The Values Series | HUMILITY

Since it has become clear that we are currently facing a serious pandemic, my first inclination was to make this an “I told you so” essay and refer to a previous blog in which I quoted epidemiologists who assured us that future pandemics were inevitable. However, my self-righteousness was dimmed with the realization that I belonged in the high-risk category for serious complications from this bug. It also occurred to me that a time of crisis may be an appropriate time to examine our values as such times put them to the test. Thus, I decided to proceed as planned with a look at humility, which Confucius said was “the foundation of all virtues.”

As I mentioned in the first post of this series, the purpose of values is to allow us to get along with each other and thereby accomplish things. Alone we are relatively helpless, together we can and do move mountains. Those with particular expertise in the management of pandemics emphasize the importance of our helping each other since our best weapon for containing the disease lies in quarantining those who are infected, leaving them dependent on others for life’s necessities.

United We Stand. Divided We Fall.

It seems to me that during those major crises which have occurred during my lifetime, there has been a tendency for us to come together as a nation although; there have always been a few looking to exploit any such situation. Most would agree that the country is now more divided than it has been for the past 150 years, and I was struck by the timeliness of the subject of today’s blog when I ran into a quote from Socrates: “Pride divides the men, humility joins them.” I believe it safe to say that few of those faithful fans of our President would suggest that he oozes humility, and indeed his attempts to reassure have left us even farther apart. I can’t help but wonder if that humility deficit contributes in some way to our widening breach. 

Much of my career was spent dealing with patients who suffered from a poor self-image. In some cases their dislike of themselves had resulted in lives of misery and even self-destructive behaviors. Such problems are often confused with the concept of humility. As a matter of fact, some dictionaries list words such as meek, shy, and submissive as synonyms, but humility has nothing to do with wimpiness or poor self-esteem. It is on the contrary a mark of strength. In that regard, Rick Warren’s quote from C.S. Lewis that appears in Warren’s book (The Purpose Driven Life) is most helpful:

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself…it is thinking of yourself less.” C.S. Lewis

Rick Warren is quoted as saying:

“Humility isn’t denying your strengths, it’s being honest about your weaknesses.”

Humility offers a kind of freedom not accessible to the braggart, for humble people have nothing to prove. One person has anonymously defined humility as synonymous with the word “Truth” and the long-held maxim that a good liar must have a good memory still holds true. But the comfort offered by humility is best expressed by Mother Teresa:

“If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.”

Humility is after all an expression of concern for one’s fellow man.

Pride: The Opposite of Humility

Pride on the other hand is the opposite of humility, and its symptom is arrogance, which masks insecurity. My Father who was well known for his pithy comments referred to those who he thought were arrogant with the phrase: “He thinks his shit don’t stink.” Ezra Taft Benson, Politician/Mormon leader said “Pride is concerned with who is right, humility is concerned with what is right. We read in Proverbs 11:2 “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” Without humility, one can hardly ever know what others feel, for when empathy is lacking, relationships are apt to be superficial. When we are self-absorbed, the needs of others go largely unnoticed.
It is of course natural to feel pleased with our accomplishments and to be admired for them, but we humans are often prone to toot our own horn too loudly.

There is a Chinese proverb which gives the best advice:

“Be like the bamboo, the higher you grow the deeper you bow”

The Muslim prophet Muhammad said:

“The best of people is the one who humbles himself the more his rank increases”

Although history suggests he did not always follow it, Theodore Roosevelt advised: “Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground.” When bragging about ourselves, we will often find ourselves treated with disgust rather than the respect which we are seeking. We are more likely to find respect when we let our deeds do the talking.

To prepare for this blog post, I noted a lot in the literature which associated humility with both leadership and wisdom. As you may have noticed, I am particularly fond of those one-liners which say a lot in a few words. For example Socrates, who most people think was a bright fellow, said:

“True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.”

A few centuries later, Einstein would echo the same sentiment by saying:

“A true genius admits that he/she knows nothing.”

However, some wise quotes also originate from non-genius types such as Mike Tyson who allegedly said: “If you are not humble, life will visit humbleness upon you,” thus seeming to echo the previous mentioned quote from Proverbs. There was also Pauline, part time philosopher and full-time cleaning lady who once informed me: “They ain’t no bird flies so high that he don’t have to come down for a drink.”

The Humility/Wisdom Connection

Initially, I was puzzled by those attempts to link humility with wisdom until it occurred to me that if wisdom is the possession of truth coupled with the ability to interpret it, it follows that pride might get in the way of finding it. Then I discovered that someone had defined humility as “staying teachable, regardless of how much you already know.” So much for those guys/girls who “know it all.”


