does not demand that we be perfect before He will love us.
In His love, He simply
asks us to accept His guidance so that we can learn from our mistakes
and grow in perfection.
Catholic Psychotherapy |
Spiritual Counsels |
The Difference Between Humility and Masochism |
The Virtue of Humility |
Being Nice |
Recognizing Emotions |
Recognizing Psychological Defenses |
Learning How the Past “Lives” in the Present |
Learning New Behaviors |
Encouragement for Those with Low Self-esteem |
the relevance of humility to modern life. “Isn’t humility the same
thing as masochism?” they ask. “Masochism is from the
dark ages.” Well,
humility is not the same as masochism. Let’s find out why.
Psychological Dynamic of Masochism
Most families are far from perfect.
Even Catholic parents who present themselves as devout quite often
fail their children in one way or another. Usually
these failures are more-or-less “normal” expressions of human frailty,
but they can become expressions of family
dysfunction, whether outbursts of anger or violence;
infidelity; alcoholism; and emotional, physical, or sexual
of the children.
If you look back on your life
honestly, then, you will see times when you felt humiliated as a child. You
will also see times when you have gotten involved with bad situations. This
doesn’t mean that you deliberately wanted to suffer; it just
indicates that people most often choose what is known over what is
unknown. That is, for children who have experienced
some form of humiliation or abuse in their families, even though abuse and
humiliation are not pleasant they are known and predictable, and in
that sense they’re comfortable. And that’s
in a nutshell: preferring (desiring) humiliation unconsciously because it’s
more “comfortable” than facing the unknown with true personal
Technically, this helps to
illustrate the distinction between
desire (unconscious) and want
(conscious). As odd as it sounds, because of hidden
unconscious conflicts you can very well desire
something you don’t even want—such as sabotaging
Now, the especially
sad thing here is that, because unconscious desires can’t be seen directly,
most persons will deny that they have them. But, just as an animal’s
presence can be deduced by the evidence of its tracks, so desires can be
deduced by the evidence of the behavior they cause. For example, maybe you
can’t see your secret desire to destroy yourself, but maybe you can
see your behaviors—that is, that you smoke cigarettes, overeat, drink
heavily, use marijuana, are prone to arguing, take risks, procrastinate, have
difficulty finishing projects, can’t read maps, harbor suspicions about
others, avoid cleaning or tolerate clutter, etc.—that eventually lead to
The fact is, unless you resolve
this aspect of your unconscious, you will continue to do unpleasant things.
The unconscious urge for self-punishment and humiliation will continue to
lead you into bad situations, even if consciously you don’t want them
So what is the deepest motivation
for all this unconsciously self-inflicted pain? It’s the veiled hope
that you can make yourself feel loved. That’s right—it’s
the hope that others, in seeing how much you are willing to suffer abuse,
will somehow be made to acknowledge you. Then, in seeing yourself reflected
in their eyes, you will have the satisfaction of feeling loved.
This “hope of feeling
loved” brings us to the clear difference between humility and
Between Humility and Masochism
To live in
humility is to live always in total
confidence of God’s love, protection, and guidance and therefore to
have no concern for yourself when others insult you—or praise you. Secure
in God’s love, you don’t have to base your identity on whether
or not others acknowledge you.
masochism, on the other hand, you invite
others to insult you because, as a psychological defense against the pain
of deep emotional wounds, you take unconscious pleasure in being demeaned
in the secret hope that you will somehow, someday, earn someone’s admiration
for your willingness to endure painful abuse.
Therefore, we can define false
humility as pride in your own masochism. Consequently, whereas false
humility burdens the soul, genuine humility brings enlightenment to the soul
and frees it from all that would obstruct its service to God.
be on your guard, daughters, against some types of humility given by the
devil in which great disquiet is felt about the gravity of our sins. This
disturbance can afflict in many ways even to the point of making one give
up receiving Communion and practicing private prayer. These things are given
up because the devil makes one feel unworthy. . . . The situation
gets so bad that the soul thinks God has abandoned it because of what it
is; it almost doubts His mercy. . . .
Humility does not disturb or disquiet or agitate, however
great it may be; it comes with peace, delight, and calm. . . .
The pain of genuine humility doesn’t agitate or afflict the soul; rather,
this humility expands it and enables it to serve God more.
