I’ve noticed a habit in myself and many of the people I coach. There is a hesitance to celebrate ourselves, to take credit for things we’ve done well. A resistance to acknowledging that we might actually like certain things about ourselves, feel proud of them even. There’s a reluctance to talk about what’s going well, to admit that we feel good about where we are and where things are going.
It feels much more comfortable to focus on areas where we are lacking, to take stock of our faults and flaws. If feels more sensible even, to focus our attention on what needs work, rather than on what’s working.
Humility is one of those good old-fashioned Christian values so many of us in the West grew up on. Even if we didn’t grow up in families that were particularly religious, and my own definitely wasn’t, so many of the values we absorbed as children ultimately come from Christianity.
Guilt is another classic one. I remember once saying to a friend that guilt is like “my lifeblood”. A quality that inhabits the very cells of my being, permeating every aspect of my life. Good old fashioned guilt, a familiar friend to so many of us. And I wasn’t even raised Catholic!
If I think back on the core values of my family growing up, humility was a major thing my parents drilled into me. Kindness, consideration of others, non-wastefulness, those were all big too, but humility felt like a big one. THE big one. No one in my family, immediate or extended, could ever be accused of being remotely arrogant.
Arrogance was a cardinal sin to my people and the furthest thing from who we were. Thinking that you’re special and somehow better than other people? Unthinkable. Instead I was surrounded by talented, kind, and deeply conscientious people. People who rarely gave themselves the credit they deserved, or put themselves forward and asked the world to recognize them.
It is perhaps no surprise that this became the roadmap for my own life.
To this day, arrogance disturbs me a great deal. It’s just such an offensive quality. Especially right now when so many of the people shaping our culture, the very world we live in, seem to exemplify arrogance, vanity and downright narcissism above all else. These qualities are, to my mind at least, dangerously selfish. Anti-social in the truest form of that phrase. So yes, humility remains an important value of mine to this day, though I can’t say it makes the top 5.
In fact, I’ve started to notice humility’s shadow side. To see that my reflexive response to compliments is still to minimize them (and myself), rather than just taking them in and basking in the uncomfortable glow of someone else’s positive regard. To see how much I shy away from acknowledging, even to myself, when things are going well, and allowing myself to feel good about my own role in that.
I also notice how certain clients, themselves humble and considerate people, are so reticent to say (or even to think) positive things about themselves. They believe doing so means they’d be “arrogant”. They feel guilty for thinking well of themselves, not sure they deserve to.
When did arrogance and good old fashioned self-confidence/self-love get conflated? And how does our good friend guilt play a role in all this?
Why do I have such a hard time thinking nice things about myself? Or celebrating my successes? Or even just acknowledging that I have so much good in my life? What keeps me from embracing my blessings with a grateful heart, rather than one filled with fear and guilt, haunted by questions of whether I actually deserve any of it.
And if we don’t own the good in ourselves, how can we possibly own the good in our lives?
Looking at it this way, ‘humility’ starts to feel like a bit of a hedge. A cognitive bias that prevents us from having to face the inherent inequality of the world, and the attendant fear and guilt this brings up in us. Maybe this isn’t true for everyone, but it’s certainly been true for me.
The world is an unfair place.
This is a truth as plain as day, and yet it’s something my heart just can’t seem to reconcile. In the last week alone, countless people in my state lost lives and homes, entire towns were obliterated by forest fires. And of course there was yet another mass shooting, in case anyone is still keeping track.
How can these horrors be true and it simultaneously be true that I somehow deserve all of the blessings in my life?
By being ‘humble’, downplaying or outright ignoring all of the gifts I’ve been given, I don’t have to face the uncomfortable truth that I’ve been dealt a good hand. That I’ve had it relatively easy, while so many others, and some of those closest to me, simply got a raw deal. So many people have been through such hard, unfair things. And while I’ve had plenty of my own struggles, much of life has come pretty easily to me.
My guilt over this truth is enormous. At times it consumes me.
My acute awareness of the injustice of it all leaves me paralyzed with fear. Afraid to acknowledge all of the good, to look it in the face and own it. Afraid of ‘tempting fate’ by tallying up all of my blessings, or feeling good about who I am, as though a vengeful god is listening, ready to strike me down for my hubris. Ready to make things equal, make things fair.
And I’m most afraid of daring to ask for more, of continuing to reach toward my best self and my best life, when I’ve already been given so much.
For how can it be that I have what I have, and other people don’t have food to eat or a safe place to rest their heads?
I can’t reconcile my heart to any of this, but I am starting to see it as a yes, and.
Yes, the world is a cruelly unfair place.
And, we still deserve to celebrate the goodness in our lives.
My having a happy marriage and a career that allows me enormous freedom are in no way tied to someone losing their home or their spouse in a raging wildfire. My having the time and the information and the financial resources to eat a diet that’s helping me heal isn’t actually taking food from the mouth of a starving child in a refugee camp.
I know this intellectually, of course, but my heart still struggles to understand.
Punishing myself with guilt over my many blessings has felt like the appropriate price to pay for all this cosmic injustice. It’s a safeguard too, against the arrogance of believing I am somehow entitled to this life, when so many others are suffering. Just the way downplaying every compliment I’ve ever received helps deflect the discomfort of actually feeling good about myself. Feeling lucky. Feeling blessed.
My luck becomes my guilt, and I hold up ‘humility’ as a shield against them both.
But is this serving me? Is it serving others? Has guilt ever opened up anyone’s hand or heart to another?
It doesn’t seem that way to me.
If anything, guilt keeps us locked in our own worlds, so self-focused we can’t acknowledge the experiences of others because we’re too busy making them about us. I see this so much in conversations about race, gender and other forms of social inequality. How tempting it is for those who’ve had the privilege of not facing a particular problem to put their hands over their ears, unwilling to face the guilt that someone else’s truth brings up. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this myself.
Ah guilt, it’s everywhere isn’t it?
And yet, it is only when I begin to let go of the guilt that is in my heart, when I say no to the fear that says it is because I have, that others have not, I have so much more in me to give. It is only when I am fully unabashedly grateful for all that I have, deserved or otherwise, that I am full enough to share.
And that is starting to feel really important to me. What I have to give. What I can do in my own small way to help a world that is in crisis on so many fronts. How I can use all of the gifts I’ve been granted to their fullest potential. In a way that serves others, a way that serves the world.
I’ll leave you with a quote that feels especially fitting in this moment, on this holiday, and especially in a city whose air has only just begun to clear.
“We must risk delight. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world” — Jack Gilbert
Amen to that. Amen, amen, amen.
Now bring on the turkey! This year though, I’ll take a pass on the side of guilt.
Hand me that gravy instead.