of humility: being secure in one’s identity; being able to
see oneself honestly, without distortion; being open to
new information; being “other-focused” rather than self-focused; and having egalitarian beliefs (Social and Personality
Psychology Compass, 2013).
Being humble also doesn’t require you to be meek,
unassuming and unable to showcase your skills when
appropriate, such as during job interviews (see the 2012
gradPSYCH article “First impressions”).
Innocent Okozi, PhD, a psychologist and priest with the
Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine, has a favorite
quote about humility, from C.S. Lewis: “True humility is not
In other words, says Okozi, students shouldn’t see humility
as “self-negation,” but rather the opposite of narcissism.
But it can be a tricky line to walk. Do you come across as
humble — or lacking self-assurance? Confident — or arrogant?
Justin Karr, a doctoral student in clinical neuropsychology
at the University of Victoria, says students need to find a happy
medium — something he has worked to achieve himself.
Karr says he was insecure and thus arrogant in high school
and in his early undergraduate years, before realizing his
mistake and doing a full 180, to the point where a supervisor
told him, “You could probably toot your horn a little more on
graduate applications and things like that.”
Julia Benjamin, a doctoral student in counseling psychology
at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, says she also has
“fallen too far on the side of not owning my accomplishments
as much as I should,” such as in interviews.
She thinks this is partly due to her personality and partly
from being raised in the Midwest, where she says there is a
reluctance to display accomplishments for “fear of being seen
Gender norms also can play a role, she says. Women who
display the same level of self-confidence as men may be
perceived as being too aggressive.
Humility can also be seen differently by different cultures,
races and ethnicities.
Garcia, for example, is a Latino from a disadvantaged
background. In his multiethnic community, academic
achievements are highly celebrated. At school, where most of
the students were white, he found himself in a culture where
people weren’t expected to talk up their accomplishments in
the same way.
Le Ondra Clark Harvey, PhD, had a similar experience.
Harvey, who is co-chair of the APA Committee on Early
Career Psychologists, grew up in California, where she was
used to excitedly talking about her academic and athletic
accomplishments. Then she went to graduate school in
Wisconsin and quickly learned that her enthusiasm came
across as boasting.
Clark Harvey realized she had to show her classmates that
she did have a sensitive, humble side. She learned a new set
of communication skills, which she says have served her well
in her career as chief policy consultant to the California State
Assembly Committee on Business and Professions. In this
job, she is not front and center, but rather, she says, “in the
background representing powerful people and their interests.”
This means she often has to relay her bosses’ positions to
a wide variety of people, from constituents who may not
understand the legislative process to lobbyists and other
“I’m very careful because I come across people from all
walks of life and I have to communicate a message or position
in a way that people can hear it and receive it,” she says. She
does frequent “self-checks and reflection” to make sure she is
avoiding self-promotion and staying focused on her goals for
Learning to be humble
Some people are naturally more humble than others, but that
doesn’t mean humility can’t be taught. Here are some steps to
take to enhance your humility.
• Use care when talking about achievements. In general,
frame successes modestly.
“I think you can say, ‘Hey, I’m really proud of myself, I did
this,’” says Farzana Saleem, a doctoral candidate in clinical
psychology at George Washington University. But, she advises,
Justin Karr says he was insecure and thus arrogant in high school and in his
early undergraduate years, before realizing his mistake and doing a full 180,
to the point where a supervisor told him, “You could probably toot your horn
a little more on graduate applications and things like that.”