The School of Humility

Some Women Need Not Apply

While my elementary school teachers told me to believe in myself, my parents warned me it was not good to be full of myself. Love thyself and trust thyself, yes, but not too much.

Be confident, yes, but not obnoxious, said mentors. Pride, or “excessive belief in one’s own abilities,” taken to an extreme, leaves no room within the human persona for the priceless virtue of humility.

The wrong pitfall?
Warnings against pride are well and good, but a qualification must be added. When discussing the pitfalls of pride and the honor in humility, it is necessary to nuance the discussion with special attention to gender. The ancient sin of pride was defined during a time in history when women’s experience was not taken into account. For many women, pride is something they seek, not something that they are guilty of.

For many women, the greater sin is not pride but humility to the point of self-deprecation. Sadly, many women have little confidence in their own abilities to begin with, let alone enough self-confidence to be guilty of pride.

For every happy, well-adjusted, confident woman that I know, there are two or three who are consumed with insecurities about their weight, intellect, or professional abilities. For every woman who steps up to the plate to accept a professional or personal challenge, there are scores more who shy away into the shadows.

Need real evidence? Just check out Oprah or Dear Abby , two well-established estrogen-rich media enclaves. Dear Abby is rife with stories of women taking jobs for which they are way overqualified, wondering how to escape abusive relationships, or struggling with their weight.

Whether you visit Oprah’s web site, read her magazine, or watch her show, you surely will encounter one of her feel-good, inspirational segments on Being Your Best Self. BYBS segments offer lessons in courage, taking risks, and setting boundaries?skills that those with enough self-confidence master instinctively. Oprah knows her primary audience and the inner challenges they face. (It should be noted that lack of pride does not seem to be a pitfall of Ms. Winfrey herself, with her eponymous media empire and smiling, seasonally outfitted self on every monthly cover of O. Magazine.)

Saving Ophelia
For many women, warning them against pride may do more harm than good. To preach the spiritual benefits of humility to a teenage girl who already loathes her appearance and hates her life could be psychologically devastating. Just ask Mary Pipher, PhD, author of the 1994 bestseller Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls , which warned that American adolescent girls are more prone to depression, eating disorders, addictions, and suicide attempts than ever before.

To warn against the perils of pride is good, but, in the case of many women, one must do so with great care. To rail against pride in the face of lack of self-esteem and undue societal pressures may not only be fruitless, it may actually cause plenty of harm.