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The Role of Humility in Personal Development

And why it just might save the world

Virtuous behaviour means shifting our focus beyond our own narrow self-interest, no matter how talented we think we are.

“The good you do others, forget it; the good others do you, remember it.”

– Anon

I heard a true story recently about the late, great British comic actor and writer Ronnie Barker.

Barker was one-half of the comedy pairing of The Two Ronnies on BBC, alongside his great friend and partner in laughs Ronnie Corbett.

Their long-running TV show consisted of comic sketches and gags with wonderful writing, often incorporating funny, even ingenious, wordplay.

The Two Ronnies had a few writers, but each comedy skit had to get through five separate comedy editors before they were even seen by the ‘Ronnies’ themselves. One particular writer, we’ll call him ‘John Smith’, wrote sketches so clever and funny that they always got through, and often ended up being used on the show. But Smith was reclusive, it seemed – he was virtually uncontactable.

After well over a decade, I think it was 14 years or so, Ronnie Corbett decided it was time to recognize the great writer’s work.

Using a PO Box, Ronnie Corbett invited this ingenious wordsmith to the end-of-series dinner party. Corbett felt they owed him so much that he even had every glass on the table inscribed with Smith’s name. After all, he had greatly contributed to the enormous success of the Ronnies’ lengthy TV careers.

A reluctant revelation

As the celebratory evening wore on, Ronnie Barker, who had been looking increasingly uncomfortable, finally stood up, asked for the team’s attention, and offered an apology.

Reluctantly, he professed that John Smith was none other than himself, Ronnie Barker.

So why had he written work for his own show as an unknown? Because he didn’t want people to accept it simply because it was his work, but rather on its own merits. Likewise, he didn’t want the production team to feel bad rejecting it because it was the famous Ronnie Barker’s work.

The work of this unknown writer had been widely lauded, but he didn’t need the credit – he already had enough, and he wanted the work to stand entirely on its own merit. Its merit, not his.

The needs of the situation superseded the needs of his ego.

Barker was interested in the success of the wider, communal project of the show, not in his own aggrandisement. And ultimately, its success was his success.

Being humble (and not in the way some people boast of being humble!) is not just a virtue because people say it is, but because it is a pathway to greater efficiency and greater perception (I’ll get to that in a moment!).

But we should never confuse humility (and yes, it can be so easily faked) with self-abasement.

Self-flagellation versus real humility

Never accepting compliments or taking credit may have more to do with low self-esteem than genuine humility.

An inability to see our own positive contributions or attributes (often accompanied by a preoccupation with our real or imagined faults) is not the same as calm and far-seeing humility.

In fact, self-abasement may indicate a kind of warped, excessive self-referentialism as acute as that of the self-trumpeter who narcissistically steals credit for others’ work and snatches every opportunity to tell you how amazing they are.

Self-abasement may indicate a kind of warped, excessive self-referentialism as acute as that of the self-trumpeter who narcissistically steals credit for others' work and snatches every opportunity to tell you how amazing they are. Click to Tweet

Humility doesn’t require excessive, or even any, guilt or shame.

And real humility doesn’t require ‘humble’ bragging (“I raised so much money for charity I caused a long line at the bank! LOL!”) or a sense of being a ‘wonderful person’.

It’s more akin to healthy self-esteem, whereby a person has an underlying sense of their capacities, talents, and deficits, but doesn’t refer everything back to the ego self. Those with genuine humility are therefore more interested in the communal success of the activities they’re involved with rather than whether it makes them look good or bad.

So healthy self-esteem, neither too high nor too low, gives us the spare capacity to focus away from ourselves while still maintaining the wisdom to meet our needs in balance.

Seeing wider and wiser

The word humility itself is quite a loaded one.

All religions require, at least nominally (even if eventually hypocritically), their followers to practise ‘ethical behaviours’ such as humility, along with kindness, generosity, and forgiveness. But why might this be?

Perhaps it originally had to do not with just being seen as ‘good’ or getting a pass into heaven but with enabling a certain quality of consciousness and personal development so as to be a more effective human being for oneself and wider society.

Virtuous behaviour means shifting our focus beyond our own narrow self-interest. We can widen our self-interest to see it as intrinsically linked to the interests of humanity as a whole.

