Humility Makes You A Badass, Not Meek

An oval wooden sign with a red background, and "HUMBLE" written in white.

Unless you’re a glutton for punishment or have no conscience, humility is important to cultivate (if you don’t want to be thought of as a narcissist blowhard). Humility means having a strong sense of who you are and what you’re capable of, in addition to acknowledging your limitations. Someone who lacks humility can often be taught painful life lessons that can help him/her develop a healthy sense of who they are in relation to others. But sometimes, those very people – no matter how many times they’re presented with lessons to help them cultivate humility – will become increasingly more insecure and defensive and continue to behave in ways that reinforce their arrogance (don’t be like those people! They’re not fun to be around).

Humility is also a lesson under Rule #5 (Learning Does Not End) of the Ten Rules. No one is above learning lessons, and those who refuse to do so will continue to face similar challenges (on a hamster wheel of sorts). But this doesn’t mean that once you learn a lesson you can just tick it off your list and be done with it. Sometimes you face similar challenges as a way to reinforce your learning. For example, maybe you’re a humble person who’s never thought of yourself as superior to others, but since you’ve gained some power in your job and are managing people, it’s caused you to lose sight of the fact that everyone’s equal and you must treat people with respect. Then one day, you come into work and you’re told that the company merged with a competitor and everyone is being let go. In your search for another job, the person who ends up interviewing you is someone you managed and treated like shit. Karma? Maybe. But it’s definitely a lesson in humility.

Or what about gloating about your athletic prowess before a game (baseball, basketball, etc.), only to find that the younger athletes are much stronger and faster, kicking your tired old butt every time? Or being so financially secure that you push people away because you think they’re beneath you, then going bankrupt and finding yourself penniless and alone because you’re such a toxic person? If you’re someone with a modicum of self-awareness then you’d ask yourself what the lessons are and hopefully cultivate humility (and gratitude, for that matter). If not, then you’ll just become (more) angry and bitter, blaming the world for your problems.

Humility in Historical Context

In religious doctrine, humility is a virtue, with the individual submitting himself to God. Moral philosophers have a more secular view of humility, one that recognizes a person’s “dependence on others.” Still, other philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche viewed it as a weakness, juxtaposing it with “master morality” and the values of strength (honor, superiority, excellence). It’s interesting that Nietzsche’s view of humility aligns more closely with the lay definition of humility (being weak) as well as being aligned with contemporary Western values of pride and esteem in a me-oriented society, where your status and value are based on how much money and stuff you possess. And if you’re into that sort of thing, on the internet, it’s based on the number of followers and likes you garner on your social media pages.

An open book with an ancient map and eyeglasses sitting on top of the right page.

And while theologians and philosophers have focused on humility as one of many human virtues for at least a couple of centuries, it’s only in the last couple of decades that psychologists and other social researchers turned their focus toward the study of humility. And as usual, they have dissected it, defined it, and criticized it, which is worth exploring to understand it better and help you cultivate humility.

The Science of Humility

The field of positive psychology has been at the forefront of exploring humility, defining it as having three parts: accurate self-awareness and openness to learning; presenting yourself in a modest way; and awareness of others. Researchers have also studied it in relation to physical and psychological well-being, religion, pro-social behavior, and inter-group relations. But noted drawbacks of humility research have been an inability to come up with a uniform definition and the tendency to define it only in positive terms. Some researchers contrast the scientific definition of humility with a lay definition, which (as mentioned above) is negative, and includes lacking self-esteem, being common or insignificant, meek, and unworthy (we’ll come back to this point later).

Some researchers have identified two types of humility, one accounting for positive aspects and another accounting for negative aspects. The first is appreciative humility, which is associated with “personal success…celebrating others” and exhibiting “authentic pride, guilt, and prestige-based status” (the positive kind of humility). The second is self-abasing humility, which is associated with “personal failure…negative self-evaluations…hiding from others’ evaluations” and exhibiting “shame, low self-esteem, and submissiveness” (the negative kind…with a mix of neuroticism).