It is in times of crisis that leadership becomes our most valuable asset. Indeed, without it, failure is likely, if not inevitable, and humility has time and again shown itself to be a prerequisite for leadership. Now we are facing a crisis with the potential to create havoc worldwide. Leadership requires the ability to analyze, organize, plan and implement, but of equal importance, is the ability to inspire and empathize. A good leader must adhere to the truth no matter how dire the circumstances. Hollow reassurances or sugar-coating undermine confidence and respect. Our greatest fears are of the unknown, and there is much we don’t know about this pandemic. Unchecked fear without hope leads to panic. A good leader will validate the fear while offering hope.

An oft quoted example in which those criteria were satisfied was in Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural speech. The country was in the midst of a depression so severe that people were going hungry and the very survival of the country was in question. It began with that most famous line: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” It marked a turning point leading the country from the depths of despair to a newfound sense of hopefulness. A second speech heard during my lifetime was Churchill’s never surrender speech in 1940. It also gets high marks by satisfying all the previously mentioned criteria for humility. It succeeded in motivating the entire English citizenry in a time of extreme fear and uncertainty.

In both these addresses you will find few first-person singular pronouns for as is always the case with humility the focus is not on oneself, but concern for others. Its opposite, which we call narcissism, is concern for self only. With that in mind, little wonder that our malignantly narcissistic leader is unlikely to go down in history as the humility President. During the past week, I have spared myself the agony of watching the Donald’s daily briefings on the alleged progress on dealing with the corona virus. In any other context, they would be laughable, but with the seriousness of this pandemic they prompt me with the desire to take my 12 gauge to the TV.

The Poster Child for Failed and Flawed Leadership

Yesterday, I relented and watched one of our dear leader’s ego massages disguised as a news conference. I endured this disgusting production in spite of the nausea produced by watching that pathetic group of ass kissers pay homage to the person who has once again demonstrated his incompetence by doing a Nero impersonation. The group stands shoulder to shoulder, ignoring admonitions from epidemiologists to maintain six feet of separation. The diminutive Dr. Faucci stood with arms folded on his chest, a clear message that he was not receptive to this charade.

Trump began with one of his classic truthful but not wholly truthful statements. He proudly announced that the U.S. had now done more tests for the virus than had South Korea, failing to mention that our population is 5 times larger, which means our per capita rate is much lower. This was followed by a series of self-congratulatory remarks about how he had now brought the situation under control in spite of having inherited a totally dysfunctional CDC, failing to mention that he had recently proposed draconian cuts to their budget. There was the usual litany of blaming for any of the pandemic associated problems. (NOTE: Trump’s budget proposals called for 17% cut to the CDC for Fiscal 2018; a 19.6% cut in Fiscal 2019; $750.6 million cut in Fiscal 2020; and $693.3 million (9%) cut for 2021, which Trump sent to Congress o Feb. 10, after the COVID-19 outbreak began and the first U.S. case was confirmed on Jan. 20. However, these were the President’s proposals to cut the budget. We are fortunate our founders understood the balance of power. Check your Civics lessons. The Congress is in charge of the country’s budget. Fortunately, they rejected these drastic cuts. Here is link where the eshrink editor retrieved that information.

His concerns about the pandemic were mostly about its effect on the stock market, but he was most reassuring, saying he expected the worst to be over in a couple of weeks so that people could go back to work and the economy would bounce back bigger and better than ever. This was followed by a parade of his adoring sycophants, who one by one heaped praise on the great one for having saved thousands of lives through his tireless efforts (must have cut into his golf game big time). Then comes scrawny Dr. Faucci who steps up to the mic to heroically speak truth to the power that towers next to him, by contradicting much of what the Donald has just said. The show ended with the President rudely accusing one of the reporters of being rude for asking a seemingly benign question, then continuing on with a rant about the poor guy’s competence, objectivity and other shortcomings, barely stopping short of a commentary about his mother’s lineage.