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A parent may, in the moment, feel (not think) that an immediate nicotine fix is in their interests. But rapid ageing and an early demise are not in their interests, or the interests of their family. If they can see beyond their narrow self-interest in the moment, they will serve their wider self-interest in the long term.

So being virtuous isn’t something we do just because we ‘should’, or because others tell us to. It’s functional, because it widens and therefore wisens our perceptions. ‘Being virtuous’ is still serving ourselves, but in a wider way – not in the consumerist sense of feeding the ego.

Being genuinely virtuous simply means seeing wider and wiser – increasing our connection with wider realities. This, I think, should be part of any genuine spiritual teaching. Widened perception can keep the self-interested, self-aggrandizing self in check so that a more real, universal, perceptive, spiritual self can emerge. The genuinely humble are also genuinely humane.

Note that keeping self-interest in check doesn’t mean oppressing people or guilt-tripping them into feeling they are unworthy, which would still inflame and paradoxically inflate their ego selves.

The pitfalls of excessive pride

Taking excessive, hubristic pride in being good is a trap, because it inflames the ego, which forms a barrier to emotional development, which makes us less capable of both contributing to life and learning from it. Excessive pride is a barrier to spiritual development because it narrows perception.

This is not, of course, to say that we should never register when we’ve done well or take any satisfaction in doing well or the right thing… but recognition can easily degrade into hubris and stoke feelings of arrogance. But ‘being a good person’ needs a kind of purity of intention, which isn’t always easy.

For example, being intolerant of the intolerance of others is still intolerance! Hating haters is still hate, boasting of modesty is still boastful… and so on.

Understanding other people’s intolerances widens perception and thereby unleashes the potential for wisdom – for responding in less mechanical, more creative and effective ways – as wider perception always does.

So virtue is instrumental to the fulfilment of personal psychological and spiritual development.

This idea, that practising humility and not taking pride in doing good actually helps us develop as human beings, counterbalances the clichéd rejoinder that as long as we’re doing good, it shouldn’t matter how we feel about it.

Taking egotistical pride in doing good squeezes perception right back down onto the self and is therefore inimical to genuine self-improvement.

But there are other dangers to taking pride in ‘acting virtuous’. Doing good for others can often morph into doing good to others – and demanding endless recognition, gratitude, special favours, or even adulation because of it. Well-intentioned do-gooding can thereby turn into a kind of tyranny of the person you are ‘helping’ because your ego is so tied up in it.

As Maurice Nicoll wrote in his book The Mark:

“The serpents and scorpions are those who are deceitful and pretend civility with hatred in their hearts, or appear pious and in secret loath, or champion reform to gain power.”

The difference between virtues and values

With greater scope for self-presentation than ever before, we may find ourselves in danger of substituting values for virtues.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her book The De-moralization of Society, distinguishes between virtues, which are reflected in our actions, and values, which can simply be self-proclaimed badges of goodness that don’t necessarily require actual goodness or sacrifice, or even personal inconvenience.

Of course, real values can lead to virtues and vice versa, but a value need not be anchored to actual good behaviour or even good intentions. Like fashionable clothes or even camouflage, values can simply be abstract ideas of ‘goodness’ we present to the world – perhaps to cover something else.

Having (or being seen to have) acceptable and virtuous values and telling everyone about them may indicate that beneath those values something less truly virtuous lurks. Again the Sufis have a term for this: a “perfumed scorpion”.2

Having the ‘right’ opinions can serve as a kind of shortcut for others to assume that we are good – a way of outsourcing goodness or genuine virtue to a label or badge (or emoji!). Proclaiming values can also serve as a kind of tribal call: “See, I am like you, one of us, distinct from those evil outsiders.”

Personally, I’d prefer someone to have the ‘wrong’ opinions (that is, be unaware or uncaring of opinion-based fashion or simply not prone to verbiage) but genuine virtue.

Those with real humility, a capacity so easy to counterfeit, are the ones who see no need to shout their values from the rooftops or drop heavy hint bombs as to their purported goodness. Holding virtuous values and yelling them at digital passers-by should never, at least in my humble opinion, be confused with practising real virtues quietly, even secretly.

Being, not seeming, might be the key.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

You can get my book FREE when you subscribe to my therapy techniques newsletter. Click here to subscribe free now.

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  1. See Shah, I. (1994). The Commanding Self. Octagon Press Ltd.
  2. See Shah, I. (1978). A Perfumed Scorpion. Octagon Press Ltd.

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