Development of Humility

Assuming that we’re talking about humility in the scientific sense (positive), one factor in being humble is a secure attachment, which “provides a sense of security that can serve as a buffer against…negative feedback.” So if you grew up in a home that fostered a secure attachment to your caregivers and you weren’t always criticized, then chances are you were able to develop a healthy sense of self. But it doesn’t mean that you didn’t receive negative feedback when warranted because if all you were told was how awesome you are, then you probably don’t think your shit stinks and might be a tad arrogant (stop that!).

Sometimes, in spite of growing up in a household where you only received negative feedback, you’re still able to cultivate humility. Maybe you had others (teachers, mentors, friends, etc.) who countered the negativity in your home with positive feedback. But don’t be too hard on your parents or others who raised you: remember, they were doing the best they could with what they knew at the time (this doesn’t apply to those who grew up in homes where they experienced severe physical and/or psychological abuse. That’s definitely not okay). And if you picked up on the negativity and engage in defeating self-talk, you have to learn to replace it with positive messages.

Wooden dolls dressed of different nationalities standing in front of a globe.

Another important factor in cultivating humility is identity development, with democratic parenting facilitating a positive sense of self, and autocratic or permissive parenting not so much (don’t be your child’s best friend or a drill sergeant!). This doesn’t mean that you weren’t an awkward teenager who questioned your worth and suffered from low self-esteem. We all know how precarious the teenage years can be and how cruel peers can be if you don’t fit into the mold of the popular, attractive individual who’s part of the “in-group.” But if you had good parenting and a secure attachment, this awkward teenage phase is just that: a passing phase. And when you move on to more important phases of your life (adulthood and beyond), you’re able to look back and laugh at your teenage years.

(I realize that bullying has become a much more serious issue that’s led some tormented souls to commit suicide, which breaks my heart. Nowadays, bullying is much worse because it isn’t confined to school grounds, occurring online, making it relentless and leaving the one being bullied feeling like the whole world is against him/her. If I could have a conversation with any of those young kids who thought their only escape was suicide, I’d give them a big hug and tell them that the best is yet to come. But when you’re young and your peers become the most influential people in your life, it’s hard not to think that you’re alone and have limited options; which is why it’s so important for parents and other caregivers to ensure that the lines of communication with their kids are always open.)

In junior high school, as I was going through puberty, my nose grew faster than any other body part, and I was tormented for having a big nose. I was very self-conscious about this because some of the kids teased me constantly. So yeah, junior high sucked for me. In retrospect, I can laugh about it because I realize that the people who teased me were probably quite insecure themselves and did it as a way to deflect criticism of their own shortcomings (not to mention the pressure to do what their peers did as a way to look cool in front of the group).

Once in high school, there was no teasing about my nose, and boys found me attractive (take that! Ha!). But high school wasn’t always a bed of roses. The insecure among us will always find something to tease others about as a way to feel superior. And these folks deserve sympathy and kindness because they have to learn to become “whole” before they can reach a point where they’re able to cultivate humility. 

HEXACO – Multidimensional Personality Inventory

A variation of the Big Five personality traits model that I mentioned in my post on gratitude, is the HEXACO personality inventory that was originally developed in 2000 by a couple of Canadian psychologists. It has six dimensions [openness to experience, “eXtraversion,” agreeableness (versus anger), emotionality, honesty-humility, and conscientiousness], and is unique (compared to the Big Five) due to the inclusion of an honesty-humility dimension, which indicates the degree to which a person manipulates others for personal gain, is law-abiding, materialistic, and feels entitled (you can check out the other scale descriptions here).

There’s a 400-page book on individual differences and personality if you want to delve deeper, and an entire book on the H-factor (honesty-humility). And if you’re REALLY curious about where you fall on the honesty-humility dimension or the HEXACO as a whole, you can take it here…or opt to take it in another language (because maybe English isn’t your native language). 

