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Humility vs. Shame

Why admitting "I'm not sure" doesn't have to feel shameful.

Key points

  • As harsh as humiliation might seem, it may sometimes work to advance the truth.
  • It can feel humiliating to say “I’m not sure” in a culture that values mastery and knowledge.
  • Acknowledging doubts and confusions can help people connect with others in the same situation.

During my writer’s group this week, I discussed an online course entitled “Cultivating Humility” that I’ll be offering this fall with my teaching partner Marla Estes of Building Bridgers. After describing the aims and methods of this course, one of my fellow writers told me she liked the concept but had a problem with the word humility. Many people who struggle with low self-worth, she said, might hear this word and unconsciously worry that cultivating humility would damage their fragile self-esteem and deepen feelings of shame. This response surprised me, though as I’ve thought it over, I understand my friend’s concerns.

Humility sounds very close to the word humiliation, and in fact they both derive from the same Latin root for the word humble, which in English has meanings both positive and negative. A humble person (marked by humility) is modest, neither arrogant nor prideful, and characterized by simplicity or a lack of pretentiousness. This sounds like a positive personal trait, and indeed in Christian theology, humility is one of the central virtues. But to humble someone also means to hurt their pride or cause them to feel shame—that is, to humiliate them. Sometimes the wish to humiliate is driven by envy but may also arise from a belief that the other person is not who she pretends to be.

In other words, we might say that the drive to humiliate sometimes reflects a wish to bring external appearance into alignment with internal reality: you’re not actually the superior person you profess to be. As harsh as humiliation might seem, it may sometimes work to advance the truth. In this vein, I believe that cultivating our own humility means to be more honest with ourselves: to align our demeanor and actions with the inner truth of who we are, what we know, and how we feel. Sometimes we’re out of touch with that inner truth, deceived by our own defenses against the awareness of it. If coming into contact with that truth is painful, we naturally try to avoid it.

One of the most difficult universal truths to tolerate is the reality of our own physical helplessness and, especially in this age of rapidly expanding information, how little we truly understand about what’s going on in the world around us. Admitting this truth to ourselves sometimes hurts and can even seem threatening, as if we’ll be diminished by it. In a culture that values mastery and knowledge, to say the words “I’m not sure” can feel humiliating. When the teacher called on you in class, back when you were in grade school, coming up with an incorrect answer or even remaining silent felt shameful. As adults, we sometimes convince ourselves we know more than we do because it makes us feel safer and unthreatened by the shame of not knowing.

Believing that we actually do know when we don’t is a kind of self-deception, even if we don’t realize we’re lying to ourselves. Most people like to believe they know much more than they do, and that’s understandable. But if someone challenges our self-deceptions, we can easily feel threatened: abandoning our posture of absolute certainty returns us to that painful state of not-knowing that makes us feel helpless. But here’s the thing: only in saying “I’m not sure” does it become possible to learn. Only by acknowledging our doubts and confusions can we connect with other open-minded people also trying to understand the complex challenges we humans all face by virtue of being alive.

In our course on Cultivating Uncertainty, Marla and I want to help people step back from certainty and acknowledge what they don’t know so they can learn, so they can have authentic conversations with others able to tolerate ambiguity and confusion. It’s the only way to attain a more complicated, less absolute, but ultimately richer grasp of “truth.” We believe that cultivating humility is how we’ll ultimately be able to bridge the political divide and come together to solve the many urgent problems our country faces today.

I recently came upon a wonderful quote from Anthony Bourdain that embodies the spirit of what we’re trying to do. I'd like to close with it:

“Life is complicated. It’s filled with nuance. It’s unsatisfying. If I believe in anything, it is doubt. The root cause of all life’s problems is looking for a simple f*cking answer.”