Link to Trump’s March 29th Rant on Reporter

Link to Compilation Video of Trump’s Recent Attacks on the Media during COVID-10 Press Conferences (MUST WATCH)

Link to Trump’s March 20th Attack on Reporter at Press Conference

Portraits of Successful Leadership

Today I watched the reports by both the New York Governor and my own governor. In both cases, the governors and their staffs were assembled in chairs with the recommended distance between them.  They were both effusive in their accolades for those involved in dealing with the crisis, but thankfully not for themselves. They acknowledged our distress and fearfulness, but were brutally honest about what lay ahead. There were facts galore (actually more than I needed) and a plan of action was laid out along with what was already being done.  We were given assurances that we were not alone. I was still worried, but more hopeful.  I gained a new respect for my governor who I previously labeled as a doofus (he is a republican after all).  He gained not only my vote, but my confidence in his ability to deal with the threat, and left me feeling as if we really were in this thing together.

Yep, humility definitely works better than bluster.

Next topic in the values series will be respect if I can find some examples.


Editor’s Note: Image not approved by e-shrink, but I needed some eye candy 🙂

In a previous blog, I promised an encore presentation on the subject of interpersonal communication. Your patience is about to be rewarded for I will now set about to fill these pages with the words of wisdom promised.

Actually if one excludes extrasensory communication and similar spiritual phenomena, there is little mystery about how we communicate with each other, but it is amazing how we can screw it up. It appears that all creatures have some means to communicate. Some plants are said to communicate with each other, and I just read an article in Scientific American presenting evidence that some bacteria send signals to others of like kind.

The Dawn of Communication

It is impossible to know exactly how earliest man communicated, but it can be assumed that job one as they came together as groups and then tribes, was to be able to communicate with each other. They would soon find that gestures and other nonverbal means were not sufficient for them to be successful carrying out joint efforts, like gathering food, providing shelter, and protection. Sound would prove to be the most effective means. Messages could be carried over distances without interrupting the sender’s activities. For example a certain sound may have been agreed upon to sound a warning. Meanwhile, man would be evolving physically with very versatile machinery to produce a variety of complex sounds which we now call words and language was born.

Necessity is the mother of invention

Since our Great, Great, Great, Great………..and so on grandparents, like us, were never satisfied with the latest technology, they would undoubtedly start looking for ways to communicate distances beyond their range of hearing. It would also be nice to save and share messages. Smoke signals and other such signaling procedures would have little useful utility. They solved that problem by devising symbols for each word thus enabling them to not only hear, but also see all those words. Fast forward a few thousand years, and here I sit recording words in this mysterious black box. As you are all aware this is not the end of that story, but more about that later.

Most of us talk better than we listen

Of course humans have developed the most complex system of communication centered on our verbal language skills. As a matter fact, many anthropologists rate our ability to use language as the major factor which allowed man to become the dominant creature on the planet. It is language that allows me to write this paper, and to communicate ideas, opinions, directions, knowledge, feelings, or indeed any thoughts which come into my head to anyone who is inclined to listen, and therein lies the most common flaw in any communications system, i.e., most of us talk better than we listen.
Psychiatrists listen, it is what we do, as a matter of fact sometimes that is all we do. It has always amazed me how therapeutic listening can be. There are many times when patients have left my office saying they felt much better after venting their particular problem, in spite of sparse verbal responsiveness on my part. It makes me sad to think that some people find it necessary to spend money to have someone listen to them. Come to think of it, if we all would be better listeners it might save a lot on shrink bills.


I can identify with those people who feel no one listens for I have always envied those guys with deep commanding voices who are able to dominate a discussion. In those situations I am rather soft spoken and sometimes feel excluded. My attempts to change the timbre of my voice have been unsuccessful; consequently; I am usually content to let my wife take the lead in those social situations as she is very good at social repartee.

The Nuts and Bolts of Communication

Everyone knows that in order to have a communication, one must have a transmitter and a receiver. For the sake of brevity (my readers seem to appreciate that quality in these blogs), I will limit my comments to communications between people; although, I realize there are now many machines that communicate, and that animals communicate with each other and with us. It is important to remember that in the presence of other people it is impossible not to communicate, for paradoxically not to communicate sends a message: therefore a communication has taken place. When one ignores another person, it may send a powerful message, but one which can be interpreted in many ways. The message may be clear depending on the situation or context, but can also be confusing.

An outstretched middle finger pointing skyward will rarely be misinterpreted

Verbal conversations are the most versatile and intimate of our means of messaging while written messages are less likely to be misunderstood. Non-verbal messages can also be very precise, for example in our society the presentation of an outstretched middle finger pointing skyward from an otherwise closed fist will rarely be misinterpreted. In spite of such exceptions, words are generally the more precise tool. The superior quality of verbal versus non-verbal communication is evidenced by the difficulty those born without hearing experience as compared to those who are blind. It is well known that a person’s lack of one special sense will result in a compensatory increase in acuity of its opposite. The result for deaf people is that they can become markedly adept at sign language, but to converse with hearing people becomes very difficult. They must either use crude gestures, or depend on written messaging, the first being ineffective and the second inefficient. Lip reading is apt to be fraught with errors and may not even be possible for those born deaf. Blind people however converse with little difficulty and their enhanced hearing may allow them to hear inflections which might go unnoticed by those with normal vision which could help make them superior communicators. The result is that deaf folks often prefer to relate to others who are deaf, while blind people find it easier to assimilate into ordinary society.