Cultural Humility

This type of humility is worth bringing to your attention because it highlights a multicultural approach that emphasizes an “interpersonal stance that is other-oriented rather than self-focused, characterized by respect and lack of superiority toward an individual’s cultural background and experience.” There’s quite a bit of research on cultural humility in the healthcare field (medical, mental health), which is not surprising given the power-disparity between doctors and patients, and in general, its importance as a result of the ever-increasing cultural diversity across various societies and countries. Cultural humility is further characterized as a process-oriented approach as opposed to an end product because, as you know, learning doesn’t stop.

A wooden sign with a word "DIVERSITY" written in white.

According to some researchers, it encompasses three factors. The first is a “lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique.” The second is a willingness to “fix power imbalances” and the third is developing “partnerships with people and groups who advocate for others.” As you can see, these factors are broad enough to be used beyond the healthcare field and apply to other industries and within your own social circles. Most, if not all, of us, defer to experts when we don’t have the knowledge to make informed decisions about our health, political issues, car repairs, etc. (yes, there’s Google, but still…). And sometimes their knowledge/education and experience can be intimidating, leading us to accept their diagnoses, analyses, or feedback as gospel (as Reagan said, “trust, but verify”).

In situations where you might be the expert and have to interface with people that you’re helping, it’s important to recognize that power-imbalances exist, and while you may not think too much about this because you treat your patients, those who report to you, the barista at the coffee shop, your housekeeper, etc., with respect, they may still find you intimidating. Sometimes it may not be due to anything you’ve done, it’s just that you’re imposing for who you are and what you’ve accomplished. Or it could be that your soul disturbs their demons (LOL…too harsh?!?!). But seriously, you’ve never threatened these folks, you’re not a braggart, and you don’t talk down to them.

Whether you interact with them professionally or personally, more self-evaluation might be warranted on your part (check out my post on self-awareness for strategies). If you interface with them regularly because they’re friends, family, or colleagues, part of cultivating humility involves taking steps to ease the tension (or the proverbial elephant in the room). So don’t feel guilty or shrink yourself in order to make others feel better about themselves. But don’t be an asshole either. And just like the bullies that tormented you in your teenage years, these people too deserve your sympathy and kindness because they have to learn to become “whole” before they can reach a point where they’re able to cultivate humility.

When people tell me that I’m intimidating, my first reaction is confusion (and points to my tendency not to take myself too seriously; and maybe also highlights my lack of self-awareness to the extent that I don’t find my accomplishments as bodacious as others do). Sometimes I feel guilty or feel the need to downplay my accomplishments. But lately, when someone tells me they find me intimidating, I try to find out why, and if the reason is that I’m educated, cultured, well-spoken, etc. (their words, not mine), I’m less likely to feel guilty or feel the need to shrink myself to make them feel better.

It’s not my – or your – job to ensure that an insecure person feels better about themselves. How someone reacts to you is in THEIR control, not yours. And (for the third time) just like the bullies that tormented you in your teenage years, these people too deserve your sympathy and kindness because they have to learn to become “whole” before they can reach a point where they’re able to cultivate humility.

Authentic Humility

I highlighted appreciative and self-abasing humility earlier not because they’re formal, agreed-upon types recognized by the scientific community, but instead to shed light on what I’m calling authentic humility, which includes a healthy sense of self, an appreciation of others, the willingness to learn, and an understanding that you don’t have to minimize yourself and your accomplishments to make others feel better. Likewise, you don’t have to feel inferior and insecure about others’ successes (don’t be silly). You can celebrate others’ accomplishments knowing that it doesn’t take anything away from you; just as those who possess authentic humility will celebrate your successes knowing that it doesn’t take away from their accomplishments (they’re badasses, just like you).

IMHO, part of the problem in feeling insecure about others’ badassery (promotions, wealth, etc.) is the underlying notion of scarcity rampant in capitalist societies that propagate a need for material things (not want, but need); with marketing ploys that incite a fear of missing out (FOMO) if you don’t go out and buy, buy, buy! So you’re constantly buying the coolest gadgets, cars, shoes, etc., operating under the assumption that having lots of things makes you superior to others.

This is being prideful and measuring your worth based on stuff, and not at all about being humble. I’m not saying you can’t have nice things. I like nice things too. But you don’t have to feel the need to constantly keep up with the Jones’ (or Wilsons, Griffiths, or whomever you’re trying to keep up with), especially if you’re putting yourself in debt to do so.