The Way of Perfection, 39:1-2
Humility, therefore, is actually
a sign of great courage and deep spiritual understanding. In humility there
is no fear. In humility there is no timidity. In humility
there is only confidence—confidence, not in the
self, but in God’s loving
And all of you,
clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for:
“God opposes the proud but bestows favor on the humble.” So humble
yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time.
Cast all your worries upon him because he cares for you.
The Virtue of
Encompassed within the virtue
of humility are three different graces that allow us to live genuine Christian
lives. These are the graces:
to set aside your
attempts to make yourself feel “special” through the acceptance
and admiration of others;
to overcome your
repugnance to feeling emotionally hurt by
to seek the good
of others in all things, setting aside all
competition, even at your own expense.
Still, let’s be careful
that this is done in a psychologically healthy manner.
First, it’s good when our
work is recognized and appreciated; the spiritual point is that we
shouldn’t crave this admiration as an aspect of a personal
but that we endeavor to accept all benefits
of our work in praise of Christ, who emptied Himself for our sake, who suffered
for us, who died on a cross for us, and in whose service we do our work.
But may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ
Second, we all feel
hurt when someone
still, the spiritual point is that we
don’t need to build up psychological
defenses to protect ourselves from the pain of being insulted if only,
even in our deepest hurt, we always endeavor to trust in Christ, who alone
will protect us from all danger. Be not
afraid, as Jesus says repetitively throughout
Finally, although “placing
others first” runs counter to natural self-preservation, the spiritual
point is that, if we really trust in God, not only can we stop
competing with others to satisfy our
pride but also we can endeavor to notice the needs
of others, looking on others with compassion,
in the hope that they might be saved from damnation
because of their own desperate obsession with self-preservation. Nevertheless,
our concern for others must not take on a form of
masochism or self-defilement; in all of our charity
to others we must never relinquish the
responsibility of developing our talents to the
fullest, so that we can serve Christ effectively and
joyfully, in pure
love. Our self-development is a spiritual necessity,
not a form of selfishness. Moreover, in seeking the good of others in all
things it is important to seek their real good—their salvation—by speaking
the truth about mistakes and sins and not just keeping the peace by
You have just seen how the virtue of
humility has often been disparaged because it gets confused with the psychologically
disordered nature of humiliation. In a similar way, the virtue of humility frequently
gets confused with “being nice.”
The truth is, Christ was humble but He
wasn’t “nice.” He loved us—He spoke the truth—He was the
truth—but He wasn’t nice. To be nice is to
accept anything, even sin itself. Why? Well the deep
unconscious motive for being nice is fear, the fear that if
you speak the truth you will offend someone who will then reject you and abandon you.
To love is to speak the truth and, with
non-judgmental bluntness, to call a sin a sin.
So it’s worth saying again: humility is
actually a sign of great courage and deep spiritual understanding. In humility there
is no fear.
How to Attain
Humility: Four Steps of Emotional Honesty
Let’s begin by noting that,
even though a life of humility depends on emotional honesty, the psychological
task of attaining humility is not about some vague ideal of “feeling emotions fully”
but in (a) feeling all the emotions connected to a particular event; (b)
recognizing the beliefs associated with any particular emotion; and (c)
discovering the crippling effects those emotions and beliefs have had on your
In working through this process,
you will come to understand how various events of your life have led you
to develop various defense mechanisms; furthermore, you will learn that various
talents and hopes within you have gone unfulfilled and that now, in true
humility, you can make serious changes to your life by developing new
Let’s see, then, how the
psychological process necessary to attain a state of humility consists of
four steps of emotional honesty.
First, it will be important to
learn not only that you have emotions but also how to recognize and
Some emotions are pleasant—such
as feeling confident, soothed, peaceful, relaxed, joyful, etc. Some emotions
are unpleasant—such as feeling unwanted, unnoticed, rejected, ugly,
abandoned, misunderstood, powerless, stupid, etc.
Be careful not
to deliberately indulge in sensory pleasures just to feel pleasant emotions.
Your task is to feel all emotions, including the unpleasant ones.
Learning to recognize your emotions
can take some hard work, so make the task into a form of prayerful contemplation.
Reserve moments of reflection to ask yourself what you are really feeling
in the moment and what you have been feeling recently. Use a
common emotions as an aid.
Keep in mind,
however, that many persons confuse beliefs with
“I felt that
the interview went well.” This is actually a statement of a
belief, and it can be better expressed
by saying, “I believe that the interview went well.”
“I felt pleased
with the interview.” This is a genuine
“I feel that
you will be late again.” This is actually a statement of a
belief, and it can be better expressed
by saying, “I believe that you will be late again.”
already very annoyed that you will probably be late for our appointment.
