We see it everywhere in the media: the idea that pride leads to downfall. From Greek mythology to contemporary films, we are taught that hubris is ruinous, and being humble yields success. But how do you get to be more humble?
Humility is typically viewed as a positive trait, yet many people struggle to exhibit it in their own lives. Part of this phenomenon can be attributed to the fact that humility is somewhat equivocal. It’s difficult to pinpoint and often mistaken for other characteristics, such as low self-esteem or a lack of confidence. As a result, those who wrestle with pride don’t always find achieving humility realistic. However, being humble is attainable for anyone who wishes to work at it.
In this article, I will define what it means to be humble, explain the benefits of humility, and provide some actionable steps that will lead you to view yourself in a positive but modest light.
What is humility?
Humility can be defined in a variety of ways, but I like to think of it as the sweet spot between self-deprecation and arrogance. One’s sense of self is neither undervalued or inflated; it is just right.
Glennon Doyle articulates it beautifully in her bestselling book, Untamed:
The word ‘humility’ derives from the Latin word humilitas, which means ‘of the earth.’ To be humble is to be grounded in knowing who you are - to grow, to reach, to fully bloom as high and strong and grand as you were created to.Glennon Doyle
A humble person is aware of their gifts and accomplishments, but they do not need the validation of others to determine their worth. They are capable of recognizing that although they may have exceptional accolades, characteristics, or talents, others have them, too. Although they have much to offer the world, they believe they still have room to grow. They do not shrink, but they do not boast.
The importance of humility
Being humble has benefits that extend beyond an inner sense of satisfaction with oneself. Humility plays a huge role in strengthening social bonds. Viewing others as humble fosters a greater sense of commitment to them, which helps important relationships remain intact. This is especially true in situations where issues are bound to arise, like at home or work.
I find that when my girlfriend demonstrates humility during a conflict, I am flooded with positive feelings about her and the relationship. I’m immediately reminded that she cares about me, values my perspective, and is willing to make changes in order to reconcile. It’s a powerful thing.
Furthermore, a 2012 study conducted by the University of Michigan suggests that humble adults exhibit more positive health outcomes over time. A lack of humility tends to weaken social bonds, leading to higher levels of stress, which negatively affects the body. Humility may nourish mental health as well, allowing people to endure difficult social interactions and forgive grudges against others and themselves.
5 steps to be more humble
Whether you are actively struggling with pride or simply seeking to polish up your temperament, check out the five steps below to help improve your humility.
1. Gain perspective
One of the easiest, most non-threatening ways to become more humble is to listen - without the intention of debating, defending, or judging in response. Listening in this way can feel extremely vulnerable, as it may be perceived as passive or weak. However, listening well can open your mind to the experiences and opinions of others, dramatically altering your outlook and generating compassion.
Listening doesn’t necessarily mean you must engage in a live conversation with someone. That may be ideal, but there are many ways to gain perspective that don’t require face-to-face communication (or even dialogue). Consider the following practices:
- Read (doesn’t have to be a book!).
- Listen to a podcast.
- Explore unfamiliar music or art.
- Search YouTube videos.
- Watch a documentary.
- Listen to yourself more.
I’ve dabbled in each of these forms of media, and I can safely say that at one point or another, I’ve been humbled by all of them. You never know which stance you might be missing out on.
2. Seek feedback
Uncomfortable as it may be, inviting constructive criticism into your life is guaranteed to make you humble. The feedback you receive may be hard to swallow at times, but it is illuminating nevertheless.
When I started working at a coffee shop, I felt woefully unequipped. No matter how intelligent I thought I was, I didn’t know anything about coffee, and I had a lot to learn. (I still do!)
While I was in training, I made a point to ask other baristas for feedback throughout the day. I didn’t do this to receive empty praise; I did it because I knew it was the only way to improve.
Being a perfectionist, I remember wincing each time a coworker kindly corrected me. However, I quickly learned how to accurately enter orders and prepare drinks. I was regularly reminded that getting too comfortable with my responsibilities was a form of pride, and I wasn’t even close to knowing it all yet. I needed to stay open to critique.
Seeking feedback is somewhat intuitive, as your approach will likely vary depending on who you’re asking. If you’re not sure where to start, check out Indeed’s tips for how to appropriately request feedback from your employer. Seeking feedback from a friend, family member, or significant other will look less formal, but the same general principles apply.
3. Acknowledge your limitations and shortcomings
No matter how wonderful you are, it’s helpful to remember that one person cannot excel at everything. We are limited beings. Even if you are “the best” in certain ways, there will always be something you cannot do.
An activity that always keeps me grounded is comparing myself to the vastness of nature. There’s something about considering the magnitude of space, standing near a waterfall, or looking out at the ocean’s horizon that arouses wonder. A 2018 study reveals that experiencing awe and feeling physically smaller than an entity before us keeps us humble. It allows us to see our strengths and weaknesses in a more balanced, accurate way.
Because we are limited, we are bound to have flaws and make mistakes. Admitting our faults and errors is a necessary step to increase humility. If you struggle to own your mistakes, it either means you haven’t been introspective enough, or you’re allowing pride to act as a veil that cloaks reality.
4. Elevate others
If anyone has assisted you on the road to success, elevating their contributions is a great way to remain humble. You may be tempted to take all the credit for yourself, especially if you were the most significant contributor, but doing so just inflates the ego.
I used to teach high school English. My former department head was very intentional about incorporating the act of elevating others into our school’s culture. She and I worked on several projects together - developing curriculum, planning school activities, etc. - and even if our final product included a majority of her ideas, she was always so complimentary. She made sure to praise me for my efforts both privately and publicly, and because of this, I developed a solid reputation among our school’s families and staff.
Elevating others, even if they’ve accomplished less than you, makes people feel valued. Studies show that employee resilience and motivation increases in response to humble leadership. It’s a simple way to encourage satisfaction and buy-in.
5. Practice gratitude
The benefits of practicing gratitude are truly immeasurable, and they include the promotion of humility. A 2014 study shows that gratitude and humility are mutually reinforcing, meaning gratitude fuels humility (and vice versa).
If people uphold the notion that everything is a gift, it reduces their inclination to boast. Instead of attributing their strengths and accomplishments to themselves, they are able to acknowledge the many factors that have contributed to their success.
There are so many different ways to begin practicing gratitude. This article contains a variety of methods, some of which may be brand new to you. My favorite ways to practice gratitude are included below:
- Respond to a gratitude prompt.
- Take a gratitude walk.
- Construct a gratitude flower.
- Write a gratitude letter.
- Create a gratitude collage.
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Being humble requires a lot of internal work, which is why it’s not a common trait. However, the pursuit of this quality has life-changing implications for those who are able to achieve it. It could have life-changing implications for you, too.
Who is the most humble person you know? What do they do that I haven’t listed here? Feel free to leave a comment below.