Home All Are Humility and Self-esteem like Oil and Water?

Are Humility and Self-esteem like Oil and Water?

written by Dafne Cataluña 18 February 2014

Dafne Cataluña is the Director of the European Institute of Positive Psychology (EIPP, Madrid, Spain). She is a member of the Work and Organizations Psychology Section at the Madrid Psychologists' Association and group coordinator of the Applied Positive Psychology workgroup. Dafne is also coordinator of the course in Positive Psychology and professor of the EIPP course in Coaching Psychology taught at the Complutense University of Madrid (Spain). Dafne's articles are here.

Author’s Note: In the January meeting of the Group of Applied Positive Psychology that I coordinate at the Chamber of Psychologists of Madrid we address how to promote the use of the strength of humility in different areas of life.

After reviewing some sources , I became aware of the lack of research surrounding this strength, which I think it’s one of the most troubled in the VIA model, a well-known strengths assessment tool used in Positive Psychology.
This strength for me has a special interest because from the field of psychotherapy I have had the need to address it repeatedly with my clients.

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in Spanish as Humildad y autoestima ¿son como el agua y el aceite? in the Spanish language PositivePsychologyNews site. It was translated by the author.

What I Found about Humility

My experience has been that people that have humility as the first strength in the VIA assessment have some difficulty identifying and talking about the positive elements of their daily experience. These people often do not feel comfortable discussing achievements and personal strengths.

Looking back at a particular case, I remember that this person perceived telling others that she was good at something to be narcissistic or egocentric, not a positive quality.

In cases like this, it was not a treatment option to “let the achievements speak for themselves” (part of the description of the strength of humility). Rather the contrary, the goal was to help her feel good knowing what she was good at and comfortable expressing it to others.

At the last International Conference of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman shared some news about future classifications of strengths which will take into account moderating strengths use, that is reduce use in cases of overuse and increase use in cases of underuse. This is something that many psychologist who are dedicated to Applied Positive Psychology have been requesting due to everyday observations in therapy sessions, coaching, or personal development.

Editorial Note from Merche Ovejero: It is surprising that the VIA assessment and other instruments listed in Positive Psychological Assessment do not offer ways to evaluate this strength independently. Rather than evaluate the components of humility, they tend to evaluate whether the person perceives herself as humble or not. Some forms of evaluation are based on narcissism, self-aggrandizement, and so on, thus measuring Modesty by its absence. There might be other measures, such as comparing the assessments made by other people close to personal environment or assessing physiological arousal to threats to the ego.

Humility in action

   Humility in action

How Do We Moderate the Use of Humility?

One way that I have observed people moderate this strength is through the work of self-reinforcement, what I like to call medals. Giving ourselves a medal when we have strived for something, regardless of the outcome, is essential to motivate and feel good about ourselves. To give an example, when a person feels down, without any desire to do things and one day makes an effort to prepare a healthy meal, it is very important that this effort be rewarded. The reward might even be the meal itself, especially if it is something that we normally don’t eat and that we enjoy a lot. It is not necessary that the reward be something big. In fact it is good to focus on the small things.

A curious fact which I have found related to the moderation of this strength is provided by classmates of the Course in Positive Psychology. Here all students complete the VIA test. It was very striking that the vast majority (over 70%) have Humility come out at the low end of the ranking. What does this data mean? I leave it to the reflection of the students. I hope they can say something about it.

Editorial Note from Merche Ovejero Tayyab Rashid and Afroze Anjum propose a series of activities for practicing Humility, most of them to reduce narcissism, the underuse of humility. Examples include

  • “Resist showing off accomplishments for a week and notice the changes in your interpersonal relationships. Do people act surprised that you waited to reveal your news?”
  • “At the end of each day, identify something you did to impress people or put on a show. Resolve not to do it again.”
  • “Ask a trusted friend for honest feedback about your weaknesses. Think about their words at length before replying.”

This article does not propose anything to activate Humility, or even bring it to the midpoint. More research on how people activate Humility and how we regulate it depending on the context is needed.

Are We Addressing Humility in the Right Way?

My work with this particular strength has been more related to moderating the use rather than strengthening it. Derived from this experience I have created my own model of what this strength is and how to generate a balance.

The Royal Academy of the Spanish Language (RAE) provides three definitions of humility:

  1. Virtue consisting in the knowledge of the limitations and weaknesses and ability to act according to this knowledge
  2. Baseness of birth or any other aspect of life
  3. Submission, yielding

The second and third definitions are related to the consideration of humility as a quality linked to low self-esteem.

