If you stroll down the self-help aisle of most bookstores in America, you’ll notice that book after book is about how to be great, look good, and win. All of these promises for self-enhancement can be loud and quite overwhelming. Sometimes I cheekily wonder, why is there no such thing as a quiet self section?
Of course, I’m not so naive as to think that a quiet-self aisle at Barnes & Noble would ever be as popular as the self-help section. But I am concerned about the results of one large survey, which found that the appearance and frequency in published books of the words “humility” and “humbleness” dropped on average 43.33% from 1901 to 2000. It seems we place a great deal less value on these virtues than we once did.
Fans of current self-help literature may scoff at these findings (at worst) or merely find them irrelevant to their goals. But they’d be wrong to be so dismissive. Because here’s the thing: the latest science of well-being shows that transcending, not enhancing, the self is the most powerful and direct pathway to contentment and inner peace.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s good to have a healthy sense of self. But as psychologist Mark Leary has pointed out, while the self can be our greatest resource, it can also be our darkest enemy. On the one hand, the fundamentally human capacities for self-awareness, self-reflection, and self-control are essential for reaching our goals. On the other, the self has a perpetual desire to be seen in a positive light. The self will do anything to disavow itself of responsibility for any negative outcome it might deserve. As one researcher put it, the self engenders “a self-zoo of self-defense mechanisms.”
Which is why I was so excited to find out about new psychological literature on the “quiet ego.” What is so great about a quiet ego is that it is not a silent ego. As Jack Bauer, Heidi Wayment, and Kateryna Sylaska, who are leading the way in this line of research, put it, “The volume of the ego is turned down so that it might listen to others as well as the self in an effort to approach life more humanely and compassionately.” The quiet ego brings others into the self without losing the self.
According to Bauer and Wayment, the quiet ego consists of four interconnected facets: detached awareness, inclusive identity, perspective-taking, and personal growth. These four characteristics all contribute to having a general stance of balance and growth toward the self and others.
The researchers created a test to measure these four facets.
The statements testing detached awareness include:
Those with a quiet ego score low on these items: they are intensely mindful and aware of their surroundings. They are focused on the immediate moment without judgment or preconceived ideas about how the moment should unfold. This non-defensive attitude toward the present moment is associated with many positive life outcomes.
Inclusive identity statements include:
People whose egos are turned down in volume score higher in this facet. If your identity is inclusive, you’re likely to be cooperative and compassionate toward others rather than only working to help yourself.
Perspective taking statements include:
By reflecting on other viewpoints, the quiet ego brings attention outside the self, increasing empathy and compassion.
Finally, personal growth statements include:
Personal growth and detached awareness complement each other nicely: detached awareness is all about the present moment, whereas personal growth is all about contemplating the longer-term implications of the present moment. Both are part of the quiet ego since both are focused on dynamic processes rather than evaluation of the final product.
The researchers found that those with a quiet ego reported being more interested in personal growth and balance and tended to seek growth through competence, autonomy, and positive social relationships. While a quiet ego was positively related to having a higher self-esteem, it was also related to various indicators of self-transcendence, including prosocial attitudes and behaviors.
This is consistent with the idea that a quiet ego balances compassion with self-protection and growth goals. Indeed, a quiet ego is an indication of a healthy self-esteem—one that acknowledges one’s own limitations, doesn’t need to constantly resort to defensiveness whenever the ego is threatened, and yet has a firm sense of self-worth and value.
They also found that a quiet ego was associated with self-compassion, humility, authenticity, spiritual growth, flexible thinking, open-minded thinking, the ability to savor everyday experiences, life satisfaction, resilience, risk-taking, and the feeling that life is meaningful. If we take a multidimensional conceptualization of well-being (which I do), we see that a quiet ego is more conducive to living a full life.
Interestingly, the researchers also found a moderate positive relationship between having a quiet ego and extroversion. This suggests that having a loud voice doesn’t necessarily mean having a loud ego, and having a quiet voice doesn’t automatically lead to a quiet ego. The strength of the relationship leaves plenty of room for people all across the extroversion spectrum—from extroversion to ambiversion to introversion—to turn the dial down on their ego.
Recent research even suggests that a quiet ego can buffer against existential angst. This is important because anxiety over death is a central (although often hidden) motivating force for many human activities—from religion and spirituality to sexuality to the drive for money and social status to many forms of psychopathology. While self-esteem can serve as an existential anxiety buffer, it also has a potential downside: when the ego is threatened, or when attention is brought to undesirable qualities about the self, thoughts of the inevitability of death increase.
Psychologist Pelin Kesebir argues that a much more constructive and healthier way of dealing with death anxiety is through humility. Across five studies, Pelin Kesebir tested the idea that high levels of humility (measured both as a trait and as a state of being) would be associated with lower death anxiety and lower defensiveness in the face of death thoughts. First, she found that high levels of humility and low levels of entitlement were associated with lower levels of death anxiety and anxiety-induced defensiveness. Humility warded off death anxiety more than qualities such as high self-esteem, mindfulness, general virtuousness, and even having a secure attachment style.
As Kesebir notes, “The humble person is probably more aware and accepting of the fact that against a cosmic scale of time and space, every human being is minute.” Finally, she found that memories of pride-invoking moments did not buffer against death anxiety, whereas memories of humility did.
So, there you have it: a quiet ego may have its volume turned down, but it is in fact the most powerful buffer against threats to the ego, including the biggest threat of them all: death.
Perhaps we should start building that quiet-self section of the bookstore after all.