On Humility

I know a tiny handful of people who have not the tiniest speck of humility or modesty and—this is the important part—are not obnoxious. They are good people.

What they have is a sense of their own worth and talents that is directly proportional to those talents and worth. They do not sell themselves short, nor do they overestimate their abilities. They have the self confidence and belief to neither indulge in false modesty nor to be crippled by doubt. They know they would not be where they are if those talents had not been nurtured by others or if they had not worked hard.

It is remarkably refreshing and I envy them.

Humility and modesty are possibly the most annoying virtues. Too often the truly modest are neurotic, self-doubters who don’t know their own worth and I want to shake them. YES, YOU ARE TALENTED AND AMAZING! STOP SAYING YOU’RE NOT!

Undervaluing yourself is not a virtue. At its worst self doubt keeps people from doing what they are talented at. I can’t tell you how many brilliant writers I’ve known over the years who’ve never finished a novel because of their lack of self belief, because they are humble, and do not recognise their own talent. That’s a loss to every one of us who would love to read their work. A huge loss.

At the other end of the scale is false modesty: those who live by the humble brag.1 Those who’ve been told they mustn’t talk of their achievements nor blow their own horn, they must be humble and modest but they’re not so they try to disguise their longing to boast by saying, “Oh, this little thing.” “Oh, I don’t know why they wanted me to be the support act for Prince.” Blah blah blah.

Don’t know about you but I’d much rather they were all: “Look at my new dress! I made it! Isn’t it the best thing ever? I love it to death!” Or “OMG! I’m the support act for Prince! This is something I’ve worked towards my ENTIRE LIFE. And now it’s happening! I am so happy! YAY!”

You achieved something amazing. You get to tell people. You get to be excited. You get to jump up and down. Only mean-spirited poo brains would begrudge you your joy. Who cares what they think?

So those confident—but not obnoxious—folk I mentioned at the beginning of this post? All but one are USians. All white. Mostly from loving, supportive families. Mostly male. Mostly not working class. The one non-USian is from a wealthy Australian family. It is amazing how much confidence growing up loved and without the slightest bit of want can give you. Growing up with money does not, of course, guarantee that you’ll be confident. The love part is essential. Sometimes I think the worst start in life anyone can suffer is growing up unloved.

Growing up in Australia I learned that talking positively about your own achievements was one of the worst sins ever.2 “Don’t write tickets on yourself,” should be our national motto. Getting too big for your bootstraps is a national crime and leads to all sorts of contortions as far too many people fall over themselves to seem less smart, talented, and interesting than they are. Not a pretty sight. On the other hand it does lead to some gorgeously self-deprecating wit.

Meanwhile in my other country of citizenship they’re mostly being taught to boast their arses off. Truly, I do enjoy US confidence. It’s so refreshing compared to Australia. But, oh my, when that confidence is married to ignorance and stupidity and blind self belief? Things get very ugly indeed.

These are, of course, caricatures that are mightily affected by intersections of race, class, gender etc and how loving the families we grew up in were. Both countries have folks hiding their lights under bushels.3 They both have less talented folks under the sad delusion that they are The Most Talented People in the Entire Universe.

What we need is a mix of the two cultures so we wind up with the happy medium I started this post with. Nations of people who know their own value and feel neither the urge to constantly boast about it: I AM NUMBER ONE AT EVERYTHING EVER! Or to pretend that their ability to whip up a divine, multilayered, delicate-as-air, intricately decorated cake out of almost nothing is no big thing.

So I’ll end this post telling you something I’m proud of: I’m proud of the book I’m almost finished rewriting. It feels like a big step forward and that makes me happy and proud.4

  1. Though quite a few of the tweets labelled “humble brags” aren’t. Many with big breasts do not find them so wonderful as the world imagines they do. I’ve known way too many big breasted women who’ve longed for smaller breasts. Not to mention several who’ve had breast reductions because the back and shoulder pain was unendurable. []
  2. Especially if you’re female or working class or not white—but the rule applies to everyone. []
  3. If I wasn’t out of keystrokes for the day I would so finally look that expression up. Where on earth does it come from? Lights? Bushels? So weird. []
  4. And this is me suppressing the urge to undercut that boast, er, I mean factual statement with a self-deprecating comment to indictate that I’m not really up myself and you shouldn’t hate me. Aargh. *sitting on my hands now* []

11 comments

  1. KC on #

    The “light under a bushel” metaphor comes from the Bible, specifically the Gospels – Jesus didn’t use it about modesty or gifts, he was talking about his own message. It’s quite a nice metaphor, though, can be used several ways. (Makes me glad, I don’t always feel so kindly towards the Bible these days :P)

    I grew up in the US, in a conservative church, and I was constantly told to be modest and humble. I still have problems with self-confidence and self-deprecation, and that certainly didn’t help. It can be hard to find that line between being modest and being cocky.

  2. Christina on #

    Thanks for this post. As a woman of color in the US, I have been learning to do things I was socialized not to do. To wit: Receive a compliment well, by saying thank you. Period. Ask for what I want. Say no. Take up space. And tell people about things that excite me, including things I’ve done/am doing. It’s been a challenge, but well worth it.

  3. Claire Corbett on #

    Yep. Very much feel the same way. I’m especially over authors saying they feel ‘humbled’ by a rave review or award. No you don’t. You feel proud. That’s why you’re telling us. And that’s fine. You’re allowed to tell us. Just don’t tell me you’re humbled by it. That means you’re a (poor) liar or don’t know what words mean – neither of these is a good look for a writer.

