Using humility to counteract shame

post by Vika · 2016-04-15T18:32:44.123Z · score: 9 (10 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 15 comments

"Pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source. True humility is the only antidote to shame."

Uncle Iroh, "Avatar: The Last Airbender"

Shame is one of the trickiest emotions to deal with. It is difficult to think about, not to mention discuss with others, and gives rise to insidious ugh fields and negative spirals. Shame often underlies other negative emotions without making itself apparent - anxiety or anger at yourself can be caused by unacknowledged shame about the possibility of failure. It can stack on top of other emotions - e.g. you start out feeling upset with someone, and end up being ashamed of yourself for feeling upset, and maybe even ashamed of feeling ashamed if meta-shame is your cup of tea. The most useful approach I have found against shame is invoking humility.

What is humility, anyway? It is often defined as a low view of your own importance, and tends to be conflated with modesty. Another common definition that I find more useful is acceptance of your own flaws and shortcomings. This is more compatible with confidence, and helpful irrespective of your level of importance or comparison to other people. What humility feels like to me on a system 1 level is a sense of compassion and warmth towards yourself while fully aware of your imperfections (while focusing on imperfections without compassion can lead to beating yourself up). According to LessWrong, "to be humble is to take specific actions in anticipation of your own errors", which seems more like a possible consequence of being humble than a definition.

Humility is a powerful tool for psychological well-being and instrumental rationality that is more broadly applicable than just the ability to anticipate errors by seeing your limitations more clearly. I can summon humility when I feel anxious about too many upcoming deadlines, or angry at myself for being stuck on a rock climbing route, or embarrassed about forgetting some basic fact in my field that I am surely expected to know by the 5th year of grad school. While humility comes naturally to some people, others might find it useful to explicitly build an identity as a humble person. How can you invoke this mindset?

One way is through negative visualization or pre-hindsight, considering how your plans could fail, which can be time-consuming and usually requires system 2. A faster and less effortful way is to is to imagine a person, real or fictional, who you consider to be humble. I often bring to mind my grandfather, or Uncle Iroh from the Avatar series, sometimes literally repeating the above quote in my head, sort of like an affirmation. I don't actually agree that humility is the only antidote to shame, but it does seem to be one of the most effective.

(Cross-posted from my blog. Thanks to Janos Kramar for his feedback on this post.)

15 comments

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comment by ahbwramc · 2016-04-17T02:14:10.135Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

It's funny, I wrote a blog post arguing against humility not too long ago. I had a somewhat different picture of humility than you:

People internalize norms in very different ways and to very different degrees. There are people out there who don’t seem to internalize the norms of humility at all. We usually call these people “arrogant jerks”. And there are people – probably the vast majority of people – who internalize them in reasonable, healthy ways. We usually call these people “normal”.

But then there are also people who internalize the norms of humility in highly unhealthy ways. Humility taken to its most extreme limit is not a pretty thing – you don’t end up with with wise, virtuous, Gandalf-style modesty. You end up with self-loathing, pathological guilt, and scrupulosity. There are people out there – and they are usually exceptionally good, kind, and selfless people, although that shouldn’t matter – who are convinced that they are utterly worthless as human beings. For such people, showing even a modicum of kindness or charity towards themselves would be unthinkable. Anti-charity is much more common – whatever interpretation of a situation puts themselves in the worst light, that’s the one they’ll settle on. And why? Because it’s been drilled into their heads, over and over again, that to think highly of yourself – even to the tiniest, most minute degree – is wrong. It’s something that bad, awful, arrogant people do, and if they do it then they’ll be bad, awful, arrogant people too. So they take refuge in the opposite extreme: they refuse to think even the mildest of nice thoughts about themselves, and they never show themselves even the slightest bit of kindness.

Or take insecurity (please). All of us experience insecurity to one degree or another, of course. But again, there’s a pathological, unhealthy form it can take on that’s rooted in how we internalize the norms of humility. When you tell people that external validation is the only means by which they can feel good about themselves…well, surprisingly enough, some people take a liking to external validation. But in the worst cases it goes beyond a mere desire for validation, and becomes a need – an addiction, even. You wind up with extreme people-pleasers, people who center every aspect of their lives around seeking out praise and avoiding criticism.

