One reason many of us are holding back from doing what we really want, in our work and elsewhere, is our desire to be “modest”—to avoid boasting, taking up too much space, and demanding too much attention. Modesty is usually seen as a virtue—no one likes a bragger, and blessed are the meek, right?
But there’s an uncomfortable question we don’t often look at: what really motivates us to be modest? Is it just because we want to be virtuous people? For a lot of us, in my experience, this isn’t the real reason. Many of us, I think, act modestly because we think it will get us approval. We want others to notice how humble and unassuming we are, and praise us for it. “Look how quiet and well-behaved he or she is!” we want them to say.
There’s No “Modesty Medal”
Unfortunately, acting modestly doesn’t usually achieve this goal. Because being modest means shunning the spotlight and downplaying ourselves, it’s actually a surefire way not to get noticed. Nobody will notice the items we’re too modest to put on our resume, the product we’re too modest to advertise, or the article we’re too modest to publish.
The result, for many of us, is that we carry around a lot of resentment toward others for failing to notice us. “Why won’t they use my services?” we wonder. “Why didn’t I get the promotion?” “Why didn’t she talk to me at the party?” Often, we don’t even realize it’s actually our own efforts to stay invisible that keep others from seeing us, and the world starts to look like a bleak, neglectful place.
Muddling Through the Modesty Mire
Although we may understand how our modesty keeps us from achieving our goals, many of us still feel drawn to modest behavior because it just feels like “the right thing to do.” We can start breaking with this conditioning, I think, by seeing that we probably took on our “modest” behaviors in response to much earlier circumstances in our lives.
For instance, some of us grew up in families where children were expected to be “seen but not heard,” and got punished for making noise or expressing an opinion. Or maybe we were put in charge of caring for an ailing parent or relative, and we were expected to put our attention on them instead of ourselves. In these situations, it makes perfect sense to avoid “tooting your own horn” if you want to be appreciated and stay safe.
Hiding out like this can become so habitual that we start mistaking it for our identity, as opposed to just a strategy for getting by when we were young. When this happens, being “humble” no longer feels like a choice, because it seems like just part of who we are. But the more we get conscious of why we decided to be modest, and recognize that the situations we were reacting to don’t exist anymore, the easier it becomes to let our light shine—to tell others about the projects we’re up to, meet new people, and otherwise go for what we want.
Many of us who are accustomed to acting modestly assume that, if we stopped holding back, the only other option would be to belittle or try to outshine others. I worried about this myself as I worked on letting go of some of my own “modest” behaviors.
But in fact, stepping into the spotlight more often in my life has helped me let go of a lot of anger. I stopped feeling so slighted by people who “ignored me” when I recognized I was actually in charge of how much recognition I got. In other words, I live in a world that will see me if I’m willing to be seen.
How does this resonate with you? I’m looking forward to hearing.
Link Love: I thought about Tom Volkar when I was writing this—he often writes about making sure not to sell yourself short in your business life—so it feels natural to link to him here. Tom coaches entrepreneurs in transitioning into self-employment, and his blog posts will definitely help kick you into gear, no matter where you’re at in your career journey.
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