When you are late I feel devalued as a person.” This is a genuine
Second, it will be important
to learn that you have been using some very clever unconscious psychological
to push out of awareness all the unpleasant
and frightening emotions which hurt you as a child.
Learning to recognize your
psychological defenses can take as much hard work as recognizing your emotions
in the first place, so make the task into a form of prayerful
scrutiny. Take the time to remember things that
happened to you as a child; ask yourself what emotions you must have been
feeling at that time; and reflect on what defenses you used at that time
to protect yourself from unpleasant emotions. Use a
psychological defenses as an aid. Below are
examples of a few commonly-used defenses.
As one way to block out unpleasant
and frightening emotions, many children block out any awareness of the situations
that cause these emotions. Hence they can lose situational awareness
and bodily awareness in the process. Maybe they always bump into things
and have accidents. Maybe they cannot perceive the emotional cues given off
by others, and so they will lack empathy. Maybe they cannot perceive the
beauty of nature, and so they will lack wonder. Maybe they will develop eating
disorders, such as anorexia or obesity.
If body awareness
is a problem, practice a psychological technique called
autogenics as an aid.
the Realm of Intellect and Reason
As another way to block out
unpleasant and frightening emotions, many children defend themselves simply
by dampening all their emotional reactions, dwelling in the realm of intellect
children of alcoholic parents more often than not grow up in an environment
of lying, broken promises, arguing, and violence. To cope with such emotional
volatility and chaos, some children learn to run away and hide. They
fear emotions as something dangerous. And, because
the dysfunctional family system cheats them
of the ability to deal honestly with emotions, the children spend their lives
avoiding emotions, knowing that if they ever encountered a strong emotion,
they wouldn’t know what to do with it.
Another common way to block out
unpleasant and frightening emotions, especially emotions of helplessness,
is with anger, allowing free reign to impulses of hatred and revenge. When
you get angry you don’t really allow yourself to feel your inner
vulnerability and hurt. All you can think about in the moment is your desire
to get revenge, to defend your pride, to do something—anything—to
create the feeling that you have power and importance. In essence, your outbursts
of rage paradoxically hide your inner feelings of vulnerability, so you never
recognize the hurt you’re feeling that triggers your hostile
reaction. All the bitterness and hostility is a big puff of smoke, an emotional
fraud. It hardens your heart toward others so that you can seal off your
own emotional pain.
3. Learning How
the Past “Lives” in the Present
Having learned to recognize emotions
and your defenses against them, your next task will be to learn that the
past essentially continues to live psychologically in the present; that
is, when you experience emotional stimulation in the present you will be
unconsciously pushed into responding to these emotions according to your
psychological defenses that were created in childhood.
Through your psychological and
spiritual scrutiny, then, you will come to understand that all the unpleasant
and frightening emotions which you have been pushing out of awareness all
your life have been secret causes for all the problems and
conflicts you have been experiencing all your
Just as a child
who does not understand the concept of dirt and
disease will resist taking a bath, persons who do not believe they are governed
by unconscious defenses will resist spiritual
purification. When confronted by personal
trials—such as a difficult marriage,
or an illness—they will tend to seek a way to “get rid of the
problem.” And what a wasted opportunity! If only they would look inside
themselves with deep scrutiny so as to recognize and then remedy the unconscious
conflicts keeping the problem alive, they could see that the trial is God’s
way of calling them to overcome old weaknesses and develop new
Therefore, endeavor to examine
your life very carefully so as to make a conscious, enlightened connection
between your suppressed emotions and your current behavioral problems. (If
you look carefully, you will find fantasies
of grandiosity, revenge, and sexuality frequently running through your mind,
and these fantasies can prod you into acting in ways that are, well, unbecoming
to Christian conduct.) This scrutiny will show you how your life, up to now,
has been largely controlled by the unconscious
of old emotional conflicts.
4. Learning New
Having mastered the previous
steps so that you can easily recognize how the past essentially continues
to live in the present, it will be important to make a conscious effort to
resist the temptation to fall into old defensive patterns, and to train yourself
to act with new and different behaviors.
This process has three essential
Feel the sorrow of how much both you and others
are damaged when you continue acting according to your old patterns of
Declare to yourself and to God that you will do anything it takes to change
Pray for the courage and strength to change, and to not punish yourself when
you falter, but to keep learning from your mistakes and trying to overcome
your old patterns of behavior.
