Humbleness, or humility is perhaps an under-rated virtue. It sounds like a very Biblical trait. Indeed, many of the great religious leaders have been described (and celebrated) as humble.
However, just because humility is old-fashioned does not mean that it is no longer important.
This page explains more about the meaning of humility, and how it is an important part of developing self-esteem, self-worth, and assertiveness, without aggression or anger.
What is Humility?
humility, n. the state or quality of being humble: lowliness of mind: modesty
humble, adj. low: lowly: modest: unpretentious: having a low opinion of oneself
Chambers English Dictionary, 1988 edition
These definitions make humility sound like a very negative quality. But humility, as practised by the great religious leaders, was not negative. Their opinions of themselves were low only in the sense that they understood that they were not more important than others. They also understood that they were not less important than others, either. Jesus, for example, was not afraid to fight for his right to speak out for others, especially those who were poor and struggling, and he spoke to those in authority in exactly the same way as he spoke to everyone else.
In other words, humility is not being a ‘doormat’, and allowing people to walk all over you.
Instead, it is an understanding that every human is equally valuable: a recognition that you are worth no more or less than anyone else.
Why does humility matter?
One of the reasons why humility seems old-fashioned is that we are often made to feel that we need to look out for ourselves, because nobody else will do so.
“It’s a dog-eat-dog world, you know!”
This point of view suggests that you need to be aggressive to get what you need in life, which, along with pride, is perhaps the very opposite of humility.
Our pages on Assertiveness, however, argue that it is more appropriate to be assertive: to be able to stand up for yourself and others, putting your point of view calmly.
Assertiveness is very definitely compatible with humility: it recognises that everyone has an equal right to be heard, and enables everyone to put their point across. Indeed, it is quite possible to argue that not only is assertiveness compatible with humility, but humility is absolutely essential for developing assertiveness.
In other words, without a recognition that you are no more or less important than others, it is impossible to recognise that everyone has an equal right to be heard or, indeed, to listen to others openly.
What about the fit between humility and self-esteem?
Self-esteem is how you feel about yourself. Our definition says that humility is ‘having a low opinion of oneself’, which is clearly closely linked to self-esteem. Being humble, however, does not mean having a poor opinion of yourself, but rather accepting yourself and your many good qualities, as well as your limitations, recognising that others also have good qualities and are equally valuable.
For many of us, humility is one of the hardest traits to develop, because it has to start from a recognition that you are not always right, and that you do not have all the answers.
It also requires an acceptance of yourself which many of us find challenging.
It is relatively easy to be humble when you are at the bottom of the tree, as it were: new in a job, or very junior. The more senior you get, however, the more likely you are to have people looking to you for answers, and the more you find yourself believing that you can help.
If you are not careful, you can reach senior positions—just the moment at which you most need humility—believing that you are more or less infallible.
To try to cultivate humility, you may want to try one or more of these activities:
Spend time listening to others
A key quality of humbleness is to value others and enable them to be heard. Spending time listening to others, and drawing out their feelings and values, enabling them to express themselves, is a very powerful way to start to understand this.
It is important to remember that you are not trying to solve their problems, or answer them: just listen and respond to them as a fellow-human.
There is more about this in our pages on Listening Skills.
Practice mindfulness, and focus on the present
A key part of mindfulness is accepting what is, rather than judging and commenting on it. An important element of humility is accepting yourself with all your faults, rather than judging yourself for your shortcomings. That doesn’t mean you should not strive to improve, but positively, rather than berating yourself for your negative qualities.
There is more about this, including some useful practices, in our page on Mindfulness.
Be grateful for what you have
In other words, take the time to ‘count your blessings’, and be thankful for them. It is easy to get sucked into a negative spiral of wanting more, whether in yourself, or externally. Taking time to stop, and remember what you have to be grateful for, is a good way to cultivate a more humble, and positive, frame of mind.
There is more about this in our page on Gratitude.
Ask for help when you need it
There is, as many of us will ruefully recognise, a form of pride that lies in being able to solve our own problems. Humility, therefore, lies in recognising when we need help, and being able to ask for it appropriately. You may find it helpful to read our page on Transactional Analysis to identify how to ask for help without losing a sense of equality.
Seek feedback from others on a regular basis
This is, perhaps, particularly important for leaders, but we can all gain from hearing what others think of us. Take time to ask others to provide feedback, anonymously if necessary, and make it clear that you welcome their opinions. Listen to the feedback openly and then be grateful.
There is more about this in our page on Giving and Receiving Feedback.
Review your actions against the language of pride
Pride and arrogance, which also cover smugness, snobbery, and vanity, are unpleasant words. It can sometimes be hard to avoid feeling a bit proud of ourselves, or vain, or even snobbish. It is often quite pleasant to feel like that, for example, if we have done something good, and everyone is praising us. However, we tend not to call these feelings by name, because the words themselves carry negative connotations.
To cultivate humility, review your feelings against the words: ask yourself ‘was that snobbish?’, ‘was I being a bit vain then?’, and be honest about the answers. Recognising and naming these feelings for what they are is a good step towards humility.
A final thought
Humility may sound old-fashioned, but that does not mean that a little humbleness is not as important now as ever.
In an era in which many bemoan the growing ‘selfishness’ and ‘I’ focus of the world, perhaps we should all strive to develop a more humble approach.