(This is part one of a series of posts exploring the nature of humility and why it’s a value or priority that will help, not only with interpersonal relationships, but in being successful. Also it will make you less of a dick and that’s definitely a plus.)
Let’s be honest, humility isn’t all that sexy. What gets you more wound up, and be honest; I’ll know if you’re lying: someone who is absolutely sure of themselves and projects a high degree of confidence or someone who will say their piece but also admit they may be wrong or they don’t have all the information. I’m willing to bet that most of you instinctively veer towards the more confident person, the person with high self-esteem. We almost can’t help ourselves. Our entire culture in the west is buttressed by the pillar that keeps asserting that self-esteem can fix anything and that lack of confidence should be perceived as a sign of weakness and defectiveness.
Want a raise? Be more confident!
Want to bed better people? Have more self-esteem!
Want to live in a better place? Be more confident!
Want to be more confident? Be more confident? Yep, be more confident!
We are culturally obsessed with confidence and self-esteem and their glistening, turgid girths. Or maybe that’s something else.
What I’m trying to say is that these two related concepts get all the attention and we completely forget about the other side of the coin, namely, humility. Now I realize that of course confidence is good. Nobody wants to walk around with stooped, rounded shoulders, eyes glued to the pavement, head full of cruel voices that sounds exactly like that bastard-hat from middle school who ruined your social life and made it so you can no longer show your face in certain parts of town. That party just ain’t fun. We do need to have the confidence to act, to hold onto our personal values, and to not feel inferior or allow others to hurt us. If anything, a certain degree of confidence is necessary to acting and functioning in the world. The problem then isn’t quite confidence per se but our unflagging belief that more confidence is always better. All this confidence, especially when unwarranted, often enough leads to arrogance and entitlement and when we hit that point then confidence whips its head around to bite us on the ass, usually around the time when everyone around us wants to kick us in the ass. The same applies to self-esteem. In fact, self-esteem is even more problematic than confidence as I’ll explain. So while confidence and self-esteem may be the flashy, fun, boisterous people at the party (and are probably doing lines in the bathroom), it’s humility that will be there to knock on the door to see if you’re still retching your guts up (what kind of parties are you going to?), will keep you grounded, keep you open, and keep you making real progress in life. It will also remember your birthday. But don’t just believe me. There’s some interesting science that’s come along to back up what I’m saying. But first of all, we need to talk about confidence and self-esteem, how they’re different, and how they have been held up as false idols.
Confidence and self-esteem are kind of like kissing cousins (why does this article keep getting weirder?). They are related yet not exactly the same. You can be confident with no self-esteem but usually not vice versa. Confidence is all about your ability to trust yourself and your actions. In other words, I am confident I can finish an 18 inch pizza by myself. I know, I believe I can do this. Self-esteem is a value judgement. How do I feel about myself? Do I feel good about myself? Do I like myself? Do I like myself and feel good about myself after eating all of that pizza? (The answer is yes, by the way. I don’t give a shit like that.) Confidence is based in the perception of your ability to engage with the world. Self-esteem is pretty much how you feel about yourself and just because you trust that you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you like yourself or that you think you’re great. See how they’re related yet different and how one can exist without the other? “But,” you may shriek at your screen, dotting it with spittle and partially chewed food stuffs, “I want to feel good about myself! I want to trust that I can do things!” That’s all fine. I’m not saying you should hate yourself or live your life in a tepid puddle of self-doubt. But you shouldn’t let yourself feel too good about yourself either, and here’s why.
I’m going to start with confidence, since at least confidence has more in its favor than nothing, and move into the storm surge of stupid that is self-esteem. Confidence, as I just said (actually paraphrased from what other, smarter, better paid people have said), is based more or less in the tangible. It’s what you believe you can do. More often than not, this confidence is born from what you’ve done. This is all well and good so far. However, when taken too far, we get arrogance and inflexibility. When confidence morphs into over-confidence, what started as trust in oneself to do a certain thing turns into an unfounded belief that you can do ALL the things and do all the things perfectly! And heaven help anyone who challenges this version of the truth for this over-confident, yea, arrogant fellow shall verily smite this accursed soul! Over-confidence is calcification, it is hardening, and, according to Gregg, Mahadevan, &Sedikides (2016) it is hoarding. People guard their beliefs, their opinions, and their certainties the same way they would a physical treasure. In other words, they are intellectual Ebenezer Scrooges. The irony, of course, is that it’s just an opinion, just a belief, and it’s probably not entirely correct anyways. People will not jettison a belief (hoarding) and they also will not make room for any new or competing beliefs (calcifying). While this may ensure that they hold on to their precious beliefs, it also means that they’ve stopped growing. They are like the little dead chunks of coral that wash up on beaches. They’re not good for much more than putting on a shelf because they’re not going to be doing anything else. And just like those chunks of dead coral, they can cause a lot of pain. In other words, they’re rough, abrasive, and down right pains in the asses if you should step on one. This kind of mental rigidity can handily explain the Semmelweis Reflex described in another post. This also explains why once people double down on their certainties, it’s tough to impossible to shake this belief. Even a person who has definitive proof through failure that they cannot do something will find an escape route to explain his or her failure and they’ll come out feeling just as good about themselves as they did going into this latest mistake. This leads then to self-esteem and its gaggle of issues.
