The Hidden Strengths of Modesty and Humility

Modesty and HumilityIn today’s celebrity culture, where glamour and fame ride high, the traits of modesty and humility seem more like throwbacks to some dusty, forgotten age than qualities to be desired.

But don’t let their unassuming nature fool you.  The hidden strengths of modesty and humility sing to our hearts and appeal to our highest nature.

Modesty and Humility Defined

To understand why, let’s start by defining them.  If you look them up in the dictionary, the two words generally describe the same kinds of attitude and behavior.   “ Modesty” applies more to the way we express ourselves in our speech or dress.  It’s concerned with standards of decency.  “Humility” focuses more on the way we value ourselves compared to others, including the level of authority we have in a given situation.   But both of them are about freedom from arrogance, showiness and excessive pride.

The developers of positive psychology’s VIA Character Strength Survey say this about someone who ranks high in modesty and humility:  “You do not seek the spotlight, preferring to let your accomplishments speak for themselves. You do not regard yourself as special, and others recognize and value your modesty.”

In other words, you don’t need to be the center of attention and you have a sense that your personal qualities and abilities, while they may be exceptional in some way, don’t make you more special as a human being.  You recognize that we all have our worth.

Humility’s Essence and Depth

Writing about humility in the now discontinued magazine In Character Wilfred M. McClay calls humility “foundational to the very possibility of human flourishing.”  That’s a pretty big statement to make.   But he may be right.  He describes humility’s task as one that allows us to “reorient ourselves to our proper place in a larger reality, which, for all its vastness and unfathomable mystery, is the ground of any genuine human happiness.”

What that means is that humility is the quality that lets us see ourselves honestly, as small sparks in an endless stretch of time and space, as one of several billion human beings who share this one particular moment on this one little planet.   It means that we keep things in perspective, that we recognize our limitations as well as our strengths and don’t overestimate either of them.

I like the way that Brett and Kate McKay put it in their article at the Art of Manliness:

“The definition of humility need not include timidity or becoming a wallflower. Instead, humility simply requires a man to think of his abilities and his actions as no greater, and no lesser, than they really are. Real humility then mandates that a man knows and is completely honest with himself.  He honestly assesses what are, and to what magnitude he possesses talents and gifts, struggles and weaknesses.”

In essence, humility is keeping a balanced view of ourselves and of our place in the larger whole.

Because the whole is so large, someone somewhere will always be better than we are at some things, worse than we are at others.  That means there’s no need for arrogance about what we do well or for shame over what we can do only poorly.  It also means that we give credit to others where it’s due.  It means we can genuinely celebrate others’ achievements without feeling personally lessened by them in some way.

The whole is not only large, but it’s interconnected.  It’s all once piece, and we, individually, are just its parts.  We’re dependent on each other for all that we are.  All the material goods and services we enjoy come to us through the efforts of other people.  All that we’ve learned, we’ve been taught or led to by others.  Other people shape our cultures, our institutions, our world views and our beliefs.  Humility is the conscious recognition and appreciation of the contributions of others.  It’s a kind of gratitude for our fellow man.

What’s So Cool About Humility?

Humility makes you more likeable.   When you’re focused on seeing that other people get what they need instead of only looking out for your own interests, people develop trust in you.  When you sincerely applaud their achievements and contributions, people feel acknowledged, validated and seen.

Lately, humility has been identified as a top quality of strong leaders.  According to leadership expert Jim Collins, a great leader loses his or her greatness when it becomes all about that leader. In almost a biblical sense, greatness comes when those who could be first decide to be last.

“We found that for leaders to make something great,” Collins says, “their ambition has to be for the greatness of the work and the company, rather than for themselves.”

Humble people tend to be confident and to have a strong sense of purpose.  Research
shows that people who rank high in humility seem to have “a sense of security grounded on feelings of self-worth.”   They’re “less driven to impress and dominate others” and “to collect special benefits for themselves.”

Because they’re confident in their self-worth they tend to be flexible in their opinions and open to the viewpoints of others.

Self-Worth vs. Self-Esteem

Self-worth is different from self-esteem.  Self-esteem is ego-centric and competitive.  It measures how good you are compared to others.   It can be boastful and arrogant, and it’s sometimes built on a less than honest appraisal of your true attributes, talents, authority, or skills.

Self-worth, on the other hand, acknowledges that you have deep-rooted, built-in value – just because you are -while respecting the value of others as well.  It holds onto its perspective of the larger whole.

What’s so cool about humility, in the final analysis, is that it’s about love and respect.  It’s about loving and honoring yourself, just as you are, so fully that you love and honor others as well.

And that, I believe, is why it’s the foundation for all human flourishing.

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This article is one in a continuing series on positive psychology’s 24 character strengths.  To find the others, go to our Article Index and scroll down to, “Strengths, Individual.”


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You may also enjoy How to Develop Your People Smarts
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