I’m a bit, let’s say, contrarian. I do NOT like being told what to do. Pretty much ever. On principle. Yes, I am an adult in my 30s, not a 5-year-old. But still, I don’t like it. I don’t like criticism, I don’t like advice (even if I ask for it!!). Sometimes even for things that there’s no reason I should know anything about… Like honestly, wtf.
This part of my personality sticks out to me in contrast to my otherwise very agreeable, accommodating traits. As I became an adult, many eons ago, it started sticking out in more and more important moments: conflicts in my relationships, struggles in grad school, and in the face of social justice issues. In these moments I realized that if someone else acted the way I was acting I would be pissed. Not just frivolously pissed, I would think that person legitimately wrong.
Although I don’t consider myself to have enough humility, I think my friends tend to disagree. I don’t think that this discrepancy is so much a matter of my own blushing modesty as it is a matter of how we think about humility. I’m not much of a show-off, which I think is why my friends see me the way they do. But it can be incredibly difficult for me to accept my own flaws and mistakes.
In my case at least, I’d say this is fundamentally because of my own insecurities. If I already feel bad about myself overall, any negative feedback seems to be about me as a person rather than about the specific situation. So while we often think of humility in terms of not having an inflated ego (think “humble” or “modest”), I guess it’s really not about having low self-esteem either. For me, it’s much more about having an accurate sense of who I am and what I do: it’s being able to put my ego aside for a moment as I look at a situation.
So why do I want to talk about humility? In my experience, it is fundamental to any level of self-work.
This is because we can’t address our mistakes and flaws until we see them, acknowledge them, and understand them. And obviously, all of us make loads of mistakes and struggle with our flaws all the time. Take these examples:
- I want to practice more healthy habits in my daily life? I have to confront some dark sh*t about what’s holding me back (e.g., fear of failure), or sometimes what’s making me want to do adopt those habits in the first place (e.g., need for validation).
- I want to do better in my career? How can I do that without thinking critically about the quality of my work and taking others’ criticism seriously (even if I end up legitimately not agreeing with their advice)?
- I want to have more respectful and effective conflicts with my partner? It will require me to take a step back and understand how my ego is getting in the way of really listening to him and of accepting the way my own behavior may have been disruptive.
- I want to fight racism or other forms of bigotry? I can’t do that without taking a deep, painful look at how I personally have contributed to these issues (e.g., when have I been racist? How have I benefitted from racism?). (Check out Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad for some great guidance on doing this).
Although my aversion to my own faults is definitely a “me” problem, I certainly think there’s a big cultural component to it as well. Without getting into this too much here, I bring it up because I’ve seen how I’ve gotten better at handling criticism, confrontation and advice through different experiences. These are some of the things that have really helped me so far:
- Good, old-fashioned exposure: My partner loooves giving advice… BUT he’s also GREAT at receiving it. This has been transformational for me. First of all, he models humility in this respect. Second of all, regular exposure shows me that just because I could use sometimes advice and criticism doesn’t mean there’s anything fundamentally wrong with me.
- Getting some perspective: As any CBT practitioner will tell you, it’s all about mindset. When it comes to humility, the mindset that has helped me most is along the lines of “who am I to think that I should be an expert at x [thing I have no reason to be an expert in]?” (but said in a nice way). It’s unreasonable to think that I’d know everything about everything.
- Giving it time: It’s surprising how much it helps just to let an unpleasant realization about yourself just sit for a while. A few years ago, I read a powerful article about how disruptive White Guilt is to the anti-racism process. As a white woman, I, ironically, was so overcome with guilt about my guilt that my response was SUPER defensive. But all it took was about a day to let the thoughts sink in, accept the logic of what I had read, and learn from it.
Things still to work on:
- All of the above even more…
- Self-esteem in general: At the end of the day, I think humility is really based on self-esteem. I have so much to work on in this regard and I’m sure it will be a major step toward accepting criticism and failure.
- Criticizing/giving advice to others: I struggle dishing it out as much as taking it. And I think they’re two sides of the same coin, because me being able to speak that way to someone is part of me understanding that it’s not as big of a deal as it can feel.
As much as I believe in the importance and power of humility, it’s definitely not everything. I recently came across a video by @fauxtivational_speaker about how self-awareness can be a barrier toward achieving real change in our behavior when we “use the awareness as an excuse to limit ourselves”. This would be something along the lines of thinking “I lash out at my partner when my needs aren’t being met because I have a history of being consistently neglected by my partners”. Instead of using that information to actively challenge our mindset and have an open conversation with our partner to look for solutions, we can be too complacent in accepting that that’s just the way we are. Along these lines, we can feel like we’ve already done the work by using our humility to be self-aware, when really this is only the first step of growth.
There are so many topics in this post I’d like to explore more of: criticism, relationships, self-esteem, etc., so stay tuned for future posts about these and more! Meanwhile, let me know in the comments what you think about humility: what does it mean to YOU? How does it add to your own life? How do you cultivate it? xx