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 HumilityMy 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.
How Do We Moderate the Use of Humility?
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.
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:
- Virtue consisting in the knowledge of the limitations and weaknesses and ability to act according to this knowledge
- Baseness of birth or any other aspect of life
- Submission, yielding
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 ThoughtIn 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.Conclusions
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.
Kneeling elephant. Not sure to whom to give attribution. If you know, please add a comment.