Practising humility helps us stay down-to-earth and keeps false pride at bay. The problem is that humility is often confused with modesty. Many people use the words as synonyms. But they are about as similar as cheese and chalk.
Humility is a private matter
True humility is inward-looking and concerned only with the self. It is an acknowledgement to the self of our limitations and hence a private matter. Modesty, on the other hand, is outward-looking, and is concerned with others. What’s more, modesty is pretentious. Acting modest is pretending to be less than what we believe we really are. British-born American writer, artist and illustrator Oliver Herford once said, “Modesty is the gentle art of enhancing your charm by pretending not to be aware of it.” In other words, modesty consists of belittling one’s own talents and accomplishments for the sake of receiving praise or adulation from others. Why do we do that? Either to gain control over others, by manipulating their opinions about us, or because deep down, we are people-pleasers—we need the approval of others to feel worthy. Whatever the reason, modesty is a mask we wear to hide our true self.
Maya Angelou, one of the most loved and revered women of our times, detested modesty. She used to say, “Modesty is a learned affectation. And as soon as life slams the modest person against the wall, that modesty drops.” She too preferred humility, which she thought was an inside-out phenomenon.
Humility is about recognising and acknowledging our intrinsic self-worth. It does not mean self-criticism. It only means not drawing unnecessary attention to self. When we’re humble, we neither eulogise our virtues, nor do we make ourselves out to be worthless. In other words, humility does not mean refusing to recognise our strengths — our gifts, talents, and abilities. It means that while we assert our strengths when required, we also acknowledge other people’s strengths freely. Humility also means that we remain aware of our weaknesses and are not afraid of admitting them.
At the core, being humble is an outcome of being authentic, while acting modest implies the person is being inauthentic. I suppose it is no accident, then, that we often use the verb “act” for modesty.
So how do you take that mask off to reveal the true you? Follow the advice of Irish writer and scholar C S Lewis, who said, “Perfect humility dispenses with modesty.” Aim for perfect humility and it will give you the courage to dispose of with modesty.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated by the writer on 19 September 2016 to bring greater clarity.
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