “I have achieved everything, I know everything, I have all the right answers”. All of these put up a barrier to further exploration, and can create a dangerous complacency that reduces the ability to deal with change. Smug people are horrified when their world order is disrupted, and ill-prepared to adapt to the new situation. The humble merely adjust their settings and move forward.

Arrogance and smugness can kill creativity; a great artist can quickly sink into mediocrity if they believe they have achieved the pinnacle, and so keep producing increasingly tired versions of their original work. Similarly, scientists or thinkers who make great discoveries will quickly become irrelevant or overtaken if they do not continue to question their findings and explore further. 


And so, to return finally to our starting point of self-esteem: I suggest that humility offers us an escape from the endless, exhausting quest for high self-esteem and the relentless, tormenting question of "am I good enough?" Humility offers us the great gift of accepting ourselves as OK. We aren't failures; we are OK. Not perfect, but OK. And certainly 'good enough' to get on with living a life that feels meaningful to us. 

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