Along with my teaching partner Marla Estes of Building Bridgers, I’ll be offering a free introductory course next week on the topic of humility, and how moving from absolute certainty to “I’m not sure” helps to promote psychological growth and improves interpersonal relationships. When I recently described the aims and methods of this class to my writer’s group, one my fellow writers told me she liked the concept but had a problem with the word humility. Many people who struggle with low self-worth, she said, might hear this word and unconsciously worry that cultivating humility would damage their fragile self-esteem and deepen feelings of shame. This response surprised me, though as I’ve thought it over, I understand my friend’s concerns.
Humility sounds very close to the word humiliation, and in fact they both derive from the same Latin root for the word humble, which in English has meanings both positive and negative. A humble person (marked by humility) is modest, neither arrogant nor prideful, and characterized by simplicity or a lack of pretentiousness. This sounds like a positive personal trait, and indeed in Christian theology, humility is one of the central virtues. But to humble someone also means to hurt their pride or cause them to feel shame – that is, to humiliate them. Sometimes the wish to humiliate is driven by envy but may also arise from a belief that the other person is not who she pretends to be.
In other words, we might say that the drive to humiliate sometimes reflects a wish to bring external appearance into alignment with internal reality: you’re not actually the superior person you profess to be. As harsh as humiliation might seem, it may sometimes work to advance the truth. In this vein, I believe that cultivating our own humility means to be more honest with ourselves: to align our demeanor and actions with the inner truth of who we are, what we know, and how we feel. Sometimes we’re out of touch with that inner truth, deceived by our own defenses against the awareness of it. Coming into contact with that truth is often painful and so we try to avoid it.
One of the most difficult universal truths to tolerate is the reality of our own helplessness and, especially in this age of rapidly expanding information, how little we truly understand about what’s going on in the world around us. Admitting this truth to ourselves sometimes hurts and can even seem threatening, as if we’ll be diminished by it. In a culture that values mastery and knowledge, to say the words “I’m not sure” can feel humiliating. When the teacher called on you in class, back when you were in grade school, coming up with an incorrect answer or even remaining silent felt shameful. As adults, we sometimes convince ourselves we know more than we do because it makes us feel safer.
But believing that we actually do know when we don’t is a kind of self-deception, even if we don’t realize we’re lying to ourselves. Most people like to believe they know much more than they do, and that’s understandable. If someone challenges our self-deceptions, however, we can easily feel threatened: abandoning our posture of absolute certainty returns us to that painful state of un-knowing that makes us feel helpless. But here’s the thing: only in saying “I’m not sure” does it become possible to learn. Only by acknowledging our doubts and confusions can we connect with other open-minded people also trying to understand the complex challenges we humans all face by virtue of being alive.
In our course Cultivating Humility, Marla and I want to help people step back from certainty and acknowledge what they don’t know so they can learn, so they can have authentic conversations with others able to tolerate ambiguity and confusion. It’s the only way to approach a more complicated, less absolute, but ultimately richer sort of “truth.” We believe that cultivating humility is the only way we’ll be able to bridge the political divide, coming together to solve the many urgent problems our country faces today.
I recently came upon a wonderful quote from Anthony Bourdain that embodies the spirit of what we’re trying to do:
“Life is complicated. It’s filled with nuance. It’s unsatisfying. If I believe in anything, it is doubt. The root cause of all life’s problems is looking for a simple fucking answer.”
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***** IF YOU’D LIKE TO ATTEND THIS FREE INTRODUCTORY CLASS, PLEASE CLICK HERE TO VISIT MARLA’S SITE AND LEARN MORE ABOUT IT. *****
As I mentioned in my last post, sales figures for my book SHAME were so weak that my publisher agreed to sell me back the publication rights. That book was (is) deeply important to me, and I had so much invested in its success, that its relative “failure” was a profound shame experience for me. In the book, I talk about one type of shame as “Disappointed Expectation” and another as “Unwanted Exposure.” The book’s poor sales figures felt to me like both; the shame I felt left me for a long time in a state of mild depression.
The re-acquisition of the right to publish has helped me to recover and I feel newly energized. I also feel that I’ve regained my feelings of pride in the book I wrote. It’s a very good book, a distillation of everything I’ve learned over the course of my career, and it deserves a wider audience. Part of the problem, I believe, was the wrong title and a scary cover. “SHAME” sounds serious, but the subtitle makes it seem less so, more like any other shallow self-help book. I chose neither one. I liked the cover at first but have since grown to see it as intimidating and off-putting; I selected yellow for the cover and I’ll take responsibility for that wrong choice.
The new title is much better and more accurate: my book is about how learning from our encounters with shame often teaches us something useful about ourselves and offers an opportunity to grow. I’m cautiously optimistic that it will do better than SHAME did.
As part of its launch, I’m offering the digital version for $.99 on Amazon through the end of May, then its price will rise to $9.99 — what I charge for Why Do I Do That? Feel free to download the discount copy and, if you are so moved, leave me an honest review on Amazon. Most people have no idea how important reviews are for inspiring confidence in prospective readers. Why Do I Do That? has more than 270 4 or 5 star reviews and for that reason, it continues to garner a new audience.
Meanwhile, I’m nearing the end of my fantasy novel Vacillian and will be releasing it in four parts over the next few months. I’m as proud of that work of fiction as I am of the newly re-titled Building Self Esteem, available for purchase by clicking on the link below.
The sales figure for my last book SHAME were a disaster for complex reasons I’ll write about later, but to make a long story short, I was able to re-purchase the rights to publication from the publisher of that book, St. Martin’s Press. I’m now re-releasing it under my New Rise Press imprint with a different title, so I wanted to alert all of you who purchased SHAME that this is not actually a new book. I’ve had a heartening number of pre-orders for the new book, currently scheduled for a June 1 release, but you still have time to cancel those orders if you assumed I was releasing a new title.
Thanks for your support. Here’s the new cover, with its new title.