Living your life as if resources are scarce is a delusional trap that will often leave you feeling empty and jealous of others (what’s meant for you will find youwith hard work and persistence). Coupled with an insecure attachment and weak identity formation, you’re more likely to feel resentful and envious when the people around you are successful. Becoming aware of these things is the first step in developing (or restoring) a healthy sense of self in relation to others. Overall, you can be a humble badass with nice things and still not think you’re better than others.

Benefits of Humility

Yes, there are definitely benefits to being humble. For one, people who are humble have stronger social relationships and are more willing to mend broken ones. They’re more generous and helpful. They also exhibit more gratitude and experience a higher degree of group acceptance and popularity. They take pride in their achievements but still have a balanced sense of self. They’re more likely to poke fun at themselves and not take life’s challenges too seriously. And of course, they’re more willing to view challenges as learning opportunities. They also tend to be happier, open to new experiences, more honest, and nicer people to be around.

Humility In The Age Of Smart Machines

There’s an entire book on humility in the Information Age. The crux is that we’re on the cusp of a “societal transformation” where smart machines will perform at a much higher level and take over millions of jobs. So in order to stay relevant, humans must up their game and excel at skills that machines cannot perform well. These include creativity, higher-order critical thinking, innovation, and “high emotional engagement with other humans.”

The a human hand and a robot hand.

The authors identify humility as the “crucial mindset” that underlies this “NewSmart,” which includes a realistic sense of self, the ability to acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers, and a commitment to learning as a lifelong pursuit (sounds like the definition of humility that was discussed earlier, no?!?!). So instead of trying to keep up with smart machines, we need to excel at the very characteristics that make us human and set us apart from machines (emotional intelligence, self-awareness, humility, empathy, gratitude, kindness, etc.).

How Humble Are You?

Are you curious to know where you fall on the humility spectrum (it’s not a zero-sum game)? Then I highly recommend you take the HEXACO personality inventory. It’s anonymous and provides you with results that can be downloaded and reviewed at your leisure. Each of the six dimensions includes 4-5 facets that give you more in-depth information about your scores. For example, for the humility-honesty dimension, the facets are sincerity, fairness, greed-avoidance, and modesty. I took it and found it very useful. For this dimension, I scored very high on sincerity, fairness, and modesty, but a bit lower than average on greed-avoidance (I told you earlier that I like nice things, didn’t I?!?! You can be generous and still want nice things!).

You can also take the HEXACO on behalf of someone else, but regardless of whether you take it to learn more about yourself or about a loved one, remember, this is a tool to help you explore, NOT a scientific diagnosis. So be cautious and answer the questions honestly based on who you are, NOT what you aspire to be. If you’re not too thrilled about the results, then you can aim to become a better version of yourself with much self-reflection, evaluation, and honesty. You can also team up with someone you love and trust and use it as an opportunity to learn more about each other.

Parting Words

In the individualistic, selfie nation we’re a part of, it’s easy to dismiss humility as a negative trait or one that makes you weak in the eyes of others. Cultivating humility doesn’t mean that you’re going to let people walk all over you. Nor does it mean that you can’t be confident and proud of your accomplishments. It means recognizing that as much of a badass as you are, you’re not infallible and not superior to others. This is especially true if you use money, fame, materialism and where you went to school as yardsticks to measure your worth. At the end of the day, the blood that runs through your veins is the same color as mine and others.

We’re all in this together and no one escapes the reality that our time on Earth is limited and that we all eventually meet the same fate, we just don’t know where we are in THAT line. Whether your casket is gold and mine is unfinished wood, it doesn’t matter because you can’t take the things that you use to define your self-worth and superiority with you (like the Egyptians did).

So why not be a person that’s remembered for his/her humility, kindness, generosity, sense of humor, etc.? Striving to be the best version of yourself doesn’t mean you have to live an ascetic life. But if you possess at least a modicum of decency, you’ll want to ensure that humility is something that you’re remembered for when all else is said and done.

Love, peace, and blessings,