But I actually don't think we disagree all that much, we're just using the same word to describe different things. I think the thing I called humility - the kind of draconian, overbearing anti-self-charity that scrupulous people experience - that is a bad thing. And I think the thing you called humility - acceptance of your flaws, self-compassion - that is a very good thing. In fact, I ended the essay with a call for more self-charity from (what I called) humble people. And I've been trying to practice self-compassion since writing that essay, and it's been a boon for my mental health.

(By far the most useful technique, for what it's worth, has been "stepping outside of myself", i.e. trying to see myself as just another person. I find when I do something embarrassing it's the worst thing to have ever happened, and obviously all my friends are thinking about how stupid I am and have lowered their opinion of me accordingly...whereas when a friend does something embarrassing, it maybe warrants a laugh, but then it seems totally irrelevant and has absolutely no bearing on what I think of them as a person. I now try as much as possible to look at myself with that second mindset.)

Anyway, language quibbles aside, I agree with this post.

comment by RomeoStevens · 2016-04-17T02:50:43.190Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

There's also the law of equal and opposite advice.

comment by Vika · 2016-04-19T01:13:13.449Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the link to your post. I also think we only disagree on definitions.

I agree that self-compassion is a crucial ingredient. This is the distinction I was pointing at with "while focusing on imperfections without compassion can lead to beating yourself up". Humility says "I am flawed and it's ok", while self-loathing is more like "I am flawed and I should be punished". The latter actually generates shame instead of reducing it.

I think that seeking external validation by appearing humble is completely orthogonal to humility as an internal state or attitude you can take towards yourself (my post focuses on the latter). This signaling / social dimension of humility seems to add a lot of confusion to an already fuzzy concept.

comment by JohnC2015_duplicate0.34499772964045405 · 2016-04-18T04:13:32.789Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This is a must read! A lot of people are reacting negatively to avoid shame. But more often than not, humility is being left behind.

I agree, 100%, that true humility is the antidote of shame. One has to admit any wrongdoing and learn from any lesson that it brings.

Thanks! :)

comment by RomeoStevens · 2016-04-16T23:15:20.659Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Tying a desired attribute/model/stance/intention etc to an emotionally salient avatar or image seems to make it a lot stickier. I've tried to induce this in various ways with mixed success, but the successes have been useful enough that I keep doing it. See also, Command Mode by PJ Eby: http://dirtsimple.org/2006/03/stretching-your-self.html

comment by OrphanWilde · 2016-04-15T20:17:39.679Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Pride can also be a source of humility - if we are speaking of pride as a mindstate, rather than as a behavior.

Pride as a mindstate leads to both confidence and humility; it is knowing who you are and being happy with that person, strengths and weaknesses both. Pride as a behavior is somewhat more nebulous, but is, loosely, socially-oriented behavior intended to establish your value to other people. Pride as a pejorative is used to refer to people who have no pride in and of themselves, but rather whose self-value is determined by the way other people regard them. As a positive trait, it is used to refer to people who value themselves and what they do; "Take pride in your work" is telling you that you should treat what you do as if it matters.

The issue is that one word is used to describe different things.

comment by bjbernis · 2016-05-02T18:19:00.202Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The Dalai Lama once said, "In life, Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional." I think this is directly related to the concept of humility. True humility is not the devaluation of the self in as much as it is the elimination of the self, the result of which is a perspective that transcends the instinctual human desire for the aversion of pain and the seeking of pleasure. Once this perspective is attained, a person then has the ability to replace these survival instincts with higher-level goals and purposes. Thus, problems are no longer problems in as much as they are simply physical constraints to the achievement of said goals and purposes. You wouldn't consider "Gravity" a problem to flying in as much it is a physical constraint which can be overcome via other physical laws of nature.

Of course, there are other ways to attain this perspective; however, this perspective of true humility is sufficient in accomplishing a way of experiencing the world that minimizes the experience of negative emotions, the root of which is a focus on the self and the solution of which is a focus on goals and purposes.

comment by Sarginlove · 2016-04-19T14:24:51.895Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Pride is something that is not desirable, making yourself more better and also having the feeling that you are more better than others. With this post am now able to understand what pride it's all about and knowing that there are lot of things that we would loose when we are being proud. The main thing i have also noticed and with this post have been able to understand this very well is humility, When you are humble there are lot of things you gain from this then also you can be able to avoid shame and not feel bad about it.

comment by ChristianKl · 2016-04-20T19:34:27.463Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I agree in general. Pride basically leads a person to violate the dictum of keeping one's identity small. It produces attachment that doesn't help with rational thinking. It makes it harder to open up and be vunerable to connect with other people.

