Perception is reality.
All metaphysical or existential debate aside, the way people perceive you at work greatly influences the reality you’ll experience. Call it your brand, reputation, or image, the perception people have of you is the net result of what you say, how you act, and the way your presence makes people feel. That’s why self-awareness—understanding how your behaviors impact those around you—is so critical to your success.
One behavioral area that can be hard to self-regulate is humility.
Humility is an admirable and honorable trait. I respect people who are able to keep their ego in check, recognize they aren’t the smartest in the room, and give space for others to shine and unleash their own brilliance. However, in an effort to not come across as being egotistical, it’s easy to overcompensate and fall prey to false humility. When that happens, you can do yourself more harm than good.
So, what is false humility? Well, first, let’s define humility. Humility is the state or condition of being humble. It’s having a modest opinion of yourself and your own importance. Being humble is not believing you are inferior to others. Humble people fully appreciate their own gifts and talents, but don’t esteem themselves above others.
False humility, on the other hand, is pridefulness in disguise. We practice false humility when we intentionally devalue ourselves or our contributions in an attempt to appear humble. Examples of false humility include deflecting praise we truly deserve, fishing for compliments to draw attention to ourselves, “humble-bragging” (talking about how humble we are), falsely portraying helplessness or a lack of power, and self-deprecating humor. As Dr. Aqualus Gordon discusses in this article for Psychology Today, false humility can be the manifestation of an inferiority complex.
The popular understanding of an inferiority complex is a person who believes he/she is inferior to other people. It’s a form of self-loathing and causes people to view themselves and their contributions as “less than” other people. However, that’s only one side of the coin, according to Dr. Gordon. The flip-side of an inferiority complex, or false humility, is a real or perceived belief of superiority to others. Our false display of humility can be a socially acceptable way to express our ego in an indirect manner. Ironically, in an effort to come across as being humble, we actually draw attention to ourselves through false humility which is anything but being humble!
So how do we combat false humility? I’ve found these four strategies to be helpful:
- Have an attitude of gratitude—Being grateful reminds me of how fortunate I am in the big scheme of life. It helps me to be thankful for all the people who have contributed to my success and reminds me that I’ve received an awful lot of help along the way.
- Hold power and position lightly—Positions, power, and titles come and go. You are guaranteed to be disappointed if your self-worth is defined by your title or position. Hold these things loosely while you have them, use them for doing good, but don’t trust in them to bring you lasting fulfillment and significance.
- Accept praise graciously and authentically—I have to work hard at not using self-deprecating humor to deflect praise. “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while” is one of my reliable standby’s. Instead, I have to remind myself to simply say “Thank you, I appreciate the recognition.” Being humble doesn’t mean devaluing your accomplishments.
- Focus on serving others—When you are busy serving others you don’t have time to think about yourself. Instead of worrying about what others think of your accomplishments, focus on doing good for others and the proper recognition will come your way in due time.
We live in a world that says it values humility, yet in order to get ahead, it seems you have to engage in constant self-promotion. Don’t fall prey to false humility as a way to balance these competing demands. Instead of focusing on yourself, focus on serving others. As the old saying goes, humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking about yourself less.