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The Paradoxical Power of Humility

Why humility is underrated and misunderstood.

Key points

  • Humility can be thought of as a liberation from our society's culturally imposed norms of "me-first" thinking.
  • Humility does not mean being a doormat or a sucker. It simply means not putting oneself above — or below — others.
  • A good way to develop humility is to pay attention to the competitive reflex in oneself.

Humility is widely under-rated in most Western cultures, it seems to me. It’s also widely misunderstood — maybe that’s why it’s underrated.

Our popular media culture is saturated with themes of conflict, combat, and conquest. Popular films feature cops chasing crooks; the military fighting terrorists; the lone avenger pursuing the evil-doers. We say we love peacemakers, but our heroes are warriors. As a society, we like our celebrities to be cheeky, self-important, and even a bit narcissistic.

Little wonder that humble people seem a bit strange to us, as if they’re following some syncopated life rhythm that few people around them quite “get.”

Having claimed that humility is misunderstood, I suppose it’s incumbent on me to offer a definition.

What is humility?

It’s a subtle concept, and I find myself having to frame it mostly in terms of what it is not. My conception of humility is what you have when you give up certain self-aggrandizing thought patterns, reflexes, and behaviors. I offer the proposition — and the value judgment — that humility is a kind of liberation, a paradoxical state of freedom from the culturally imposed norms of narcissistic “me-first” thinking.

Practitioners of many spiritual traditions, such as Buddhism, would say that attaining such a state is a necessary part of the journey toward enlightenment.

One definition of humility is:

a psycho-social orientation characterized by 1) a sense of emotional autonomy, and 2) freedom from the control of the “competitive reflex.”

What is the competitive reflex? It is:

the preconscious, visceral impulse to oppose or outdo others, or to auto-react against perceived threats to one’s established sense of self.

Consonant with the premise of what humility is not, as I think of it:

  • It’s not letting others “push you around.”
  • It’s not being a doormat, a sucker, or letting people “walk all over you.”
  • It’s not constantly sacrificing your interests to those of others (and then feeling like a victim or a martyr).
  • It’s not avoiding conflict or confrontation — not of your making, anyway — for the sake of “being nice.”
  • It’s not about hiding your feelings or suppressing your views to avoid alienating others.

Humility is about emotional neutrality. It involves an experience of growth in which you no longer need to put yourself above others, but you don’t put yourself below them, either. Everyone is your peer – from the most “important” person to the least. You’re just as valuable as every other human being on the planet, no more and no less. It’s about behaving and reacting from purposes, not emotions. You learn to simply disconnect or de-program the competitive reflex in situations where it's not productive.

The legendary gestalt therapist Fritz Perls said, “I am I 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.” It’s a liberating idea, I believe.

How to become humble

So, how do you free yourself from the competitive reflex? That requires, first, that you recognize the reflex when it rises up in you; and second, that you choose a more versatile response.

How aware are you of the competitive reflex in yourself?

Let’s consider an example. Your friend has just remodeled her home and is pleased and proud of the results. She invites you in to have a look. The premise of the situation, whether you recognize it or not, is for her to show off her house; for you to appreciate it and praise her for it; and for her to feel good about it. So what do you do?

As she proudly points out the various features, do you feel an impulse to tell her how she could have done it better? Do you “explain” things to her, signaling that you know more about these things than she does? Do you straighten that picture that’s slightly askew? Do you discourse on how you did it better in your own home? Does it turn into a bragging contest, with two people trying to score points on each other? Or do you support her in her moment of triumph, satisfaction, and self-congratulation?

There’s a long list of such diagnostic test questions. Do you offer unsolicited advice to others about how to live their lives better? Do you “damn with faint praise” when somebody shares their new idea or new discovery about life? If someone tells a joke, do you feel compelled to top it with a better one? Or, do you hold back on laughing, so the joke falls flat? Do you always have a better story, a better example, a better suggestion, or a better solution? Do you feel compelled to demonstrate your smart you are, or how much you know?

Are you a backseat driver? Do you like to tell people how to raise their kids better? Do you lecture or preach to others? When someone says something that’s mistaken or misinformed, how do you react? If you have a different opinion, do you precipitate a win-lose debate, or do you show respect for the other person’s view as you’re sharing your own?

Humility is less a matter of self-restraint and more a matter of self-esteem. The greater your sense of self-worth, the easier it is to appreciate others, to praise them, and to encourage them.

Does this mean that it’s wrong to try to win at bridge, improve your tennis game, or compete to get ahead in your workplace? Of course not — those are parts of a separate dimension of life. Your talents and abilities will speak for themselves. What we’re dealing with here is a matter of social intelligence, which involves inviting people to move with and toward you, instead of away and against you.

A well-developed sense of humility shines through in your behavior toward others. They feel affirmed, appreciated, encouraged, validated, and psychically nourished. Most of us are powerfully drawn to people who treat us that way, like bees to flowers.

The esteemed psychologist William James reminded us,

“The deepest craving in all human beings is the desire to be appreciated.”


Branden, Nathaniel. Honoring the Self: Self-Esteem and Personal Transformation. New York: Bantam, 1985.

Perls, Frederick. In and Out the Garbage Pail. San Francisco: Gestalt Therapy Press, 1969.

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