On Humility and the Cultural Norm of Not Talking Too Positively About Oneself


“Through pride we are ever deceiving ourselves. But deep down below the surface of the average conscience a still, small voice says to us, something is out of tune.” ~Carl Jung

“Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.” ~Thomas Merton

“I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of humility, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it…In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.” ~Benjamin Franklin

I. Intro

There is a difference between bragging and appropriately, truthfully owning one’s strengths when context indicates.  False humility makes it difficult to discern this difference.  

False humility includes low self-esteem and inferiority, but it also includes arrogance, resentment, and judgment behind a mask of respect and equality.  It is a learned behavior connected to fitting in.  It is defense and pretense.  It is impossible to feel and be at our very best when we are not aligned with authenticity and integrity between our thoughts, words, and deeds. 

Any time we have thoughts of being better than or less than, we have room to cultivate humility.  For most of us that means a lot, myself very much included.  It's great to keep growing.  In fact, our souls cry out for it. 


II. Background

When I was a kid, my sense of otherness as an Indian-American was quite acute.  I didn’t consciously think this way, but looking back now, it was almost as if I believed there was some secret knowledge club that everybody was in on.  If I just tried hard enough to observe how everybody else acted, I could learn what I needed to know and gain admission into the club.  

So, I took much of the feedback I got to heart.  I was pretty sensitive.  One time a friend’s parent was upset at me for not saying thank you after a playdate in which she picked me up, made me an incredible strawberry shortcake, and dropped me off.  I etched it in stone to be polite, starting with the basics of please and thank you.  

Another instance was when we were playing basketball-dodgeball.  It was an ingenious hybrid game that I am not sure was played outside Niskayuna, NY.  Basically, if you forewent chucking the ball at the enemy team, and instead shot a basket and made it, all your un-dodging teammates who previously were out, came back in the game.  This made it a bit like Monopoly in that sometimes games could go on quite long.  

When I once got the best player on the other side out, who was kind of mythically good at dodgeball and one year older to boot, I received some praise.  I ate that up with relish.  I mentioned to several fellow classmates that I had done so, in case they failed to notice.  One guy said, man you are such a bragger!  That was the bragger dagger.  Hit me in the kidneys.  I’ll spare the gore, but it hurt.  

I overgeneralized, as kids are quite prone to do, that bragging meant any time I spoke positively about myself.  I developed an awkward relationship with speaking positively about myself.


III. Cultural Norm

And what I notice is that I am not the only one.  It seems to me a cultural norm.  

Here are just a very few questions which begin to hint at this phenomenon. 

How do you relate to others when they are speaking about their accomplishments?
How do you relate to receiving compliments?
How comfortable are you owning and speaking to your strengths without needing to overstate or understate them?
How much easier is it for you to talk about your own or others’ shortcomings than strengths?  

It’s not about judgment, just a check-in. 


IV. Implications

This seems to me to be part of fear, of staying small, of playing it safe, of fitting in.  We perhaps don’t even recognize how not advocating honestly for ourselves keeps us from shining and from fulfilling our own longings.

Words are one of the precious tools we have for constructing our reality.  If we never acknowledge and take ownership of what is beautiful about ourselves, it usually means there is a block to truly seeing it in others and to seeing it in life.  It also means we are going to be less effective.  

Let’s fast forward and use a simple example. These days if I tell a potential apartment owner, for instance, that I am pretty close to an ideal tenant in a simple, honest way, it makes them much more likely that they will want to meet me.  

But also the flip side is ok.  If I talk about some relevant difficult experience I have relative to my team, what assumptions might be upended about what is safe and unsafe?  Maybe they will understand and lend support.  Maybe that judgment I fear will prove unforthcoming.  


V. Conclusion

Humility and our own confidence and effectiveness, and daresay greatness, are flip sides of the same coin. The same can be said of assertiveness and vulnerability. They come from being real, being honest.  Sometimes that means talking about our strengths.  Sometimes it means talking about our difficulties.  

Sometimes it means allowing for the discomfort of others without needing to please them.  Sometimes it means challenging our mind’s story of what is happening and what is likely to happen in response to our behaviors.  

It always means respecting ourselves.