Work by June Price Tangney helped me to see a different and very rewarding concept. This author shows how humility is usually considered as a way to have a low regard for oneself. Tangney quotes Emmons, who brings a different definition, “… Is to have an accurate perception of oneself. The ability to see one’s talents and accomplishments in perspective, a sense of self-acceptance, an understanding of the imperfections, and be free from arrogance and low self esteem.”

It seems that the first definition of the RAE is closer to this understanding of humility.

Humility is More than I Thought

What does humilty require?


In addition to this definition, what I take from the article are the key elements that set and guide the work to enhance this strength:

  • Precise knowledge of one’s own skills and achievements
  • Ability to recognize one’s own mistakes and limitations
  • Openness to new ideas
  • Putting our skills and achievements in perspective, being aware that success depends not only on oneself
  • Less focus on oneself, be more oriented to detect the talents of those around one
  • Appreciation for the value of one’s surroundings

When I read these clues they add up almost perfectly to the qualities of the person that I was helping to moderate this strength. I understood why she scored high, and I began to realize that she just needed some shades in one key, mainly a focus towards others.


Humans are tremendously complex, and humility can sometimes take us to be excessively focused on others and forget ourselves a little as portrayed in the case I described. Sometimes humility can be confused with low self-esteem, although the latter concept is much more complex and broader than just feeling it difficult to recognize one’s own achievements or abilities.

I hope this article has generated more questions than answers and serves to promote productive reflection that nurtures us and encourages us to deepen this strength.


Britton, K. H. (2010). Becoming unselved: The mystery of Humility. Positive Psychology News.

Lopez, S. J., & Snyder, C. R. (2003). Positive Psychological Assessment: A Handbook of Models and Measures. New York: Oxford University Press.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rashid, T. & Anjum, A. (2011). 340 Ways to Use VIA Character Strengths. This document is marked a draft, but many people find it a great source of ideas.

For more on Martin Seligman’s discussion of moderating strengths, see tribute 3 in the following:
Chin, E. (2013). Three tributes to Chris Peterson. Positive Psychology News.

Tangney, J. P. (2000). Humility: theoretical perspectives, empirical findings and directions for future research. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19, 70-82. Abstract.

Tangney, J. P. (2002). Humility. In C.R. Snyder & S.J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 411-419). New York: Oxford University Press.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Not a life of comfort courtesy of /\ \/\/ /\
What does humility require? courtesy of gak
Light through trees courtesy of Don J Schulte

Kneeling elephant. Not sure to whom to give attribution. If you know, please add a comment.

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.

You may also like


Judy Krings 21 February 2014 - 8:39 am

Hi Dafne,

Your article reminded me of the cowboy song lyrics,, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way…” This is a good thought-provoking article. Many thanks.

I saw my Mom be humble, VERY humble, yet her self esteem was in tact. She was one of the happiest people I have ever known. She never tooted her own horn. Unless I would remind her of something she did very well, she had no need nor desire to showcase anything. I know she was a rare bird, so quiet yet so very content with her entire life. She would laugh, relish the moment and be surprised when I noticed what she was doing or had said that was noteworthy. She was very curious and alive always.

Ryan M. Niemiec 21 February 2014 - 10:22 am

Dear Dafne,

Excellent article and review of some of the challenges in regard to humility. In my view, positive psychology has done great work to bring this important, infrequently cherished attribute to the forefront. Hardly anything had been done scientifically prior to PP and prior to Tangney and others’ good work. See work by Exline on priming humility as well as work by Worthington and Davis on the measurement of humility. In my view, and what these researchers have found, is that self-report/self-perception is not the best way to measure humility (notice I say this even though my main work deals with the VIA Survey and VIA Classification). Instead, what these researchers have found is that the best way to measure humility scientifically is through informants’ reports (and not just 1 person). This is why, in our online VIA courses, we have people take a “Character Strengths 360” to get the perceptions of many others and then integrate these.

To your point, I hope this article can serve as a catalyst for more people deriving interventions to help strengthen humility. I find that many people do not understand the value of humility (I’ve even been laughed at when I’ve explained its importance) so education around the value as well as sharing some of the great things that correlate with humility (e.g., more close friends) is important.

Also, your anecdotal observations are correct – humility is one of the 3 least common endorsed character strengths consistently around the world. (Some of this might be due to measurement but nevertheless, I believe this is accurate, especially in today’s world).

If you are wondering about practical exercises to strengthen humility (or any of the 24 character strengths), see my Positive Psychology at the Movies 2 (2014) book, in which we discuss 6 in particular for strengthening humility.

Feel free to contact me directly. I would like to be in touch with you – ryan@viacharacter.org

Ryan Niemiec, PsyD
Education Director
VIA Institute on Character

Dafne Cataluña 23 February 2014 - 10:13 am

I`m very gratefull for the comments.
Ryan, I will contact with you by e-mail, thanks for your input.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com