  4. Phillipa on #

    Interesting post on a puzzling phenomenon. This Wiki entry on the Dunning-Kruger Effect sheds a little light.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect

    I have a whole branch of family in America and whenever I see them I’m in awe of their incredible optimism, can-do approach and resilience. Okay, they are wealthy whites, but still, they talk of success without apology, something Australians find hard to do.

  5. rockinlibrarian on #

    KC, I think it IS about gifts, if you consider talents as spiritual gifts. I often interpret it as Follow Your Calling, which I have trouble with because I’m, uh, a modest person. No, seriously, I have crappy self-esteem, and part of me KNOWS I’m one of those people Justine mentions who’s a brilliant writer but will never finish a book, because the self-doubt creeps in and says “Why? Who cares what you have to say? What’s the point?” It’s funny how different people see religion and self-esteem– some people use it as/see it as a source of shame that tries to beat you into a mold of acceptability; but for me it’s the opposite, it’s a voice that fights AGAINST the voices of doubt, which I know are evil voices trying to snuff me out, to snuff out the divine creative spirit inside me before I get a chance to let it out. It’s a hard fight. It’s not false modesty, it’s just truly hard for me to believe I have it in me enough to actually act on it. Which I know is ridiculous. And I’m USian, from a loving middle class family, always got good grades in school… so who knows. I’ve always been bullied by peers, but that’s a lousy excuse, because practically everybody gets bullied, so I don’t know what my problem is. I’ve just got psychological issues.

  6. Stephen J. on #

    “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” –C.S. Lewis

  7. Mike on #

    Our pastor just talked about true humility yesterday, and gave us this quote by 19th century theologian Tryon Edwards: “True humility is not an abject, groveling, self-despising spirit; it is but a right estimate of ourselves as God sees us.”

    I think it applies to what you’re saying (not to put a spiritual message into your mouth; obviously I have no idea about your beliefs). But the concept of have a right estimate of ourselves, and being comfortable with that is how we should be. We don’t have to belittle ourselves, nor should we brag. There is a place in between.

  8. Justine on #

    KC: Thanks. Yes, religions is another factor in all of this. There are so many variables!

    Christina: As a woman of color in the US, I have been learning to do things I was socialized not to do. To wit: Receive a compliment well, by saying thank you. Period. Ask for what I want. Say no. Take up space. And tell people about things that excite me, including things I’ve done/am doing. It’s been a challenge, but well worth it.

    Yes, to all of this. It’s amazing how hard it is to take a compliment. I’m always so embarrassed but at long last have learned to say thank you.

    Claire Corbett: I’m especially over authors saying they feel ‘humbled’ by a rave review or award.

    Hey! It’s not just us authors! Yes, it’s not the right word but to not say it is to buck generations of training. I have a friend whose mother would dock her pocket money if she said she was proud of anything she did. Aargh.

    rockinlibrarian: I don’t know what my problem is. I’ve just got psychological issues.

    Doubt it. There are so many axes involved. In my list I left out religion and I also left out region. I have known many USians particularly women from the South and the Midwest who have this exact same thing.

    Then there are the kids of particular ethnic groups who also have this don’t-get-above-yourself thing going on.

    Lastly what happens to you during your school days has a HUGE effect on who you are. Doesn’t matter how many other people are bullied if you were bullied it can absolutely crush your sense of self. Even if you have the most loving family in the history of families.

    Stephen J.:
    “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” –C.S. Lewis
    Quotes like that are part of the problem. C. S. Lewis was a privileged white English man who was not told every single day of his life that his opinions were worth nothing. For the people who are battling that kind of belittling think of themselves at all in any kind of light is a struggle.

    Mike: Our pastor just talked about true humility yesterday, and gave us this quote by 19th century theologian Tryon Edwards: “True humility is not an abject, groveling, self-despising spirit; it is but a right estimate of ourselves as God sees us.”
    Now that’s a quote I can get behind. (Though I would leave out the God part. But whatever works for you and others is perfect.)

  9. a. on #

    Generally I think of myself as a well-rounded person, but I definitely struggle with self-worth, opening up to anyone, and all sorts of things like that. Being a top student in a low-income area high school isn’t very fun at all. Bullies will always be bullies, and I didn’t care so much about being pushed around or having graffiti written about me on walls, but knowing my “friends” resented me for standing out left me alienated. I never spoke about grades, but that doesn’t stop teachers announcing it or people peeking at your report.
    The problem is that if you voice this to certain people, they’d call bullshit. Not because they remember it differently but because of the sarcastic “oh it must be so hard to be smart” sentiment. No, it’s not, but it’s hard to grow up when you’re surrounded by smart-shaming.

  10. Justine on #

    a: Yes, anti-intellectualism is another huge factor in all of this. Not to mention the different cultures of different schools.

    There are schools that absolutely have a wonderful culture around learning and smartness. I knew a girl who went to such a school who was a bit, not ashamed, but reticent to talk about, her sportiness because sport just wasn’t on that school’s radar. rare exception on that front, I know.

  11. Rebecca Leach on #

    I keep starting to say things to this and then erasing them because I worry I’m drawing too much attention to myself by bringing up my own experiences with this issue. *headdesk* I have struggled with it all my life, and sometimes it has been much much worse than others. A couple of my close friends do too. I have spent years trying to figure out why. Not sure if I’ll ever figure that part out. But I am much better about it now! Still room for improvement, though. (I think that was an accurate statement and not me putting myself down. Heh.)

Comments are closed.