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4 Ways What You Think Is Humility Could Actually Be Pride

Pride is often referred to as the universal sin. From the perspective of LDS theology, this seems pretty accurate; pride caused Satan to rebel against heaven, pride led to the downfall of ancient civilizations, pride is the driving factor that has caused evil individuals throughout history to come to power, and anyone who has studied the Book of Mormon has probably heard of the pride cycle. However, for this discussion, I’d like to move away from the archetypal, “big picture” idea of pride to focus on the perspective of it as an individual characteristic, that is, of personal pride.

It seems that certain patterns of pride are easy to identify. I think that one of the reasons that pride is so difficult to manage, however, is because it often appears in ways that are more subtle but just as damaging. In his well-known 1989 address, “Beware of Pride,” Ezra Taft Benson referred to this as the different faces of pride, some of which include tendencies to harbor a grudge, withhold forgiveness, or act contentiously with family members.

Identifying Humility and Pride

President Benson concludes his discourse by detailing how humility is the clear antidote to pride. This comes as no surprise; the opposite of a “me-centric” philosophy is one in which we realize there’s more to the world than ourselves, that we don’t know everything, and that we are not, in fact, better than anyone else. Pride is bad and humility is good. Sounds simple enough, right? Maybe not. Just as pride is multi-faceted and can come in disguise, humility is not always what it seems, and identifying the two can be tricky. It’s a topic that comes up frequently in therapy sessions. Here are some ways that pride falsely manifests itself while wearing the mask of humility:  

1) Self-deprecation

I’ve worked with many clients who have a mistaken belief that having feelings of low self-worth is humility. When we put beat ourselves up or put ourselves down, we may think that we’re being humble, but the opposite is actually true. By excessively pointing out your own flaws and weaknesses and dismissing sincere compliments, you are essentially denying the divinity that exists within you. President Benson says the central feature of pride is enmity. Dismissing the divine gifts that you have been given could be an expression of enmity toward God.

I love what C.S Lewis said in his book Mere Christianity: “It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.” Avoiding pride means not putting ourselves above others, but it also means not putting ourselves below others.

Pride is in the comparison, the ranking. Comparison creates enmity toward others or toward yourself, depending on who ranks higher in comparison. Dieter F. Uchtdorf reiterated the words of Lewis when he said that “[w]e don’t discover humility by thinking less of ourselves; we discover humility by thinking less about ourselves” (emphasis added). Respect yourself as a child of God, and don’t mix up self-degradation with humility.

2) Obsession With How Others View Us                                          

I’m not just referring to being vain or narcissistic here; I’m talking about being obsessed with how others perceive us—how we appear, spiritually and emotionally, to the rest of the world. I’ve had many clients tell me that they are hesitant to do or say something because they don’t want to come off as arrogant. In other words, they want to look humble. I’ve known others who are concerned about how ward members view them because they don’t want to ruin their chances of “running for office” for a church leadership position.

While it’s good to be self-aware and mindful of the impression we give, it can be problematic when we want to appear humble more than we want to actually be humble. Ironically, the very thought of wanting to appear humble to others is pride. Remember that the scriptures teach that “man [or woman] looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1st Samuel 16:7).

3) Excessive Worry About Others’ Choices and Righteousness

In the gospel of Jesus Christ, we are counseled to aid and assist our fellow brothers and sisters. The structure of the family, home and visiting teaching, and virtually every other facet of the organization of the Church bears witness to this fact; we’re here to encourage and motivate each other, both temporally and spiritually. However, I believe that too often we become excessively worried about the testimony, beliefs, and moral choices of those who are not in our stewardship as a way to emphasize our own righteousness. A thought or comment to the effect of, “I’m so concerned about her; she’s going off the deep end!” might really mean, “I’m so glad that I’m not heading in the same direction. Good thing I’m on the straight and narrow and can set her straight!”

There are certainly those over whom we have stewardship (most notably our own children), and it’s our responsibility to support their spiritual well-being. The Lord himself told Joseph that we are “commanded to bring up [our] children in light and truth.”

Several years ago, my young adult child was making choices that were not aligned with my value system and spiritual beliefs. I was experiencing disappointment, fear, and pain about the situation. After a lot of pondering, prayer, and temple attendance, I became aware that a large part of my pain was rooted in my belief that I know which path is right for my adult child. I realized that I didn’t know how our Heavenly Parents might use another’s unique path and choices in Their larger plan. The answer to my prayer was to trust and exercise faith, to honor agency, to focus on living my own life with more integrity, and to continue to build a respectful and loving relationship with my child.

While it’s normal to have concern for the welfare of those in our care (Doctrine & Covenants 93:44), it’s also important to seek to balance our genuine concern for someone’s testimony and worthiness with an acknowledgment and respect for his/her agency. If you’re not sure where the line is between appropriate concern and obsessive worry (pride), pray to have the Spirit to help you discern how to best navigate your own specific situation.

4) People-Pleasing

How is wanting others to be happy and to have what they want a form of pride? The truth is that the act of people-pleasing, at its core, isn’t actually about making someone else content—it’s about making yourself feel comfortable, validated, and puffing up your feelings of self-worth. When we let our personal and emotional boundaries be trampled on in a desperate attempt to seek approval and belonging, we could essentially be saying that our Heavenly Parents’ love and our own self-worth is not sufficient to fulfill us.

Pride is about getting worldly praise and affirmation, and people-pleasing is yet another route to that same goal. Though part of our earthly experience is finding joy in relationships, denying our own needs in a supposed attempt to “serve” someone else is not humility, and it’s certainly not healthy either. 

Consider a parent who rarely enforces consequences for a child violating family rules, or who buys sports equipment that their child is begging for even if it is not realistically in their family budget, or who attempts to rescue a child from poor grades by blaming the “incompetent” teacher. These examples are about keeping the child happy so the parent can remain comfortable and feel good about himself/herself, not about doing what’s in the child’s best interest and what would help them grow.

Moving From Pride to Courageous Humility

It turns out that pride and humility may not be as simple as we’d like to believe. LDS.org gospel topics section gives a beautiful definition of humility:

To be humble is to recognize gratefully our dependence on the Lord—to understand that we have constant need for His support. Humility is an acknowledgment that our talents and abilities are gifts from God. It is not a sign of weakness, timidity, or fear; it is an indication that we know where our true strength lies. We can be both humble and fearless. We can be both humble and courageous.

When we recognize our complete dependence on the Lord, “[w]e can be both humble and fearless. We can be both humble and courageous.” Humility doesn’t equal self-deprecation, concern about appearance, worry about others’ salvation, or keeping others happy. Fearless and courageous humility may take the form of accepting genuine compliments and recognizing God’s goodness in you. It may be letting go of how others see you and focusing instead on how God sees you.  It may be turning over responsibility for another’s salvation back to him/her and exercising an increase of faith and trust in God. It may be allowing someone to have negative feelings toward you without losing self-worth. Whatever it is, acknowledge it and find ways to move forward in true humility, back towards Christ.


Julie de Azevedo Hanks, PhD, LCSW is the owner/director of Wasatch Family Therapy, a popular blogger, an online mental health influencer, a local and national media contributor. Dr. Hanks’ first book The Burnout Cure: An Emotional Survival Guide for Overwhelmed Women addresses common LDS cultural myths that leave women feeling “never good enough.” Julie and her husband are the parents of four children. Visit DrJulieHanks.com for more great tips on facing life's challenges, or get your invitation to join Dr. Hanks’ NEW Burnout Cure E-Course at drjuliehanks.com/ecourses. For therapy services in Utah, visit WasatchFamilyTherapy.com. Connect with me on social media @DrJulieHanks.