Humility – A Fundamental Virtue of Recovery

By Steve K.

Humility is having a realistic view of oneself as a limited, imperfect human being, and being honest without pretence in the portrayal of oneself to others. Humility acknowledges the need for others and reaches out towards them. It requires good self-awareness and self-acceptance, and is a strength rather than a weakness.

False pride and egotism deny limitation and result in an inner emptiness; they cut one off from others due to a sense of being “better than” or different in comparison, and therefore lack identification with, and compassion for others.

Low self-worth is the opposite extreme of false pride (although, still a form of egotism) and also prevents humility. It cuts one off from a healthy connection with others as one feels “less than” in comparison. It also prevents identification and creates feelings of rejection, anger, and bitterness towards self and others.

False pride and low self-esteem are both distortions of our self-concept. The practice of 12-Step recovery principles develop humility, and therefore a realistic and authentic relationship with ourselves and other people.


The virtue of humility, “being right-sized” or modest, is of vital importance in recovery from addiction. We must acknowledge our limitations and the need for help and guidance from outside of ourselves, if we are to grow and develop in recovery.

The ego defenses of denial, rationalisation, and projection, etc, are the enemy of humility and its vulnerability. Humility requires us to be honest and to show ourselves to others and to risk being vulnerable.  This is not easy for many with a history of addiction and we need courage, and often help, in order to do so. In general, we’ve learnt to protect ourselves with dysfunctional ways of being, such as arrogance, defensiveness, anger and aggression, being critical, argumentative, selfish and dishonest.

These are strategies developed to defend our distorted self-concept or ego, which tends to be insecure in people who’ve suffered with addiction problems. Addiction itself is a major defense strategy, developed in an effort to escape the emotional and psychic pain of life. The problem with all of these dysfunctional defensive mechanisms is that they ultimately harm the person practicing them. They keep us stuck in our addictions and other harmful behaviours, which prevents us from facing our difficulties and developing an ’emotional sobriety’ or maturity.

Humility is not an easy virtue to acquire.  Benjamin Franklin once wrote:

“There is perhaps no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as [false] pride. Beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive. Even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”

Humility with its honesty, courage and vulnerability, when practised regularly, enables us to let go of our unhelpful ways of being. We need to practice being honest and open with others, sharing our thoughts, feelings, fears and vulnerability. We do this with people we can trust, who’ll affirm and support us in our recovery. When we receive empathy, acceptance, and positive regard from others, we learn that it’s ok to be our true-selves. We’ve no need to be dishonest or defensive anymore.

All of the 12 Steps require the practice of humility, as well as develop it. The Steps involve: admitting our limitations to ourselves and others; asking for help from outside of ourselves and seeking guidance; a willingness to accept, take responsibility for, and to admit our faults and weaknesses; the willingness to practice forgiveness; the willingness, courage and honesty to be vulnerable with others, and to make our amends; the willingness to practice faith and trust; and the willingness to be of help and of service to others.

These are all humble actions, attitudes, and virtues that help us to grow in recovery and develop as human beings. They reduce egotism and promote a healthy sense of oneself, and are therefore good for our relations with others and the world.  Humility allows us to be honest, open-minded, and willing in our efforts to recover – these attitudes are the essential HOW that we need in recovery. When humble we are willing to seek and receive help, support, guidance and direction with our lives. We are not alone anymore.

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