Muhammad Ali. The Greatest. And confident enough to say it. As he was famously quoted, “it ain’t bragging if it’s true”. So why do many of us use false modesty when talking about our achievements? Ever won an accolade and then rattled on about being ‘humbled’ to have been awarded? Why? You should be shouting it proudly from the rooftops!
At first pass, false modesty can easily be passed off as simple self-deprecation by seemingly belittling one’s own accomplishments. But does this act of disparaging oneself by denigrating your own performance have a more sinister side? After all, it is a lie. Possibly a well intentioned ‘white’ lie but a lie nonetheless. And can dishonesty ever really be acceptable? It always makes me wonder what other lies are being perpetrated.
In his book ‘Malignant Self Love’, Dr Sam Vaknin goes much further than it being a lie and claims that false modesty is the domain of the narcissist. According to Dr Sam, a narcissist will feign modesty for two reasons:
- to insure against the possibility of being accused of lying if and when he is exposed as a fraud
- to extract narcissistic supply from their audience
Vaknin believes that people who display this type of self-effacing behaviour:
“publicly chastises himself for being unfit, unworthy, lacking, not trained, not schooled, not objective, cognisant of his own shortcomings and vain. This way, if exposed he could always say: “But I told you so in the first place, haven’t I?” False modesty is, thus an insurance policy. The narcissist hedges his bets by placing a side bet on his own fallibility, weakness, deficiencies and proneness to err”
In recent years the phenomenon has been fuelled by social media and become far more prevalent in the form of the ‘humblebrag’. Come on, admit it, we’ve all done it from time to time (I’m not excluding myself here either as much as I’d like to deny it). The problem here is that no-one wants to be labelled as being a bragger, so the ‘genius’ solution we have all adopted is to try and broadcast our news whilst simultaneously devaluing what we are saying to make sure other people don’t think we are showing off. Problem is that it simply has the opposite effect (cue eye rolls and face palms).
Now let’s do a test. Be honest. Which sounds better?
“Just won a fortune on the lottery! I’ve resigned and bought a Maserati. My mates think I’m a lucky ****. And they would be right”
“Had a little bit of luck today. Feeling so blessed and grateful to have such lovely friends who have all congratulated me on my super windfall” (posted with a picture of a brand new Maserati)
I dunno. Maybe they both suck. But if it’s a case of the ‘least worst’ option then I’m going for the former rather than the latter. That said, I’d have gone for Hillary. And look how that turned out…
Social media expert Karen North, Ph.D from the University of Southern California is very clear on the matter:
“humblebragging is disingenuous. It’s manufactured modesty as a guise for overt bragging”
So what can we glean from all this? Well firstly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with talking about a personal attainment or the accomplishment of a friend or family member. Genuine pals will surely want you to share those precious moments as they indeed share theirs with you. However, you really should give some serious thought to how you convey that message and the language that you utilise. If you decide that you are going to share something then keep it honest, positive and factual whilst refraining from any urge to negate it. And if in doubt just ask yourself one question. What would Muhammad Ali write?
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