We receive all kinds of conflicting messages about humility: Be humble but confident; be modest but don’t put yourself down; don’t be too assertive but don’t be too deferential either. This is why many people are confused about how to be truly humble.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent my entire life being paranoid that I was being cocky every time I felt proud of myself, or I’ve thought I was being humble when really I was just beating myself up.
We know from every awards speech or leadership book that humility is a desirable quality in every leader. But how do you accomplish that without putting yourself down? What does being humble even mean? How we can be confident, empowered, and humble all at the same time?
Let’s settle the score once and for all. Read on to learn how to be humble without putting yourself down.
Table of Contents
What Is Humility?
First off, a huge part of the confusion is we don’t actually understand what humility really means. The word “humility” can be traced back to Proto-Indo European roots meaning “from the earth.”
It’s a recognition that we’re made up of the same minerals and chemicals as the earth beneath our feet—that we’re all part of a bigger cycle than our daily drama, aspirations, and achievements. It’s the recognition that no matter how much we achieve or create, we’ll all return to the earth one day and so will everyone else who’s ever lived or will ever live.
Every general, president, CEO, and artist in the history of the world is made up of the same stuff as each of us. They have the same human struggles. They’re no better or worse than we are, and we’re no better or worse than anyone else.
This is something Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was acutely aware of. In Meditations, his printed journal, Aurelius declares:
“Let the idea and knowledge of the certainty of death humble you.”
As arguably the most powerful person in the world at the time, Aurelius knew the importance of humility in remembering that he was “from the earth” and simply human. In fact, he is even rumored to have had a man follow him around and remind him, “you are just a man” to not let himself become disillusioned by his power.
Is It Humility or Low Self-Esteem?
We live in a world that’s constantly trying to evaluate our worth—convincing us that our lives will be more worthy if we make more money, write that book, build that business, get married, have children, or whatever else.
Truth be told, we may feel really called to do all of those things. But the harsh truth of life is that no matter how much we produce or achieve, we’ll still all return back to the same earth from which we’re made.
Humility is about radical acceptance. It’s about accepting our humanness, and with that comes accepting our skills and abilities alongside our fallibilities and challenges.
Low self-esteem is inaccurately viewing ourselves as less valuable and ignoring our value and contributions. Cockiness is inaccurately viewing ourselves as more valuable and inflating our achievements to pretend we have more value than other humans.
Both low self-esteem and cockiness are refusing to see or accept all of ourselves—whether it be our strengths or our fallibilities and need for support. But humility is knowing that, right now, we have all of the value we will ever have.
There’s nothing we can do to gain or lose value as a human. Everything we ever create or achieve is done in collaboration with the seen and unseen support all around us.
From the roads we drive on to our personal mentors and cheerleaders or to our ability to stream the internet through our homes, no human being is accomplishing anything alone. We’re supported by and supporting so many others.
Humility is seeing and accepting all of that without downplaying any of it.
Downplaying or ignoring our accomplishments and strengths doesn’t make us humble. It makes us have low self-esteem and an inaccurate view of ourselves as less than others.
The Opposite of Humility
The real opposite of humility isn’t self-confidence. It’s hubris.
In ancient Greece, hubris meant “excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods.” Like Icarus flying too close to the sun, people who displayed hubris felt they were somehow above or more valuable than those “from the earth.” And that disillusionment often led to their own destruction.
But hubris didn’t just go away over 2,000 years ago. There are countless modern cases of people feeling “untouchable” and more valuable than others, from ruthless dictators and exploitive CEOs to reckless teenagers and arrogant celebrities.
In all honesty, we’ve all fallen victim to hubris at some point of another—bragging about our accomplishments, feeling we matter more for something we’ve achieved, feeling invincible, being a know-it-all, or judging others who don’t match our self-imposed standards.
But hubris isn’t really about confidence at all. If we really felt confident in who we were, we wouldn’t have to flaunt our accomplishments or pretend we did everything ourselves without support. True confidence creates humility because our self-worth has been internalized.