Self-esteem has even less going for it than confidence. At least confidence has to do with something measurable. Self-esteem is all about how you feel about yourself, about feeling just dandy about yourself. If over-confidence is all about being hard then self-esteem is all about mushy-gushy feelings and loving yourself for the special snowflake you are. Now, this self-esteem thing was the unfortunate after-birth of the positive psychology movement which developed as a means of studying what made life worth living for us meat machines and how to best enjoy our meaty, juicy existence. However, as per usual, things got way out of hand. All of a sudden, love wasn’t all you needed, just self-esteem. Your life sucks, it’s because you’re lacking self-esteem. You suck, just believe that you don’t suck! It’s magic, bitch!
But, like energy fields, fairy folk, and ab-master machines, things did not work as advertised. Turns out that when students were given a heavy dose of self-esteem therapy, they didn’t get any smarter. Crime didn’t magically go down. If anything, the worst of us actually already felt pretty damn good about themselves. (Slater, 2002). Is it any wonder why? Self-esteem, used in this way, is not contingent on reality. When functioning correctly, self-esteem is a result of not sucking and doing things well or at least not terribly. It does not work in reverse. You earn self-esteem. But when we feel good for no reason about ourselves, it short-circuits the process and plunges us into a fantasy world, a psychosis where we believe we are better than we are, even in the face of mounds of contradictory evidence. It’s entirely possible for everything you touch to go to shit and still have the self-esteem of a God-King. You could be an unmitigated, continent sized asshole but to you, through your dishonest perceptions, you are some kind of unholy hybridization of Mother Theresa, Ghandi, Willy Wonka, and The Giving Tree. In case you’re not seeing how wrong all of this is and why, allow me to explain.
You’re perfect just the way you are. Love yourself for your perfect little self. I bet your life coach, or therapist, or dominatrix has told you something like this at some point (especially if one person happens to be all three). But here’s the problem. You’re not perfect. Actually I don’t know if I have the energy to go into how fucked up you are. After going and having a little sob now that I’ve applied my Big Bad Hairdryer of Truth to your perfect little snowflake world, sit your ass back down and let’s cut through the years of lies you’ve been fed. You’re not perfect, you’re not wonderful just as you are. You just are. Do you think I’m perfect or that I think I am? I’m an underemployed millennial often overwhelmed with bouts of hopelessness and a nasty temper. I have a knack for being misanthropic and have a difficult time honestly expressing myself to people because I unfortunately want everyone to like me. I could go on and on about how fucked up I am. Trust me, I haven’t even scratched the surface and some of this stuff just isn’t right for public consumption. But I’m honest about it. I’m not perfect. I will never be perfect. That’s impossible. But I make no excuses for it and I don’t pretend to be something I’m not. But because I know these things about myself I can actively hold them in check. And sometimes I fail. I fail a lot. But I’m not going to be perfect there either. I’m just a human trying to get through my little human life without hurting too many people along the way. But I couldn’t hope to curb my negative tendencies if I lied to myself about them and this is where a lot of people get into trouble.
The problem with always feeling good about yourself is that it is completely unjustified and it makes us think that we can do whatever we want. To be human is to be flawed and to be flawed is to be limited. For instance, if you weigh three hundred pounds, do you really think that you are going to The Olympics? If you hate math are going to work for NASA? The problem with being over confident and having a glut of self-esteem comes from thinking that we are capable of anything and we deserve to be able to do anything without compromise, without sacrificing and suffering. Hate to break it to you but unless you’re willing to suffer to make huge changes you are going to have to accept your limitations. Now being overweight and being bad at math is one thing. You can actually do something about those with the proper amount of grueling effort. But what if you’re a jackass? What if you are a coward? What if you clam up at parties or will do anything to be the center of attention at parties? These aren’t simple fixes. In fact, you may not be able to fix some of these issues. Now what? You can either go the feel-good route and shoot up your mind with the dirty needle of self-esteem or you can be honest and ride out the pain and disappointment. Go the former route will feel better but go the latter route and you’ll have the opportunity for real change. And no I’m not saying you’ll necessarily be able to change these things about yourself. I got you! You thought there was a happy ending.
You’re going to still have to deal with being an imperfect person. But now that you can be honest about your flaws, your weaknesses, your limitations, you can work within their confines. “But I don’t want to live within their confines! I want to spread my wings and soar on the winds of freedom!” Yeah well you’re not a frigate bird so sit down and shut up. We all have limits. We all are born with limits. Your success in life will depend on your ability to essentially put up with your own broken bullshit and make a good life in spite of the fact that you are a flawed human being. So stop with this masturbatory fixation on being perfect and wonderful. You will drive yourself crazy and give yourself brain bubbles if you keep that up. Just accept the inescapable truth of the matter: you are not perfect and you don’t have all the answers. You’re just a human being among seven billion other human beings just trying to not fall off the earth. That’s all you are and that’s all you have to be.
As much as it may hurt to hear this, as much as you may want to block out everything you just read, there’s nothing we can really do about it. However, we can accept it with grace and a touch of humility helps to keep us grounded. So, for my next post I’m going to dive into what humility is, what benefits it provides, and how we can cultivate it.
(Please turn cassette over to the other side to continue.)
Gregg, A. P., Mahadevan, N., Sedikides, C. (2016). Intellectual arrogance and intellectual humility: Correlational evidence for an evolutionary-embodied-epistemological account. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12(1), 59-73. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com
Slater, L. (2002, February 3). The trouble with self esteem. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com