The Art and Science of Listening

As I mentioned previously, I believe that failure to hear is usually due to a failure to listen. Listening requires effort. In order to be an effective listener one needs to use all of his faculties, including not only his ears, but also eyes, touch, and sometimes even his sense of smell. It goes without saying that it is essential to be attentive, and to maintain eye contact unless the one talking seems uncomfortable. Observing a person’s posture and movements are all part of the listening process. For example, folding one’s arms across their chest indicates they are not likely to be receptive to your comments. Of course there are many less obvious non-verbal cues which are delivered unconsciously, to which we may respond to without awareness they have occurred.
People who study non-verbal communications can gather amazing amounts of information by simply watching a person. While teaching both individual, couples, and family therapies, we often would show a video tape of a session without sound, and speculate as to what the body language revealed. If the therapist who conducted the session was present he/she would usually be surprised at his/her lack of awareness of some their own non-verbal behaviors. Although a thorough review of the subject is way beyond the scope of this paper, we can learn some things which can be helpful to enhance our abilities to really listen just by watching.

Listen with your eyes

Most cues will be obvious, the breaking of eye contact, leaning forward or backward in a chair etc. One very telling clue as to our engagement is the shifting toward or away from symmetrical positioning e.g. the mirroring of postures. If the person with whom we are conversing mimics our sitting position, it is likely that they are engaged in the conversation, and to change positions will indicate disengagement. We are likely to sense those changes in others more easily than in ourselves. Leaning forward toward the conversant will indicate interest and encourage more talk on the subject while leaning back can be interpreted as: “enough of that subject.” At the same time it may be helpful to remember that if you are bored you probably will look bored, and you will give off the same signals as your bored companion. As mentioned previously, words are still your best shot to receive a clear message, and the non-verbal stuff should be viewed as ancillary.

The Transmission

Now that you know everything there is to know about being a receiver, we can move onto how you may become a talented transmitter. If you are to become a scintillating conversationalist, or a raconteur par excellence you must learn how to deliver a clear and succinct message. This must not be as easy as it sounds for even when listening as hard as I can, I sometimes have no idea what is being said. The KISS acronym (keep it simple, stupid) is still a good rule when it comes to personal conversation. Complexity tends to obscure rather than illuminate. Most contemporary poetry violates this rule in my opinion. My attempts to understand it leaves me with the same feeling I get after spending a half hour working on a rubric’s cube. I confess that I carry a few big words around to use when I want to impress; however long multisyllabic words should be avoided if a little one will do. (You may notice that I have used some of my favorite fancy words in this paragraph, and I trust you are duly impressed).

Direct vs Indirect

Conventional wisdom is that one should always be direct with one’s communications, and “not beat around the bush” as my grandmother would say. In general that is a good rule to follow; however there are times when one might need to deviate from that practice. It brings to mind the solution that my wife Barb found to a vexing problem. It involved a young man who did some office work for her from time to time. The problem was that he had a persistent very strong body odor. She was concerned for him, and suspected the B.O. might well have something to do with his limited social life. Of course, she was reluctant to confront him directly. Although her maternal instincts had kicked in, she did not feel close enough to him to be comfortable discussing his problem directly. After considerable deliberation she resolved her dilemma by giving him a box of deodorant soap for Christmas. Unfortunately, she had no follow up with which to judge the success of her coded message.
There are times however when a direct communication is the best choice in embarrassing situations. One personal example happened while I was giving a lecture to a group of nurses. I noted some snickering among them which was puzzling since grief was the subject of the talk. I later learned that my fly was unzipped. It would have been an act of kindness to have been informed of my zipper problem. To make matters worse, I was forced to endure taunts by colleagues that this was an obvious Freudian slip.