Hubris Is About Shame
If humility is about radical acceptance of all of ourselves, then hubris is refusing to accept the parts we don’t like. It’s about refusing to see ourselves as sometimes wrong or imperfect.
Ironically, hubris is often associated with high levels of shame and self-doubt because we don’t feel worthy or good enough. Therefore, we feel the need to puff out our chests and overemphasize our accomplishments.
In fact, research shows that individuals who are overly proud and hubristic tend to carry a lot of shame.They find their self-worth in their accomplishments rather than an intrinsic sense of value. That means that hubristic self-worth is always conditional. If anything goes wrong—like losing a job or relationship—the external source of worth is gone, and the shame returns.
Humility, on the other hand, is about internalized and unconditional self-worth because the self-worth is consistent regardless of the fluctuating external conditions in that person’s life. Nothing a person creates, achieves, or loses can increase or decrease their self-worth and, therefore, they don’t need to boast about it.
How Can You Be Humble Without Putting Yourself Down?
Be realistic and honest. Humility is simply about accurately accessing ourselves and internalizing our sense of self-worth. Remember that you are made up of the same materials as every single human who’s ever lived—no worse than the rich and powerful and no better than the underprivileged or sick.
And yet, at the same time, no one has ever existed exactly like you with your exact strengths, talents, abilities, sensitivities, fears, and insecurities. You contribute something unique to the world and the people around you that no one else ever could.
Holding that paradox of equal value to every other person and complete uniqueness is where humility exists. It is vulnerably looking at your strengths and fallibilities and being honest with yourself.
Try This Exercise
If you’re struggling to be humble without putting yourself down, try this exercise:
- Grab a pen and piece of paper or open a new document on your computer.
- Write down 10 things that are amazing about yourself. It can be anything from your nice smile to a funny joke you made two years ago or to your ability to care for your children or even a recent accomplishment.
- Now, write down any resources that helped you get to those 10 amazing things. It could be as simple as “I get my great sense of humor from my mom” or “I was able to get that promotion with support from my coworkers.” Just take a moment to acknowledge all of the support that helped you become those 10 amazing things.
- Next, write down 10 things that are imperfect and human about yourself. These could include things from the past that you’ve since worked on—like “I used to really care what people thought”—or things you’re still working on—like “I sometimes get too invested in my work.”
- Finally, imagine a few people you really respect and admire (these could be celebrities or personal heroes), and take a moment to wonder if any of them have ever faced the imperfect things you’re working through. Chances are, it won’t be that hard to imagine that even the people you admire the most have some human traits.
That’s it. You can do this exercise any time you’re putting yourself down for being human or any time you’re forgetting that same humanness.
Being Humble Means Being Human
Humble isn’t the only word that comes from the root “from the earth”—so does the word “human.” Being humble simply means being human—acknowledging all of our challenges and faults and imperfections right alongside our strengths and skills and abilities and accomplishments.
Being humble means the whole breadth of the human experience. It means being confident and proud alongside insecure and uncertain. It means that we always have more learning and growth to do and that we’re never as much of an expert on anyone else’s lives as they are, so we can trust their experiences, even if they look different than our own.
When we’re humble, we’re realistic. We’re not trying to overinflate ourselves to seem worthier or more important because we know that we already are worthy, no matter what we create or achieve.
Humility isn’t at odds with self-esteem. They’re on the same team. When we can really accept all of ourselves—including our fallibilities and challenges—that’s a sign of high self-esteem because we’re not afraid or ashamed of any part of ourselves.
We can accept our expertise, our limitations, and where we’ve received support and not be afraid of any of it. And that is humility—that is knowing how to be humble without putting ourselves down.
|||^||Online Etymology Dictionary: Humility|
|||^||Psychology Encyclopedia: Self-Conscious Emotions|
|||^||Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Tracking the Trajectory of Shame, Guilt, and Pride Across the Life Span|
|||^||F1000 Research: Hubris and Sciences|
|||^||Online Etymology Dictionary: Human|