Daryl R. Van Tongeren Ph.D.

Meaning Making

How to Become More Humble

Three easy steps to cultivate humility in your own life.

Posted Aug 18, 2020

Unsplash (Markus Spiske)
Source: Unsplash (Markus Spiske)

We need humility now more than ever. Recent trends in America suggest that by several different metrics, narcissism may be on the rise. Self-aggrandizing and entitlement have poisoned relationships and wreaked havoc in workplaces, sewn increasing division in politics, and fueled the culture war.

We’ve also forgotten how to productively and politely disagree. It has become increasingly difficult to have civil conversations with people who have different points of view, with many simply surrounding themselves with belief-confirming news (and social circles) that insulate them from new ideas, simply reinforcing their preferred ways of seeing the world. We’ve ensconced ourselves in echo-chambers, favoring closed-mindedness and validation instead of open-mindedness, curiosity, and free inquiry. We’ve seen the toll of arrogance in families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and society.

Humility stands in stark contrast with the current state of things, offering us a way to engage ourselves and others with honesty, curiosity, and open-mindedness. The ability to present our ideas and views modestly, share praise and blame, and consider the needs of others, has been shown to increase happiness, strengthen relationships, and achieve professional success.

Humility has long been extolled as an ancient virtue and, yet, all too often, the trait is overlooked and devalued. However, recent scientific research has begun to reveal what our ancestors already knew—that humility has the transformative power to change people’s lives, relationships, work, and society itself.

Humility is about seeing oneself as the right size—not too big (overinflated ego), but also not too small (timidly pusillanimous). It involves (a) awareness: an accurate self-awareness of one's strengths and weakness, (b) opennessthe ability to openly accept feedback and criticism while presenting your own views respectfully, and (c) empathy: an empathic concern for the well-being of other people. 

So, how can you develop humility? Start with these three steps:

1. Seek feedback. Start by seeking out honest feedback from a trusted source in your life (e.g., family member, romantic partner, trusted friend, valued colleague). Ask them how humble they perceive you to be, where your blind spots are, and how you could be more aware, open, or empathic. To build humility, you need to be aware of your own areas for growth.

2. Set aside your defensiveness. You might not like the feedback you hear, prompting you to respond defensively by denying any wrongdoing, displacing anger on your source of feedback, or projecting how arrogant other people are. That's counterproductive. Take a moment to affirm yourself, and embrace this process as the chance to learn and grow, understanding that developing humility requires time and effort. Building humility requires this openness to learn. 

3. Focus on empathy. Empathy is the key to humility, and it's comprised of two parts: the ability to take someone else's perspective and a genuine concern for the well-being of another person. Building empathy helps us cultivate humility. Before you respond, ask yourself two questions: (1) Why might other perspectives be right? (2) How would I respond if I treated the other person as if they were trying their very best? Empathy can help break our pattern of self-focus and connect us with others. 

These three steps can help you begin to cultivate humility in your own life. And as you do, you might be amazed at how your perspective can begin to widen and your relationships can continue to flourish. 

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