Our brains make us naturally defensive, but there are steps we can take to cultivate more humility. Humility is an underrated but highly important human virtue. People prefer a partner or friend who is humble, partly because it signals trust and dependability. To make progress intellectually as a society or as individuals, we have to admit what we know—and, more importantly, what we don’t know—and be curious, open to new ideas, and willing to listen. Likewise, acknowledging that our own cultural worldview is but one of many ways to engage with the world, and meeting other perspectives with a desire to learn and an appreciation for diversity, helps us navigate an increasingly global and interconnected world. When we learn to tame our defensive instincts, we open ourselves up to all the benefits that humility can offer.
Why Are We So Defensive?
A harsh truth about being human is that we’re naturally defensive—and our defensiveness comes out in a few ways. First, we have a desire to be right. We want our views about the world to be validated by other people. Usually, this means that we become friends with people who share our beliefs, and we tend not to surround ourselves with people who hold different opinions than we do. When we’re wrong, we seek ways to prove that we’re right, even at a cost to our relationships. And we twist evidence to confirm that we’re indeed correct. Our drive to be right makes it hard to receive feedback.
We also desire certainty. We don’t like “not knowing,” and our culture treats any lack of knowledge as inherently bad. At the same time, we’re forced to confront a high degree of uncertainty because of the nature of existence. The world is unpredictable, and because humans are intelligent and have the capacity for self-awareness, we’re able to mentally “project” ourselves into the future—that is, we’re able to envision different possible futures. We can imagine ourselves in different places, enjoying myriad experiences, with various people, in a host of different contexts. But we’re also aware that life does not always go as we imagine: We know that we could be struck down with a terminal illness, run over by a bus, attacked by a stranger, caught in a natural disaster, abandoned by our partner, or fired from our job.
How to Cultivate Humility
These truths about ourselves are hard to swallow. Some of us acknowledge that we may have defensive tendencies, but then (like me) we quickly begin assembling evidence for the ways that we’re not that bad or that other people are worse, which is just a different version of the same defensiveness. This tendency runs deep, but it can be overcome. Here are four ways to help cultivate humility by reducing defensiveness.
1. Affirm Areas of Meaning
When our worldview is threatened—like when someone challenges our political ideology or suggests our religious beliefs are wrong—we’re quick to shift to defending our sense of meaning in other areas of life. This compensatory response offers an important clue to how we can start to become less defensive and more open-minded: by building meaning. We’re natural meaning-makers who flourish best when things make sense (and when we feel like we matter and have a purpose).
So, the next time you feel like you want to respond defensively by arguing, putting other people down, discounting the views of others, or doubling down on your way of seeing the world, take a moment and remind yourself of what you find meaningful in life.
2. Acknowledge Your Own Limitations
Humility involves an accurate perception of both strengths and weaknesses. Admitting that you have some flaws will help reshape your ideas and self-perception, which will make seemingly challenging information—like negative feedback or constructive criticism—less threatening. After all, if you know that you have limitations and can own them when you receive feedback that contradicts the way you see the world, you can fit it more neatly into how you make sense of things. Admitting that you are often wrong makes it easier to be wrong because it’s less unexpected to be wrong.
3. Diversify Your Social Investments
Because our defenses are often sharpened by people who share our beliefs, you need a network of friends, family, and colleagues who hold different ideas from yours. By weaving together a rich tapestry of voices in your life, you will engage with divergent viewpoints, which should reduce your defensive responses by familiarizing you with different ways of seeing the world that are held by people you like.
Acknowledging that other people hold different perspectives and appreciating your shared humanity with them make you less likely to respond negatively to future perspectives that run counter to your own.
4. Seek to Prove Yourself Wrong
Finally, and perhaps most challenging, you can develop an open mind by intentionally seeking to prove yourself wrong. This counterintuitive approach involves going out of your way to finding information that goes against your beliefs.
Consider one of your deepest-held beliefs. Begin by arguing against yourself. What weak spots might you have in your argument? Where have you not yet searched for facts or evidence regarding this topic? What evidence is there that you might be incorrect? Who are knowledgeable people about this issue whom you’ve previously disregarded—and what do they have to say about the topic? What are some counterpoints to your arguments? What might motivate you to have this belief, and in what areas might you have blind spots?
The goal of this exercise is not for you to change your cherished beliefs and switch political parties or religions. Rather, the point is to realize that other smart, decent people believe differently than you do, so it’s possible—even likely—that you’re wrong about a few things. Learning to argue against yourself and seeking opposing views are tools to avoid falling into the trap of closed-minded defensiveness and are markers of wise decision-making.
These efforts are hard but worthwhile. And even the best intentions may come up short. But as for me, I’m committed to it. Each day, I try to be a bit less defensive and a bit more open. Slowly, I’m hoping it will open me up to greater humility. After all, it beats the alternative.