Sending manure and roses in the same box

Although words are of the utmost importance in communicating, we must not forget the music that goes with them. By that I mean the tone, volume, cadence, pitch, and other elements produced by the noise maker in our windpipes. The mechanisms we use to produce sound is remarkable in its versatility and is capable of expressing innumerable emotions which can accompany our words. What we say can be modified, enhanced, diminished or even totally changed in their meaning by our voices. When the words fit the music it can add clarity, but when they don’t it can be confusing. This also applies to visual clues as previously discussed. In those situations in which sound contradicts the words, we have two conflicting messages in one. The purpose of double messages is usually to express hostility, but make it difficult for the recipient to respond as we used to say at the lab: “to send manure and roses in the same box”. In such cases it may be difficult for one to decide which is the more pungent odor.

Sarcasm and the double message

Sarcasm is probably the most recognized form of the double message; however there are some who are masters of the technique. Some women are said to be “catty” in their conversations with other women For example at a dressy social function Miss Catty might say, “What a nice dress, I saw one just like it on the dollar rack at K-mart the other day.”The recipient of this message is apt to remain speechless unless she is quick enough to come up with an equally sarcastic response. In any event the two are unlikely to become friends. There are words and phrases which can be interpreted differently. Some idioms can be confusing and even suggest opposite viewpoints. Since language is never static some may change in their meanings as for example the phrase, “cute as a bug” usually referring to a younger person now seems to be accepted as complimentary; however I don’t believe many people would consider bugs cute.

Anger vs Hostility

Many people find it difficult to deal with anger either of their own or others. This can be limiting in their ability to form lasting and honest relationships for there will always be reasons for anger towards others whether real or imagined. Unexpressed anger will result in either hostile behavior or depression.

In our so called civil society it is often deemed inappropriate to express anger directly, but rest assured it will be communicated by all those non-verbal means we have talked about in spite of our best efforts to conceal it. Contrary to public opinion anger and hostility are not synonymous. Anger is an emotion while hostility is a behavior. Hostility is unlikely to resolve the issues which perpetrated the anger, and furthermore the response to hostility is apt to increase one’s anger.

The efficient and healthy way to express anger

There is a very simple and efficient way to express anger and that is to say “I am angry with you.” This will allow the source of your anger the opportunity to ask about your anger and consider options other than fighting. As I mentioned before, you are the only expert on your emotions so they can’t be refuted by others. If he shows no interest in resolving your differences, you are best off to just dump the sucker.

When you’re on the receiving end of anger

The opposite side of the coin is when you are the recipient of the anger or hostility. If the person is sufficiently enlightened to open the conversation with their feelings of anger, you have a good chance of resolving the issue, but it is more likely that it will be hostility, e.g., name calling, accusations, jealousy, or even physical assault. In the latter case just run unless you have a ball bat handy.

Acknowledge the affect

In other circumstances you may be able to diffuse the hostility by acknowledging the affect. The affect for you non-shrinks is the word we use for feelings. As a matter of fact that phrase: “acknowledge the affect” became my mantra when teaching psychotherapy. Phrases such as, “you must be very angry, or you really look mad,” may lead to a more productive discussion. In some cases it may be more effective to use your own affect especially if there is no response to your acknowledgement of his anger. Whatever you say must be honest, like “I feel sad, this hurts my feelings, or you are scaring me.” Although these strategies do not guarantee success, they are less likely to result in escalation of the conflict. Of course sometimes we would rather fight and in such cases that remains a prerogative; although it is often difficult to determine the winner.

Being assertive without hostility

Many of us have grown up in homes where we were taught to be submissive. This is probably true for women more often than for men. Then we grow up and find that we must be assertive or be ignored. Our childhood experiences of assertiveness was usually linked with anger, but as we grow up we learn that to be accepted into society we must learn civility. The result is that in this competitive world we must assert ourselves or be left in the dust. The problem is that we don’t know how to be assertive without being hostile. This was a problem for many, many of my patients. As women strived for more independence, and learned to work alongside men who were accustomed to being considered the dominant gender their need for assertiveness training increased, and this need is not confined to women. Learning to recognize feelings will help one to compartmentalize them and learn how to communicate without unwanted hostility. In other words acknowledge the affect.

The Awesome Complexity of Communication

The subject of interpersonal communications is obviously much more complicated than what is presented here. It is estimated that our vocabulary includes between 10,000 and 17,000 words depending on age and education level. When the myriad non-verbal modifiers are added coupled with the thousands of ways words can be arranged we become aware of the awesome complexity of this function which we take for granted.

P.S. I am a bit anxious about submitting this for publication as I have a grandson who is about to graduate with a major in communications. I can only hope he will be merciful in his critique.
Next time, I hope to share some thoughts about families.