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Free yourself

Like many psychological constructs, humility is often misconstrued. On the one hand, people who claim to be humble, often don’t realise the irony behind their assertion. To boast about one’s humility is obviously oxymoronic. On the other hand, some people equate humility with self-effacement. However, psychologist, Robert Enright, points out that humility doesn’t entail belittling ourselves. Rather, “It is a realistic assessment of who we are as persons.” And, at its core, personhood involves realising that “we are all the same.” No matter how rich or poor we are, what talents or faults we may have, or how much we have achieved or failed to attain, when we look at people through the lens of personhood, no one is “worse or better as a person than anyone else.”

Management consultant, Karl Albrecht, adds that being humble involves being free of our “competitive reflex,” which he defines as a “preconscious, visceral impulse to oppose or outdo others.” Thus, when a friend shares pictures and describes her trekking exploits, do you feel compelled to state that you have been on more arduous climbs? Or, when your host serves a freshly-baked cake, instead of simply appreciating the treat, do you comment on how the cake could have been spongier?

No special privileges

Albrecht claims humility is evident in your behaviour towards others. A truly humble person makes others feel “affirmed, appreciated, encouraged, validated, and psychically nourished.” Listing the characteristics of humble people, psychologist Mark Leary says they have an accurate perception of themselves, including their flaws, are open to dissenting views, are not self-absorbed, and value all people. However, the core feature that distinguishes humility, according to Leary, is the belief that one is not entitled to special privileges or attention, “as a person.”

Leary highlights the phrase “as a person” because, in some contexts, a person may merit certain benefits. For example, elite sportspersons should have access to the best training facilities and leading scientists should be given grant money for their research. But outside the domain of their expertise, they should not expect to be treated in a privileged manner, no matter what accolades they have received.

Psychologist, June Price Tangney, emphasises that humble people have a “relatively low self-focus” which is akin to a “forgetting of the self.” And, that is one reason why humility, as a construct, is hard for psychologists, who rely on self-report questionnaires, to measure. Though humility remains a challenge for psychologists to pin down and quantify, Tangney suggests that the trait may be beneficial for our physical and mental health. Most psychological disorders are characterised by a disproportionate self-focus. Likewise, heart disease has also been linked with an undue preoccupation with the self.

Writer Benedict Carey describes the work of psychologist, Daryl Van Tongeren, who enumerates further benefits of humility. These include forgiving oneself and others, being patient, and not holding on to grievances. Likewise, psychologist, Elizabeth Krumrei Mancuso, finds that people who score high on a measure of “intellectual humility” are more curious and open-minded. Interestingly, the trait does not correlate with IQ scores. If we cultivate and prize humility, we can reap its benefits at both the individual and interpersonal levels.

The writer is Director, PRAYATNA.

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Printable version | May 22, 2022 2:20:48 pm |