Growing up, I was taught (more passively than actively) that self-deprecation was the opposite of narcissism; to avoid being a narcissist, I had to put myself down and think of myself as insignificant. I had to see my abilities and place in the world as small and unimportant. And I had to play down or undersell my abilities and strengths.
The paradigm asserting my insignificance (and the insignificance of women and children in general) was continually hammered home in the patriarchal church culture of my teens. As a female, my life was defined for me: get married and have children (which I am not, by any means, calling an insignificant path. But it shouldn’t have been chosen for me). My “role” was to forever follow men and look to them for my spiritual and life guidance.
But my desires and goals didn’t matter. It didn’t matter how much I wanted to serve or follow God, if that didn’t involve or weave into my yet unmaterialized (but “prophesied”) future of marriage and family. People just said that one day, I’d get the picture of what I was really meant to do and who I was really meant to be: a wife and mother. (Maybe those are things that will happen someday, but even if they do, that doesn’t mean I can’t “do” anything else.)
As a child, I learned not only to view my personal desires and vision for my life as insignificant, but to sometimes avoid representing my abilities to others as they actually were (or at least to avoid saying outright that I was “good” at anything.)
Our childhood piano tuner (we’ll call her Kimberly) really enjoyed hearing my brother and me play the piano once she’d tuned it. Kimberly was also a professing Christian, and we had rapport on multiple grounds.
One day, in the course of conversation, Kimberly told my mom very matter-of-factly that she had a certain (I think spiritual) gift or ability. I don’t remember what that gift was – only my mom’s reaction. I remember noting that my mom viewed Kimberly’s direct statement about her ability as bragging.
In the years that followed, I was very careful not to speak matter-of-factly about any gifts I knew myself to have. If I knew myself to possess an ability or talent, I would don false modesty and act bashful if anyone praised those talents. I would keep any recognition of my actual skill level to myself, because to display that “pride” to others by directly acknowledging my giftings would seem narcissistic, or at least indicative of a level of arrogance.
False modesty became a virtue, and honesty a fault, especially when that honesty happened to pertain to any beauty or ability recognized in oneself.
Compounding the impression of my mom’s reaction to Kimberly’s words was my experience growing up with Way of the Master – an evangelistic series most of you have probably heard of, in which you learn that you are most certainly not a good person. It doesn’t matter how kind you are, how responsible you are, how honest. None of that makes you good (even to a degree). I get what they were saying: “Nothing good we do can outweigh the bad that makes us guilty before God.” (True enough, but Jesus paid for the bad stuff that outweighed any good in us.) But that “good person” teaching really messed with me.
After my exposure to WOTM, I worried that if I thought of my good qualities as being “good,” I might not really be saved, because to be a “real” Christian or “truly” saved, I had to think of myself, in my entirety, as filth. I had to be “humble” before God and see the good aspects in me as bad, or else God might resist me because of a “proud” heart.
As I neared adulthood, my heavily practiced self-hatred proved effective in rendering me a target for narcissistic personalities (i.e., other people who hate themselves but express that self-hatred differently than I do). I am still learning how not to be the type of person who attracts such personalities or who meshes with them so effortlessly.
Very gradually, I have learned that there’s nothing wrong with being honest not only about our weaknesses, but our strengths. In fact, it’s just deceptive – and often harmful – to pretend we don’t understand ourselves in ways that we do. And that false modesty makes others more uncomfortable than our direct acknowledgement of what we can or can’t do.
Our acknowledgement of our capabilities doesn’t have to be accompanied by a flood of emotion, a self-congratulatory smile, or hands pointing to ourselves; it can be delivered as the situation arises, and stated factually but casually.
Let’s say someone asks you what you see yourself doing in five years, and why. Let’s further say that you have talents for cooking and business, and you see yourself founding and/or managing a restaurant for those with special dietary needs. Your answer may go something like, “I want to open a restaurant with a gluten-, dairy-, and egg-free menu. I have personal experience with dietary restrictions, and a knack for cooking and business. And I’ve personally experienced the frustration of not finding restaurants that can meet my dietary needs. I want to create a place where people suffering from dietary restrictions can still socialize over food.”
In this answer, you aren’t out-of-the-blue advertising to the world that you are an expert chef with business savvy; you are merely answering the question in a matter-of-fact way. It makes sense that having a knack for something would be one reason you would want to incorporate it into a future path, and it makes sense to include that piece in your answer.
However, my self-deprecating response a few years ago to this sort of question would have gone a bit more like: “It’d be cool, if it ever works out someday, to open a restaurant with a gluten-, dairy-, and egg-free menu. I’ve had some personal experience with dietary restrictions, and I cook a lot and maybe have some skill with that? And I’ve personally experienced the frustration of not finding restaurants that fit with my dietary restrictions. So I guess I’d enjoy creating a place where people suffering from those restrictions can still socialize over food. I don’t know if it’ll ever work out, but I guess that’s one ‘dream’ of mine….” (*apologetic smile with downcast face*)
Hear all the qualifiers and apologizing in there?
I kid you not – this is really not too far from how I used to think or talk, especially regarding my own ideas or dreams. I was so afraid of being or sounding too “arrogant” or assertive. Afraid that God (or at least a bunch of Christians) would think less of me if I seemed to “know my own mind” too much.
If we are balanced and straightforward people – capable of facing and sharing both the rough and polished sides of ourselves – it’s unlikely that we will come across as narcissistic to others. If we do, that’s their problem, not ours. We should never have to cut out a piece of who we truly are to keep a friend; that person is not a friend, and their esteem was never authentic to begin with; it was conditional.
There is nothing wrong with thinking highly of ourselves. We just shouldn’t think more highly of ourselves than we ought.
For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.Paul, Romans 12:3-8 (emphasis added)
This passage actually rather suggests to me that one should be aware of their God-given gifts and abilities, capable of acknowledging them, and joyful in applying them. We simply shouldn’t see ourselves as “better” than others who have different gifts than we do, but rather as equal parts of a bigger whole. We should have sound judgment, which may mean not inflating or overpromising on our capabilities, but equally, not deflating what we have been given either (how can we exercise our gifts with “cheerfulness” or “liberality” when we’re always belittling or disparaging them?). We should have a sound, accurate view of the measure and blessing of the gifts we have been given.
Heck, God made things and said that they were “very good.” And although the world is full of crap and suffering right now, all that darkness has proven incapable of completely annihilating the good and the beauty of God’s creation. So yes, there is still good in the world, and in people. And it’s not wrong to acknowledge that. I believe to acknowledge the good in people is to acknowledge the God of Love’s presence in and fingerprints upon this existence.
The wisest thing we can do for ourselves and humanity is to respect ourselves enough to acknowledge the bad and the ugly – but also the good – within ourselves. Only then will we be magnets for other people who respect themselves and others – people who are honest and whole within themselves.
Respecting ourselves is not narcissism; narcissism is actually a manifestation of a lack of self-respect. JP Sears puts it well in this video, calling it “repressed insignificance.”
Have you struggled similarly with false modesty? Did you grow up in a culture that praised it? What damage did false modesty cause in your personal, relational, or professional life?