We're living in a bad time for humility. Ditto on modesty, reserve and shyness. These traits are not only unpopular, they're seen as negative by many. Selfie culture and all that comes with it — boldness, confidence, arrogance, pride and egoism — are the celebrated norm, and not just in the entertainment world. Everywhere.
Humility used to be seen as a positive trait, one that parents would teach their children and which most world religions touted as a virtue. The Trappist monk, social activist and Catholic writer Thomas Merton is known for his simple quote, "Pride makes us artificial, and humility makes us real." And Confucius said, "Humility is the solid foundation for all virtues."
Sure, humility is still considered a virtue by some in modern times. But it's not as popular as it was when Charlotte Bronte wrote "Jane Eyre." (The titular heroine of that book is humility personified, and it's part of what makes her character seem old-fashioned, as beloved as she is.)
Why is humility such a tough sell these days? Because it's tough to pull off, as the video below explains.
Pride and egotism are easy to fake, and it's common advice to "fake it 'til you make it." But true self-esteem isn't false; it comes from truly valuing yourself, warts and all. Confidence and its kissing cousin, arrogance, are attractive when you're feeling down, but like bright lights in the dark, or candy in a bowl of nuts, we reach for them without thinking, drawn to their brilliance, their sweetness. The nourishment is fleeting, though, leaving us empty and craving something heartier to fill our souls. You can reach for more ego-boosting "candy" or you can go deeper. That's where humility comes in.
If you see value in humility, here's how you can work some of it into your daily life in the coming year:
1. Be honest with yourself and others
Being humble means being honest about ourselves and our place in the world. Most of us live in the great big middle of humanity, with good days and bad, triumphs and failures. As my grandmother said, "There will always be someone prettier, wealthier and smarter than you, so comparing yourself to others is a waste of time." Yet we live in a society that has established entire industries around comparing yourself to others — and then attempting to one-up them. That's what Photoshopped-to-death selfies are all about, not to mention dropping commitments with a friend to bounce to another event (FOMO) and living beyond one's means. It's all about trying to somehow be better than what you really are.
Life can be boring, uncomfortable, annoying and painful. Humility is understanding that it's OK to feel those things sometimes, to live with the fact that you will be OK even if you don't feel good at every moment. You don't need to "do" anything about not-so-pleasant feelings. Just sit (or work or eat or whatever) with it. Recognize those feelings, name them honestly and keep going.
2. Recognize your value and the value of others
Having humility and accepting yourself means you don't need to be different to make others happy. You have value as a human being to both yourself and to those around you. Love and acceptance by others doesn't depend on how you look, how much money you make or how much status you have.
Being truly comfortable with yourself is not only a less anxiety-ridden way to live, it's a gift to the people around you. That's because true self-acceptance lets other people know that you will accept and love them just as they are, too. So part of cultivating your own humility is accepting those around you for who they are.
3. Keep growing
Just because you accept yourself fully doesn't mean you should stop growing. By looking clearly and honestly at aspects of yourself that you'd like to change, you can pursue that change mindfully and without beating yourself up about it. (Take a listen to Nelson Mandela's explanation for why he didn't hold on to anger in the video above.) In this way, you can move forward positively, without shame.
Ghandi said, "I claim to be a simple individual liable to err like any other fellow mortal. I own, however, that I have humility enough to confess my errors and to retrace my steps." In order to move forward, we must sometimes look backwards, but if you approach change with self-compassion, there's nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about, just actions to modify. Part of being a humble person is personal growth ... just not the Instagrammable kind.
4. Practice gratitude
Thanking others is a way of valuing them and recognizing when you have been helped. And gratitude and humility are connected: In a 2014 Social Psychological and Personality Science journal article, researchers reported the results of a series of tests where they determined that expressing gratitude led subjects to feel more humble, and also that those with more humility tended to be more grateful people in general. "Our results suggest that humility and gratitude are mutually reinforcing," wrote the scientists.
5. Admit when you're wrong, say you're sorry
When you're honest with yourself and others, recognize your own and others' value, prioritize learning and regularly thank others for what they have given you, it will be much easier to admit when you've made a mistake. You'll see errors as a genuine opportunity to learn. When a mistake isn't all about your ego, apologizing is no longer an excruciating exercise to avoid.
Those of us who can step forward with a genuinely expressed mea culpa are almost roundly admired, because it requires clarity and openness about oneself, and comfort with standing in front of a crowd with egg on your face. As Erika Andersen wrote in Forbes: "When someone truly apologizes, we know he or she is putting honesty and honor above personal comfort or self-protection. It's inspiring, and it feels brave."
Humility might be a virtue at a low ebb right now. But it hasn't disappeared. And we can all bring a bit of it back in 2018.