Can You Be Too Humble?
Humility is a great thing, right? “Being humble is a virtue.” “The meek shall inherit the Earth.” Actually, I think that message is not meant for everyone. What about those of us who humble ourselves out of the picture entirely?
You know who you are. Someone pays you a legitimate compliment, and you find a way to downplay it or dismiss it. Someone asks for volunteers to lead, and even if you think you have the best skills for the job, you shrink back and let someone else step forward. When it comes to speaking up for yourself, you inexplicably find your voice squelched internally. You have a good idea for something, but you just can’t put it out there in the world. If you’re some kind of entrepreneur, you are horrible at self-promotion. Maybe you’ve even tried to step forward many times, and you have found that it just doesn’t work or that you even get negative feedback when you do.
Maybe, you say, it’s just my role in the world to be in the background, to serve those who are meant to be in the spotlight. People certainly do need to fill every kind of role in the world. Not everyone can be a prima ballerina. There also need to be chorus dancers, musicians filling the pit, people selling tickets, ushers leading people to their seats. But, it’s not really that external, structural role I’m talking about. It’s an internal, energetic sense of knowing that we matter, that our voices matter, and that the world is a better place when we freely and openly share ourselves with the world. And, I bet that you’ve met many a person who plays a supporting role in the world and yet who lives their uniqueness loud and proud.
So, why are some of us such wallflowers? Why do we find it so hard to speak out, even when we know it’s the right thing to do? It all goes back to how we fit with our surroundings early in life. From conception until the age of 2 1/2, we’re constantly learning in a really specific and different way than we often think of learning. Rather than learning information and how to do things in an intellectual, cognitive way, we are just sponges before age 2 1/2, absorbing how it feels to be human. This “sensory learning” time puts into place our sense of self, which is how we feel about being ourselves and how we feel that we need to be to survive on the planet.
This sensory learning time was meant to grow the core of who we are, which I call natural well-being. We were meant to absorb the feeling that it’s good being human and use that absorbed feeling to enhance and develop our uniqueness. But, because people don’t feel good around us every moment, and because sponges can’t be choosy in what they absorb, we also took in the feeling that there’s something wrong being human, and our little sensory sponge brains took it personally. These negative feelings became the sense that “there is something wrong with me.” This Learned Distress becomes embedded in our sense of self, and it becomes the automatic, generating force behind our negative moments. To cope with the Learned Distress, our brains form survival mechanisms to control or otherwise deal with it. This is where being too humble comes in.
Our Learned Distress and survival mechanism develops as sort of a puzzle piece that allows us to fit well with our parents and other surroundings. For some of us, fitting well means keeping ourselves, our opinions, what matters to us, under wraps. “What’s safe is to be quiet and hidden.” For some people, that’s most of it. “As long as I keep myself under control and hidden, I’m OK.” Others must not only keep themselves hidden, but then work hard to make sure everyone else approves of them. Either way, survival depends on keeping what matters most to us under wraps. And, the part of us that stores the survival mechanism isn’t open to rational-level change, so we can’t think our way out of it, even when we know it isn’t good for us.
When I start working with clients on this issue, I ask them, “What if everyone wins when you openly share what really matters to you?” This often elicits one of two responses—either laughter and disbelief or anxiety and fear. Either way, I know that I’ve hit the right button. Their survival mechanism is speaking up and saying, “Don’t listen to her. That’s not possible, and it’s not good for you.” My brave clients start working with this concept, anyway, telling their brain what they want it to change for them during sleep, when change on the level of how we feel can actually happen.
The results are really fun to watch. They say things like, “Someone gave me a compliment at work, and instead of deflecting it, I just said thank you, and it felt so good!” Or, “Instead of staying silent through one more house move, I spoke up and shared how horrible our past moves have been for me and how I thought this one should work. To my surprise, my husband thanked me for sharing what he hadn’t even known about our past moves, and then he asked me to create the plan for this one.” In this latter case, this couple had the smoothest move of their lives, and my client felt that she mattered more than ever before.
Does any of this sound familiar? Are you “humbling yourself right out of the picture”? The world needs everyone’s unique voice, and that includes yours! I hope that you’ll consider that there really is such a thing as being too humble and think about what good could happen when you come out of your comfortable hiding place.