Humility, Defense Mechanisms and the False-Self

By Steve K.

Humility is simply having a realistic sense of oneself.  A humble person accurately acknowledges both their strengths and limitations. They have the capacity to be honest and without pretence in relation to themselves.  They are “right-sized” and without false pride, arrogance, or importantly, low self-esteem. They are modest and without “ego”, they are authentic and real, and can admit to their vulnerability.

Humility is an essential foundation for our recovery. It provides us with the willingness to surrender our ego and false pride, and the courage to show our vulnerability and admit the problem of addiction.   Humility gives us the willingness to ask for help and guidance from others and beyond ourselves.  It enables us to be willing and to see the need for change.  Humility connects us to others through our humanity and is a bridge to freedom from our isolation.

The Virtues Inherent to Humility and the 12 Steps

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The virtues of self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-honesty, give us the courage and willingness to be vulnerable, to be humble.  By developing these virtues we also increase our capacity to be humble in our relationship with ourselves, others, and the world. If we lack good self-awareness and self-acceptance we will also lack self-honesty and therefore fail to be humble. We’ll be unable to show our true self to others, to be vulnerable, and will lack authenticity in our relationships. We will need to defend ourselves instead.

The 12 Steps all involve practices and principles that encourage the above virtues. They 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 admit our faults and weaknesses, the willingness to practice forgiveness, the willingness, courage and honesty to be vulnerable with others, the willingness and courage to make amends, the willingness to practice faith and trust, and the willingness to be of help and 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 self, and therefore good relations with others and the world.  Humility allows us to be open-minded, honest, and willing in our efforts to recover. When humble we are willing to seek and receive help, support, guidance and direction with our lives. We are not alone anymore.

The “Ego Defenses” That Prevent Humility

Denial, rationalisation, minimisation, projection, etc, are the unconscious “defense mechanisms” (see Psychoanalytical Theory) that diminish our capacity to be humble. These psychic or ego defenses promote and perpetuate the following defensive attitudes and behaviours: dishonesty, arrogance, false pride, anger, aggression, criticism and being argumentative. They also allow us to continue with our addiction, which is in itself a major defense strategy.                                                           

The vulnerable feelings of rejection, shame, insecurity (emotional, physical, social), low self-worth, trauma, loss, and emotional wounding (past abuse, neglect and injury), are why the ego is trying to defend itself. These are very painful states of being which create FEAR and its defenses or relations: ANGER, ANXIETY, SELF-CENTREDNESS and CONTROL, DISHONESTY, DEPRESSION, AVOIDANCE and SOCIAL ISOLATION. These shame and fear based defenses are attempts by the ego to protect itself and escape the underlying painful states of being and related unbearable feelings.

The Creation of the “False-Self”


Within the tradition of Person-Centred psychology feelings of rejection, shame, and “conditions of worth” (parents, teachers, peers, and society’s values, beliefs and views), cause us to deny certain aspects of ourselves and experience due to our innate need for social approval. We view these parts of ourselves as unacceptable to others and so develop inauthentic attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that we consider more socially acceptable. We create a “false-Self” or “distorted self-concept” through the defense mechanisms of Denial and Subsception (filtering or distorting experience).

We lose contact with our “true-self” through this process and can develop a false persona (people pleasing traits and behaviour), false pride, or arrogant behaviour via our poor self-esteem and irrational beliefs, and consequently lose our ability to be humble or real. We lose our integrity and become disconnected from our organic self, which causes anxiety and associated mental health problems.

Often, but not always, people with a history of addiction have been abused, neglected and deeply wounded by others close to them, and so have learnt to protect themselves against vulnerability. They lack trust in others and in life and so are defensive and tend to push others away, often unconsciously. Their defenses are varied and can include all manner of shame and fear based behaviours. These are strategies for avoiding the underlying pain of their emotional wounds.

Unfortunately, these defensive strategies often prevent connection and intimacy with others, and result in a painful isolation and a feeling that life lacks meaning. Our underlying wounds and their defenses prevent humility and the capacity to connect with our more positive feelings as well.

The healing process is not an easy one. It is a long and difficult journey and requires a lot of determination and courage; as well as faith in our ability to be healed.  The 12-Step recovery process can guide us in this journey of healing our emotional wounds, and in letting go of unhelpful ego defenses, thereby regaining our capacity to be humble, or real.



Surrender, Vulnerability and Connection. By Steve K.

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