Meaning of Humility Reveals Itself in 'Lowly' Moments

Updated on July 19, 2019
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Scott S. Bateman is an author, publisher and professional journalist.

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Humility is a human virtue and personality trait that rises from humbling experiences in life.

It is a virtue because it places the good of other people equal to or above the self. It is a personality trait because it affects how we behave with other people on a daily basis.

Some experiences increase humility and others decrease it. A great football player who also knows he is a poor father may have little humility about football and much more of it about fatherhood.

Pain often comes with humbling experiences because they lessen our self value. Mindful people can learn humility on their own from mistakes they make in life. They also learn it from being humiliated by other people who lower them through word or deed.

The word humility dates back thousands of years and shows up in religions around the world. It’s possible that early societies embraced this moral virtue as a benefit to social order in addition as a path to a higher spiritual life.

Humbling experiences and our ability to view them accurately push us into humility. Once we have it, what does it mean in daily life?

Humility Definition and Meaning

Humility is the state of being humble. The word humility comes from the Latin word humilis, which means “low, lowly, small, slight, base, mean, humble, obscure, poor, insignificant,” according to the Latdict Latin dictionary.

Humility is a social word. It describes how we perceive our rank, value or place in society. Likewise, it may describe our perception of how others perceive our own rank, value or place.

For example, a lowly private in the army easily understands his or her low rank in comparison to a general. A janitor at a corporate office building likewise understands his or her low rank (and value to the company) in comparison to a chief executive officer.

Humility has a more practical meaning in daily life. A father who loses his temper with a child and yells something hurtful may accurately realize his mistake and understand that he is not a perfect father. The mistake is a humbling experience that teaches humility. But the father who denies or rationalizes his bad behavior is not learning humility. He is only protecting his own ego -- in other words, how he values himself.

Humility involves an accurate view of the self. ... Humility involves a stance that is other-oriented rather than self-focused.

Psychologists say they are only beginning to analyze and understand this trait in people. They are coming up with their own definitions. They see it mostly as an accurate view of the self’s abilities as well as how much a person focuses on other people.

“True humility (is) a rich, multifaceted construct that entails an accurate assessment of one's characteristics, an ability to acknowledge limitations, and a ‘forgetting of the self,’” says psychologist June Price Tangney in the Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology.

“We have defined humility using two main characteristics. On the intrapersonal level, humility involves an accurate view of the self. On the interpersonal level, humility involves a stance that is other-oriented rather than self-focused,” say psychologists Don Emerson Davis Jr., and Joshua N. Hook in an article for the Association for Psychological Science.

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Humility Quotes

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” - author Rick Warren

“A great man is always willing to be little.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

“A true genius admits that he/she knows nothing.” - Albert Einstein

Scroll down to see more quotes.

What Humility is Not

Many words describe the opposite of humility, but two of the most common are “pride” and “arrogance”.

Pride is a high opinion of self in comparison to humility’s low opinion of self. Arrogance is a superior view of self versus others.

Examples of Humility

Humility in Family

Most parents who see their children grow up into adults will realize that they won’t become U.S. presidents, CEOs, Hollywood movie stars or athletes with $10 million annual contracts.

They get normal jobs, possibly marry normal spouses and have normal kids of their own. These parents of adult children accurately see the limits in their children and the limited impact of their own parenting on them.

Young parents often have a strong sense of pride. Their children may get straight As, hit a home run or win top prize at a science fair.

But those same children may not become valedictorians, may get cut from the baseball team or not win another science fair. Parental pride takes a step down.

Older parents still love their children, but they go through many experiences that teach them to lose that pride. They develop a sense of humility about their children and their own parenting abilities.

Humility at Work

Few people go through a 40-year career without having peaks and valleys. Peaks include raises, promotions, new jobs and positive evaluations. Valleys include firings, layoffs, demotions, poor evaluations, troubles with the boss and failures to reach business goals.

A person who clear views ALL of the peaks and valleys in a career will develop a greater sense of humility, according to the psychologists’ definitions.

Even people who reach a senior management position in a company may develop a level of humility because they still sit beneath higher-ranking officials in the company, such as the CEO or board chair. In this example, humility is relative.

Humility in Community

Humility began as a virtue or moral ideal thousands of years ago, especially in religion. As a moral ideal, it encourages care for other people. Psychologists are finding scientific support for that belief.

Humility strengthens social bonds, Davis and Hook say. “Commitment promotes a sense of ‘we-ness’ in close relationships so that individuals enjoy sacrificing for a partner,” they say. “Viewing others as humble should facilitate greater commitment, whereas viewing others as egotistical and selfish should decrease commitment.”

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Humility in Politics

Politicians struggle with pride versus humility. Imagine a President who wins election with more than 60 million votes.

But imagine that same President who gets booed or heckled at speeches, reads or hears lengthy personal attacks in media, possibly doesn’t get re-elected or, in the case of Richard Nixon, gets forced out of office in shame.

A person doesn’t need to get elected President to learn lessons in pride and humility. Everyday voters who admit they are wrong about a policy or politician have a greater degree of humility than ones who never admit being wrong.

Humility in Religion

Humility is a common virtue in all major religions that date back thousands of years. The concept appears in many major texts and from many spiritual leaders.

“When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom, the Bible says in Proverbs 11:2. Likewise, “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life,” the Bible also says in Proverbs 22:4.

“The servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say words of peace,” the Quran says in Surah Al-Furqan 25:63.

“When things are going well, be mindful of adversity. When prosperous, be mindful of poverty. When loved, be mindful of thoughtfulness. When respected, be mindful of humility,” Gautama Buddha says.

More Humility Quotes

“In the course of my life, I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome diet.” - Winston Churchill

“Life is a long lesson in humility.” - J.M. Barrie

“True humility does not know that it is humble. If it did, it would be proud from the contemplation of so fine a virtue.” - Martin Luther

“If pain doesn't lead to humility, you have wasted your suffering.” - Katerina Stoykova Klemer

“Pride must die in you, or nothing of heaven can live in you.” - Andrew Murray

“The seeker after truth should be humbler than the dust.” - Mahatma Gandhi

“Humility is throwing oneself away in complete concentration on something or someone else.” - Madeleine L'Engle

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Scott S Bateman

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    • promisem profile imageAUTHOR

      Scott S Bateman 

      5 weeks ago

      Thanks for your comment, Doris. Like you, I spent a long time near high-profile people (corporate executives). The most arrogant one of all hid a low self esteem.

      The ones with a decent dose of humility usually were the most effective leaders because they didn't always put themselves first.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James MizBejabbers 

      5 weeks ago from Beautiful South

      When the great show humility, it makes them greater. Or at least that's my opinion. I have had two careers, both of which have a lot of arrogant people, broadcasting and government. A lot of the time arrogance is just a coverup for low self-esteem. You have stated good reasons for a person to show humility. Good, well-written article.

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