Humility: The Missing Virtue?

Does a flourishing life (and world) depend on humility?

What is humility? It’s not humiliation, nor groveling, nor subordination. It manifests in truthful self-perception, honest self-other relations and is about deep connection to others.

In a recent publication (Narvaez, 2019), I described how multiple forms of humility develop through life within a species-normal community. A species-normal community refers to the type of community in which our species spent most of its history (small-band hunter-gatherers; SBHG) (Lee & Daly, 2005). In these communities, patterns evolved for raising children optimally according to their basic needs (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005). SBHG is the type of social environment we evolved to expect, without which we develop poorly (Narvaez, 2013, 2014). The forms of humility to be described are apparent in unspoiled foraging communities where the evolved nest is provided to children and where members live in flexible, fluid communities with other people and other than humans (Ingold, 2005; Narvaez et al., 2019).

There are four types of humility apparent in SBHG communities: intrapersonal, interpersonal, community and ecological, which interact throughout the lifespan. But the most critical foundations are established in early life, when a child’s brain and sensibilities are rapidly developing. Each type of humility includes aspects of modesty, selflessness and respectfulness.

Intrapersonal humility, relating to the self, develops from the treatment one receives during sensitive development periods (first few years of life, early adolescence, emerging adulthood). One’s neurobiological “story” is molded by early relationships (e.g., ‘the world is a good place and I can trust it’ or ‘the world is untrustworthy and I am bad’) (Narvaez, 2011). Humility towards the self involves getting comfortable in and caring for one’s body, accepting one’s limitations (modesty). It means letting go of ego overcontrol and learning to cooperate with one’s unique spirit or inner sense of self (selflessness). But if a family ignores a child’s emotions or expects only conformity and obedience, the individual will be derailed from this development. Intrapersonal humility also means accepting oneself (respectfulness). If a child was maltreated in childhood, she is more likely to reject herself and will need some therapy in adulthood to learn self-acceptance. In this way, early life experience can set the trajectory for the humility a person exhibits towards self. A welcoming family and community environment, one that supports the child’s uniqueness, will facilitate development of intrapersonal humility, which enables interpersonal humility.

Interpersonal or social-relational humility can be split out by embodiment, emotion and cognition, and capacities are established initially by the social experiences one has had in early life and during other sensitive periods. A humble neurobiology means one is not hyper-threat-reactive in social situations (embodied modesty), which otherwise would make one self-focused and self-protective. One is able to relationally attune to others in multiple nonverbal ways (embodied selflessness). One is aware of and sensitive to the other’s movements and nonverbal signals (embodied respectfulness). In regards to interpersonal emotion, one accepts own and others’ emotions (modesty); one is empathic and sympathetic towards others (selflessness); and one is emotionally present to others (respectfulness). In regards to cognition, one is open to new ways of perceiving the world and self monitoring to bring self back to the present moment when ego inflation or emotional detachment occur (modesty). One maintains a communal orientation in thought and action (selflessness). One expresses hospitality toward the other, welcoming difference and expecting each encounter to vary (respectfulness).

Intergroup or community humility means behaving as a member among members without expecting special privileges for oneself or one’s group (modesty). Older generations yield to the basic needs of the younger generation (selflessness), providing children what they need to develop full humanity. Diversity is expected—in personality, developmental course, cultural forms—and honored (respectfulness).

Ecological humility honors the lives of other than humans by not taking too much for human needs (e.g., plants or animals for food), sharing resources with others, including other than humans (modesty). The community limits desires because the biocommunity’s welfare is part of the circle of concern (selflessness). Other than humans are respected as sentient, living beings (respectfulness). These are common practices among traditional American Indian/Native American and First Nation communities (Cajete, 2000; Kimmerer, 2013). In these societies, a virtuous person cultivates ecological humility as well as the other types of humility throughout life.

All these forms of humility are dynamic, not static, rigid or scripted practices. Instead, they shift moment by moment depending on the needs of self and other at the time. They also all need support from others who feel able, with enough time, to provide that support.

What is interesting about humility is that it does not fit into the “promote yourself or be ignored” ethos of today’s media-, money- and power-driven society. Values of efficiency and click-attention pull one away from emotional presence and attunement to others, leaving little time to practice humility. Divisions and disconnections are commonplace as people have moved away from these relational humilities that characterize our human heritage (Narvaez, 2014).

How does one get back to humility? Healing one’s wounds and practicing self-actualization get one to the starting gate. Taking time to be present with others can move one forward on the path toward humility: “Love the one you’re with.” Humble people are grounded in place, have small egos and are emotionally ready to respond with openness and flexibility. Humility is a sign of health that we can practice and learn.


Cajete, G. (2000). Native science. Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers.

Gowdy, J. (1998). Limited wants, unlimited means: A reader on hunter-gatherer economics and the environment. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Gowdy, J. (2005). Gatherer-hunters and the mythology of the market. In R.B. Lee, R.B. & R. Daly (Eds.), The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers (pp. 391-398). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hewlett, B. S., & Lamb, M. E. (2005). Hunter-gatherer childhoods: Evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine Transaction.

Ingold, T. (2005). On the social relations of the hunter-gatherer band. In R.B. Lee, R.B. & R. Daly (Eds.), The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers (pp. 399-410). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kimmerer, R.W. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, MN.

Lee, R. B., & Daly, R. (Eds.). (2005). The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Narvaez, D. (2011) The ethics of neurobiological narratives. Poetics Today, 32(1): 81-106.

Narvaez, D. (2013). The 99%–Development and socialization within an evolutionary context: Growing up to become “A good and useful human being.” In D. Fry (Ed.), War, peace and human nature: The convergence of evolutionary and cultural views (pp. 643-672). New York: Oxford University Press.

Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York: Norton.…

Narvaez, D. (2019). Humility in four forms: Intrapersonal, interpersonal, community, and ecological. In J. Wright (Ed.), Humility (pp. 117-145). In book series, Multidisciplinary perspectives on virtues (N. Snow & D. Narvaez, series eds.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.…;

Narvaez, D., Four Arrows, Halton, E., Collier, B., Enderle, G. (Eds.) (2019). Indigenous Sustainable Wisdom: First Nation Know-how for Global Flourishing. New York: Peter Lang.
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