Humility or Humiliation?

It will come as no surprise to anyone that how we view ourselves can have a significant impact on our behaviours and performance. If I see myself as competent and capable, it stands to reason that I will act differently, and with more agency, than if I felt the opposite. As a matter of fact, if I did not think I was able to do something at all, it could stand to reason that I wouldn’t even try.



Today, I want to reflect on two words, humility and humiliation. One of which I’d suggest has the power to impact us and our efforts for good while the other I will argue does more harm than good.


Interestingly, not only do these two words appear similar but they come from the same Latin root: humilis which translates to “of the earth” or “grounded.” Despite their common ancestry and physical appearance, however, these two words can affect our sense of ourselves as well as our behaviour in diametrically opposing ways. One of those words can be a useful way to understand and express oneself. The other is the weapon of bullies and an example of our inner critic at its worst.


Let’s start with humility As a card-carrying Australian citizen, I was rather surprised to learn that "humble" isn’t our national word. The “tall poppy syndrome” is alive and well here. This is the notion that none of us should stand above others and that it’s better to underplay than overplay oneself. Humility is a game that Australians take pride in.


When I first came to Australia as a sport psychologist, I was downright startled by the difference in this attitude between American athletes who are more likely to overestimate their talent (USA is the home, after all, of the big foam hand with index finger standing straight and proud, and the chant—irrespective of reality: “We’re number 1! We’re number 1!”) versus Australian athletes—some of whom were legitimate world-beaters, who tended to be much more cautious in their self-appraisal.


At its best, humility can be a good thing. I like this quote attributed to Rick Warren, author of A Purpose Driven Life: Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.


Viewed in this way, humility is a way of taming our egos. Ego, or our sense of self, is a vital and necessary part of our psychological make-up. Having a healthy sense of ourselves fuels us through challenges and is the core to confidence.


Problems happen, however, when we allow our egos to take over how we see things. It’s not all about you is a popular refrain for a reason - we suffer, and we make others suffer when we make everything about us. When we over-personalise events to suggest that things are happening to us…rather than just happening. This is why, for example, we are drawn to vast expanses of nature - like the ocean or mountains. The sheer immensity of nature acts to shrink our egos or our sense of self in a good way and is one of the many reasons we are captivated by it.


The move here, as Rick Warren suggests, is to take ourselves out of the egocentric equation—in effect to rein in our own egos from time to time—and consider the possibility that maybe, in fact, everything isn’t all about us. The traffic lights aren’t turning red just as we pull up in a plot to slow us down. The weather isn’t turning for the worst right before our walk to keep us from enjoying nature. The refs aren’t out to get us.


Humiliation, on the other hand, has no place, well, anywhere.


It’s an-abuse-of-power move meant to abase or shame. We know it when we experience it — a shrinking of ourselves in response to feeling that we are just wrong or bad. Social scientist Brene Brown distinguishes between guilt—the feeling that I have done something wrong--from shame—the feeling that I am wrong.


When shame is on board, we constrict. Instead of the light, we seek the darkness. We are less likely to reach out for support - after all, if I’m just bad, what’s the point? No one will come to my aid anyway. Shame is a primary reason abused women don’t talk about their plight to others and people suffering from poor mental health fail to connect to help.


It’s bad enough to be humiliated by someone else: a parent, a colleague, a partner, a supervisor, or a coach, or feel that society thinks less of me. Make no mistake: none of this is right. Culturally, we are starting to recognise this, one of the reasons that bullying and harassment complaints are on the rise, and people are more willing to leave jobs where they experience this kind of behaviour. More light is also being cast on domestic and sexual abuse, as well as mental health, and attitudes are beginning to shift.


But what about when the humiliation is of our own making? I’m talking to you, Inner Critic. I’m not seeing how humiliation should be allowed into our minds any more than into our relationships.


Yet, research in this space suggests that, while we may allow for the idea that self-kindness, in general, is a reasonable goal, when we make a mistake, our tendency is to resort to the opposite.


We have a paradoxical tendency to withhold kindness at the very moment we would need it the most—when we make a mistake. The justification? That we need to be punished - it’s our fault, after all. We are wrong for making the mistake, so the punishment fits the crime, or so the story goes.


But wait a minute. I agree with self-compassion researcher Kristen Neff that it is precisely WHEN we make a mistake that we need the most self-kindness. I ask you to cast your eye back to the last time you did something wrong or made a mistake. Did you wake up that morning looking forward to that experience, or worse, planning on it? “Hmm, I can’t wait to drop that pass and let my team down!” “So looking forward to messing up that presentation and losing the sale!”


If our intentions were good, don’t we deserve the benefit of the doubt? As we would offer to anyone else in this situation? Not only is self-inflicted humiliation—the contemptuous insult, the rank name-calling to name a few examples – just flat-out painful, but like humiliation from the outside, the effect is the same. We lose agency. We constrict. We stay in the dark rather than going toward the light. We become less, not more likely to seek help. The path to recovery is longer, not shorter.


This form of self-punishment does not serve us.


Know the difference between humility and humiliation and never confuse the two. Humility is about less ego. Humiliation is a belittling of the self.


You, dear reader, can be part of the movement in how you call out humiliation tactics as the abuse of power that they are. You check your own behaviour at the door. You can advocate for mental health. And you can consider a zero-tolerance humiliation policy for your inner critic.


Up with humility, down with humiliation.


If you want some help taming your inner critic, I can help.


Let me know what you think.


P.S. I am sharing some pre-publication snippets of my forthcoming book When Grit's Not Enough on LinkedIn. Come join in the discussion.


P.P.S. In case you missed my main message :), I believe that high performance shouldn't hurt people. I provide individual and group coaching on how to achieve the performance goals you want without hurting yourself or your people in the process. In ways that are healthier, happier, and more sustainable. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at kirsten@kirstenpetersonconsulting.com.



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