Using humility to counteract shame

u0sm9wx“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 to LessWrong. Thanks to Janos Kramar for his feedback on this post.)


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