Humility, according to Seligman’s research, (2004), is bottom of the list of most American’s character strengths and is generally not a popular strength to possess. When my colleague, psychologist Carmel Proctor and I, were writing our character strengths based PSHE programme, Strengths Gym www.strengthsgym.co.uk, we decided to use the word modesty rather than humility, as we noticed that teenagers have negative reactions to the word humility. They link it in their minds to humiliation.
I now wish we had used the word ‘humility’ instead because the more I work with this character strength, the more I read and think about it, the more essential it seems to me for our busy, rather driven and perhaps over independent modern way of life.
Humility means acknowledging that I need other people, for example. It means allowing myself to make mistakes and to be human. It means being honest about my strengths and my weaknesses and knowing that I can’t save the world single handed.
In an education system that puts teachers and pupils under pressure to be ‘outstanding’ and to give ‘100%’ effort, 100% of the time, humility says that everyone needs to rest sometimes, everyone has off days, not all lessons are outstanding, some are just good enough. Pupils, it seems to me, need to know that their teachers are human sometimes, not superhuman all the time. Otherwise they are presented with an impossibly high standard of being adult to aspire too and some of them, understandably, look at what is on offer and seem to opt out.
I have been reading a book called ‘Lectio Devina, The Sacred Art’ by Christine Valters Paintner. In it she writes that humility means giving up, ‘unrealistic expectations of how things ought to be for a clear vision of what human life is really like’ and ‘remembering our human limitations’. As a driven, perfectionist over achiever, I find humility lets me breath, lets me admit that I’m not good at everything and that, sometimes, I need help.
Personally I find humility to be an immense relief. I’d like to recommend it to the education system too!
Paintner, V.P., 2012. Lectio Devina, The Sacred Art. London: SPCK
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. E. P., 2004. Character strengths and virtues: A classification and handbook. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.