Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. – Marianne Williamson
Last night my wife and I watched Brené Brown’s new Netflix presentation called “The Call to Courage”. A key part of her message is that being vulnerable, being who we truly are, being seen as such and standing up for what we believe in may be the greatest form of courage we can embrace.
I was also struck how seamlessly it blends into the quote at the top of this post by Marianne Williamson (author, spiritual leader and 2020 U.S. Presidential candidate) which asks us to face our fears of striving to be our greatest selves. This quote is one of my favourites to use with coaching clients who are exploring their own power, significance and impact in their world.
I get many reactions when we debrief the clients’ thoughts on the quote. Some have discomfort with the spiritual language associated with it, but as we delve in we uncover that the greatest source of discomfort is often that to embrace the quote as true would require them to deny the humility with which they have been taught to approach life (and always have).
Over the past month or so I have been pondering the duality of humility and humanity. I will define humanity below, but I believe it has its roots in what Brené and Marianne are speaking of. I have been asking people their thoughts and values associated with these concepts through two questions:
- What is it you value in others more? Their humility or their humanity?
I ask this question first, and when the answer comes easily it is almost always humanity. We truly value the opportunity to get to know another and a deep level. It inspires connection and love between us and when available can be very energizing and inspiring.
- What is it you are more comfortable presenting to others? Your humility or your humanity?
The answer to this question, again when it comes easily, is overwhelmingly that they are more comfortable with humility. To be consciously small so as to not stand out and so as not to present as superior or ambitious.
However, many times this discussion segues into defining “humanity” in order to be able to decide which to value. Often the going in position is more about being “humane” or a “humanitarian”, and I think this is where Brené and Marianne can help us. As I interpret their work, one’s humanity is the essence of who each is at their core. What is it that defines who you are – defines you as unique as a snowflake or a fingerprint? What are the gifts that we have been given to share with others? What is it that we believe so deeply that it defines us? What is it that we truly long to create … contribute … express … experience? While being humane is a valued trait in humans, it doesn’t define humanity. And our individual humanity is separate from the collective of all of us that is often referred to as humanity, including our ethos on how that collective ought to behave. Our individual humanity is what we have to contribute to the collective. Does that make sense?
So in that sense when we embrace humility over humanity for ourselves we are, as Marianne would say, “playing small to avoid our greatness”. Humility may be a shield we use to avoid showing ourselves to the world, to avoid being vulnerable. Because it is only when we are vulnerable that we can truly contribute to the world. Vulnerability and success are linked … the act of achieving requires you to put some of you out there for others to see. Every time you present a work product for review for example. Why not show everyone your best self while you are at it?
Humility may also require that we view ourselves of secondary importance when compared to those around us, focusing more on others than ourselves. What we get confused here is that the gifts we were born with that define our humanity aren’t for us … they are for us to use in service of others in some way. They are gifts for us to give … not for us to keep to ourselves. Equally important, and perhaps the core of humility, is to also acknowledge what we are not. Being clear on that allows us to move towards our talents rather than to struggle to engage with something that is meant for others to excel at.
It is only when we first focus on ourselves, and on being the best version of ourselves we can be, that we can offer our greatest contribution to those that can benefit. To be our greatest, most powerful self is to enable us to give the most.
That word power is an interesting one, and another with misunderstood connotations at times. We all have power. It is how we use it that counts. Those who may not be fully secure in their power may be more tempted to wield it against others, making themselves feel bigger by attempting to make others smaller. There are extreme examples of this throughout our history, but even within some of the most atrocious situations, there are examples that says that if one simply holds their own authentic power – their humanity – so firmly that even those wielding wicked, overwhelming might cannot take it from them. I think of Victor Frankl in four different Nazi concentration camps, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, John McCain in the Hanoi Hilton among others. Viewed in that light, it makes no sense that humility would require that we not hold our humanity firmly in front of us.
So let’s go back to the two questions above. Let’s reaffirm that energy and inspiration we feel when we truly value the humanity of others and let’s reaffirm the strength that gives to both ourselves and those we are valuing. Now … can we change our answer to question two? Consider saying “I value who I am just as much as I value who you are. I focus on holding my most authentic, powerful self steadfastly so that I can maximize my contribution to those around me.”
Give it a try. It is so liberating!