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Humility: An Antidote to Inflated Self and a Means for Well-being

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There is a great fable from Rumi, the sufi master, about the fly who thinks she is a sailor:

A short distance away, a tiny fly was resting on a leaf lying on the ground. The donkey’s urine, flowing downstream, began to carry the leaf with the fly on it. The fly was initially taken aback, not quite understanding what was happening. After a while, though, she began to believe: ‘I’m sailing away on the sea. I’m the captain of this ship, and what a perfectly seasoned navigator I am! Who dares to stop me now?’

Often, like the fly in this fable, we all are inclined to assume ourselves the captains of our own supposedly enormous and exceptional ships. And when all of a sudden an unexpected wind just blows our miniature ships away toward destinations we are not prepared for, we become simply devastated. In this metaphorical example, the fly stands for the egoistic ‘self’, which has a natural tendency to be flattered and served favourably at all times.

Just take a look at the number of words engendered by the self itself – self-awareness, self-indulgence, self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-reflection, to name a few. Ironically though, these self-related concepts, which are espoused in an effort to help people improve their emotional well-being, more often than not works against the best interests of them.

Making things even more complicated, this era of self-promotion makes it difficult to put some distance with the noisy ego, and to mitigate ceaseless preoccupation with our selves. Marketing and advertising campaigns breed our cultural obsession with egoistic quests, and financial and political forces serve to render self-indulgent behaviours and expectations a perceived necessity. The unprecedented boom of social media has also fuelled the fire for unrealistic self-promotion, and almost created its own independent world of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’, feeding narcissistic demands of individuals. Added to that, the massive growth of self-help industry within pop psychology has imposed cultural paradigms that emphasise excessive self-interest, suggesting unvalidated methods about how to achieve what one desires no matter what!

Well, what is wrong with all this excessive self-engagement? The truth is, self-interest is not entirely in the interest of the self: All this self-focus adds little to the well-being of the individual, but strongly urges continuous competition with others, setting unrealistic goals, focusing more on external, transient states; yet less on intrinsic, virtuous values, and results in a flux of frustration. After all, are not self-engendered thoughts and emotions mostly responsible for personal suffering? Self-awareness evokes a good deal of human suffering in the form of anxiety, depression, anger, and other negative feelings by letting people pondering about the past or contemplating about what might happen to them in the future.

Humility as an antidote to relentless self-engagement, has long been exalted by religious and philosophical conventions. Corresponding to the empirical research in the desirable personality traits has there been a growing interest in humility by psychologists as well.

The dominant view of humility was usually a negative one because it was often misunderstood as degrading oneself, feeling inferior to others, or having low self-esteem. On the contrary though, humility is a personality trait, which entails a genuine, realistic recognition of the self, admitting one’s own limitations as well as strengths, a true understanding of one’s own place within the grand scheme of existence, and a low degree of self-preoccupation.

More importantly, true humility entails not being preoccupied with these neither negative nor positive qualities. We come across many self-absorbed people who constantly dwell on their misfortunes or lowliness compared to others, while in fact, by doing so, they exhibit an attitude, which is an exact opposite of humility because true humility is more like self-forgetfulness. In this regard, the core of humility largely connotes the notion of quiet ego. Within quiet ego lies a self-identity, which is neither overly self-focused, nor overly other-focused; an identity that embraces others without losing the self.  

Why does humility matter? A straightforward answer to this question is that humility contributes to the well-being of individuals. Humble people virtually stabilise on a sense of intrinsic satisfaction and peace of mind that cannot easily be jeopardised by what are perceived as external threats, be it from people at work, friends, or from other encounters with situations throughout the course of life.

Humility can also be viewed as a liberating state of mind, which is free from comparing oneself with others. In other words, since humble individuals are in harmony with their strengths and weaknesses, they don’t feel the urge to outperform or constantly compete with others, neither do they desperately seek for appraisal, recognition or confirmation from their peers. When confronted with criticism, these individuals are not discouraged or become dubious about their worth nor do they antagonise critics.

Humility, therefore, helps build a sense of interior freedom, confidence, and security. In a similar vein, since it provides a realistic view of the minute self within the grand picture of existence, humility may act as an agent to diminish the terror human beings feel when they think of their own mortality. Indeed, a quiet, humble ego, which is exemplified by humility, buffers death anxiety.

Many studies have also pointed to a close interaction between humility and numerous positive character strengths and attributes, indicating that humility is a strong pro-social virtue with moral, social, and psychological benefits. For example, it is highly unlikely that we enjoy being around someone who is boasting and has grandiose attitudes. As humility is closely related with positive attributes such as generosity, gratitude, benevolence, forgiveness, conscientiousness, social responsibility, modesty, and empathy, humble individuals are more likely to establish firmly grounded relationships, and retrieve more satisfaction from their relations.

The man’s search for meaning and happiness is at least as ancient as the human history itself. Humility, as a psychological construct, has recently started to gain considerable attention by researchers because there is a substantial overlap between what is regarded as the components of well-being and dimensions of humility. Regardless of how it is defined, humility is a virtue that is definitely worth cultivating. It is the virtue we need in order to flourish, and to appreciate deep down the interconnectedness of all things within the grand scheme of universe.


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Sinem Hurmeydan is a psychology and philosophy enthusiast, a dedicated learner, and a researcher. She has an MBA from the University of Oxford.

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