Home All Becoming Unselved: The Mystery of Humility

Becoming Unselved: The Mystery of Humility

written by Kathryn Britton 8 June 2010

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

Shrinking violet

Shrinking violet

What would you think if your top character strength were Humility and Modesty? A friend found it rather deflating. Humility sounds so … unexciting. It sounds so much like humiliation. However, when we explored it together, we discovered that she had a great knack for taking herself out of the middle of the picture and for focusing on the needs and behaviors of the people around her. Suddenly humility snapped into place as a quality that fit and that seemed a valuable part of herself.


What is Humility?

Professor June Tangney

Professor June Tangney

One of the leading researchers of Humility, June Price Tangney at George Mason University, describes Humility as a rich, multi-faceted construct characterized by the following qualities:

  • An accurate assessment of oneself, including both strengths and weaknesses — neither unduly favorable nor unduly unfavorable
  • An openness to new information, including ideas that contradict former opinions
  • An ability to keep one’s own place in the world in perspective. David Myers points out that humble people are less inclined than the normal population to self-serving biases.
  • An ability to forget oneself, to move out of the middle of the frame

Where Does Humility Come From?

According to Julie Exline and Anne Geyer at Case Western Reserve, humility probably arises from a sense of security grounded on feelings of self worth that are come from stable and reliable sources such as feeling unconditionally loved. These sources are a firmer foundation of self worth than many external sources, such as achievement, appearance, or social approval.

It was a bit of a surprise to me that humble people may be more firmly grounded in life than others.

What is Humility Good For?

Benjamin Franklin Statue

Benjamin Franklin Statue

After working on humility for several years, Benjamin Franklin noticed that conversations with others were more pleasant, other people were more likely to listen to his opinions, and he had an easier time recovering when his opinions turned out to be wrong.

Management researcher Jim Collins argues that a key ingredient for moving from good to great is having leadership that combines humility with a fierce will. Leaders express humility by routinely crediting others for their organization’s success while accepting personal blame when results are poor. They appear calm and determined, and they can subjugate their egos to the needs of the organization. In my experience, it can be surprising and inspiring to work for a humble leader.

Who Has Humility?

Kendall Bronk and colleagues found humility strongly associated with purpose when they performed a qualitative study of 18 adolescents, 9 with a very strong sense of purpose and 9 without. They interviewed each subject for up to 3 hours, used the constant comparative method to look for themes, and then coded the interview transcripts. Humility, especially openness to other points of view, was a primary factor to emerge from the group with strong senses of purpose, but not from the other group. The article has many quotations from the interviews, including this one:

I think a core belief is that you can’t do anything by yourself. Or anything that you think you do by yourself is really supported by a mountain of other people… I just think you really can never take personal credit for anything. That there are so many other things that go into that.

According to Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, humble individuals are less driven to impress and dominate others, and they tend to be less driven to collect special benefits for themselves. Citing Roy Baumeister, they point out that there is a benefit from being free from self-preoccupation: the need to maintain inflated self images can be a psychological burden.

How Can We Build Humility?

Benjamin Franklin worked for years on humility especially in his conversational habits. For example, he denied himself the pleasure of contradicting other people, and he avoided words that implied fixed opinions. These habits became easier with long practice. He did admit that it was easier to achieve the appearance of humility than the fact. Pride is so hard to overcome, he stated, that “even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”

Facilitated Networking

Facilitated Networking

Tangney suggests that children learn humility by observing role models among parents, teachers, community leaders, or heroes. Who are the heroes of humility? Benjamin Franklin because of his life-long effort and his accurate self-appraisal? Beth in Little Women, who avoided attention as she quietly served others? Mother Teresa who turned focus away from herself toward the people she served? The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, whose 12-step program incorporates elements of humility such as admitting personal limitations? It can be hard to find exemplars of humility because they don’t seek attention.


Peterson and Seligman suggest practicing behaviors that make us more aware of our indebtedness to other people, such as keeping gratitude journals or seeking forgiveness. Seeking reliable attachments may be another intervention, since the resulting psychological safety may be a critical enabling condition for humility.

After talking to my friend, I was very curious about Humility. Now that I’ve explored it, I hold it in awe.

I have done one braver thing
Than all the Worthies did
Yet a braver thence doth spring
Which is, to keepe that hid.
   John Donne

Editor’s note: This article appears in the chapter on Humility in the Positive Psychology News book, Character Strengths Matter.



Bronk, K. C. (2008). Humility among adolescent purpose exemplars. Journal of Research in Character Education, 6(1), 35–51.

Collins, J. (2001). Level 5 leadership: The triumph of humility and fierce resolve. Harvard Business Review On Point article.

Exline, J. J. & Geyer, A. (2004). Perceptions of humility: A preliminary study. Self and Identity, 3, 95–114.

Benjamin Franklin, Passages from his Autobiography

Franklin, B. (1793, 1996). The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Dover Thrift Editions). Dover press.

Myers, D. (1995). Humility: Theology meets psychology. Reformed Review, 48, 195-206.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Humility and modesty. In Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. (pp. 461-475. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

This chapter includes contributions by Roy Baumeister, Keith Campbell, Thomas Joiner, Lauren Kachorek, and Joachim Krueger.

Tangney, J. P. (2004). Humility. In C. R. Snyder & S. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 411-419). New York: Oxford University Press.

Sign of spring (Shrinking Violet) courtesy of James Jordan
Benjamin Franklin statue courtesy of Sulynn Choong
Facilitated Networking courtesy of love2dreamfish

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tam karl 8 May 2012 - 11:55 am

here is why empathy-humility is worth-while, and i do believe, “extremely low external “life” satisfaction. Understanding something about quantum physics and having broken through that universal thick crust of sleep-walking REPRESSION; noticing Fukushima Iraq-Afghanistan, Rwanda et al; the way moral choice is so rare, the possibility that eternal life is why.

notice what self-satisfaction plus 7 billion human creatures is doing? so what if you gain the whole world but lose your own (potentially reincarnating) soul?

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