However there are circumstances where pride is an improvement. If a person moves from being afraid, angry or ashamed to being proud, that's progress.

If you are in a coaching interaction with someone who wants to do something to feel proud, don't automatically try to make the person change their goal. I think in Kegan's terms pride is something that level 2 (imperial) people value. Developmentally it's not helpful for move to level 3 (interpersonal) or higher.

comment by gjm · 2016-04-18T10:33:16.710Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There's what I think is a good perspective on humility somewhere in the writings of C S Lewis[1], which is roughly what ahbwramc describes as "stepping outside of myself": CSL proposes that we should understand humility as a state of mind in which we think of our own achievements and failures as we would those of some other person.

CSL was of course a Christian writer. I'm not sure to what extent his definition was already well established in the Christian tradition, and to what extent he (1) was committed because of his religion to making "humility" mean something good and (2) was smart enough to see that "thinking ill of yourself" isn't a good candidate for that, and therefore (3) came up with a better definition. I suspect mostly the latter; at any rate CSL's definition isn't simply what intelligent Christians have always meant by "humility", because e.g. Thomas Aquinas says that humility is a "praiseworthy self-abasement to the lowest place".

[1] You can find it in ironic mode in the Screwtape Letters, but he says it more straightforwardly somewhere else; I forget where; perhaps in "Mere Christianity"?

comment by entirelyuseless · 2016-04-18T14:36:46.633Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The text from Thomas Aquinas refers to a quotation from Isidore, and the quotation itself is giving an etymology. If you read all of what he says about humility, he definitely does not think that it involves believing yourself worse than you are.

comment by gjm · 2016-04-18T16:58:24.755Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

He quotes Isidore and endorses what he says. Then (in his reply to obj 2) he says "humility, in so far as it is a virtue, conveys the notion of a praiseworthy self-abasement to the lowest place".

I agree that Aquinas doesn't say that humility involves believing yourself worse than you are. But he also doesn't appear to me to be taking a position that much resembles Lewis's, which is the point I was making.

comment by Gleb_Tsipursky · 2016-04-17T23:39:25.903Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for sharing, some helpful thoughts here!

I find I get the same benefit that you do through humility by invoking self-acceptance and self-love. I've built up that stance through loving-kindness (metta) meditation, as well as developing a mental chorus persona dedicated to self-care.

comment by caelhasse · 2016-06-01T00:47:05.674Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

"He who despises himself still nonetheless respects himself as one who despises" --Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

(:

comment by [deleted] · 2016-04-16T12:17:00.605Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Inspired by this article on rejection sensitivity I have realised that: All things are a state of meaning (which can be reinterpreted), state of body (which can be moved) and a state of challenge (from which there can be growth). When you keep that mantra in mind, literally no bad thing can harm your well-being, so long as you remain in a state of reason. I think the most powerful one is meaning. You can consciously choose to reintrepet something to have a positive meaning rather than a negative meaning. That's the greatest gift of rationality.

Rejection is state of meaning. It’s true, you can be denied by a person or a situation. But, you decide what rejection means to you, by the way you explain the situation to yourself. Many of you tell me that you are “destroyed” and “can’t go on living” because your affection was unreturned or you didn’t get into the school or job of choice. When you assign life and death meaning to being refused, you have nowhere to go but broken and down. You’ve hemmed yourself into a trap by meanings that uproot you completely. Here, I’m talking less about being falsely happy or positive and more about changing the way that you speak about a situation, by the meaning you assign to it. You will be able to handle rejection, when you start to describe it in ways that don’t destroy your self-esteem. Turn a statement like, “I am destroyed and can’t go on living” into “I’m hurting, but not broken or down”. Your whole demeanor changes just by the meaning you give to the experience. Test it out for yourself.

Also, gentle reminder about the empowering effects of power posing and an additional one: smiling!