Notice carefully: this is
hard work. It requires trust in divine guidance along with the personal
self-discipline to not waver in confidence as the Holy Spirit directs you
along the way of perfection.
Yes, it’s hard work,
and your false beliefs—goaded on by demons—will
be right there saying, “You won’t be able to do it. You’re not good enough. You
don’t deserve it.”
Therefore, strive always to maintain
a psychological attitude of calm trust and confidence in divine
No matter what happens,
commit yourself to believing the process will work.
that happens as a God-given opportunity to learn new behaviors and grow in
Never reject an
opportunity to learn. Many such opportunities come as
tribulations that can feel overwhelming,
but, if you endure them gracefully, you will
emerge from them more strong in faith and more pure of heart than when you
You don’t have
to fear making mistakes and you don’t need to
punish yourself when you
do make a mistake. God can forgive anything if only you have the
desire in your heart to remedy mistakes and
learn from them.
How many persons
say “Jesus, I trust in You!” as a rote part of their prayers? And
how many of these same persons fly into a panic when some difficulty or trial
afflicts them? Immediately, they want to get satisfaction, get back at the
person who hurt them, or just get anything in compensation. In so doing they
completely forget what Christianity is all about: taking up your cross in
imitation of Christ.
So it’s essential that you
train yourself to make a disciplined, conscious decision in the moment to
understand and resist transient defensive
fantasies and instead to bear pain and
suffering gracefully, in imitation of Christ, with
In every moment of difficulty
you will, like a frightened child, think first of protecting your
pride, but you must now, with a deliberate act
of will, set aside that pride, realizing that if Christ could bear all insults
in complete obedience to the Father’s will, then you, too, because of
your baptismal vows, have a responsibility to
live by that same obedience.
Why Don’t Some
People Learn From Their Mistakes?
Why is it that some persons don’t
learn from their mistakes? Well, the answer is simple: they don’t want to
learn. They don’t desire to learn, so they
don’t pray that they will
learn, and so they don’t learn.
For Those with Low Self-esteem
Individuals who have anxiety,
and who sometimes suffer with mild depression, often have low self-esteem.
They will ask, “How I can become more humble—to decrease so that
Christ and others may increase—without lowering my self-esteem
The danger for such persons is
that, on suffering an insult, they might say to themselves, “OK. Keep
your mouth shut and just take it.” But that approach to insult only
leads to humiliation rather than humility.
For a true act of humility to
occur, it is necessary to perform it with full psychological and spiritual
awareness, carrying out the act with confidence in divine grace and
deliberately making the act an offering for the salvation of the offending
Thus, when someone despises,
rebukes, calumniates, forgets, ridicules, wrongs, suspects, or otherwise
insults you, follow this process:
Be honest with yourself
about how much the offense hurts you emotionally.
Acknowledge the impulses
of anger and revenge that will pop into your mind.
For the sake of love,
and with confidence that love will triumph over evil,
refuse to give in to those impulses—rise above them and entrust the matter to
God’s perfect justice.
For the sake of not
leading others into their own temptation to a deeper pride or anger than that
which caused the offense in the first place, do not argue with or compete with
them. You can tell them, gently and with kindness, how you feel, and if they
apologize, fine. If they scorn you, however, then quietly pray for their eventual
enlightenment and conversion.
Thus, in following this approach
to humility, your pride and illusions-of-self will decrease, and your self-esteem
will increase, because you will be carrying out your acts of humility
deliberately for love of God and for the sake of others. Moreover, others
will increase because, rather than provoking them into conflict, you will
be witnessing true love and assisting their conversion with your
Note carefully that unless you
work through all the four steps of humility—either in psychotherapy
or through prayer and spiritual purgation—it
will be nearly impossible to live a genuinely humble life. You cannot surrender
your pain and suffering—and your pride—completely to God if you
persist in clinging, deep in your heart, to psychological
defense mechanisms that shield you from that
very pain. How can you say that you trust in God if you’re always protecting
yourself with your own wits? In the past, particularly as a child,
blame, resentment, and
anger may have served to ensure your survival by
masking your hurt and vulnerability, but in reality these things are totally
opposed to Christian love.
had a gift from
God to cast out evil spirits. One time he asked to learn what they feared
most and what compelled them to flee.
it is fasting?” he asked one of them.
the evil spirit replied, “neither ever eat nor ever
“Sleepless vigils, then?”
“We do not sleep at all.”
“Flight from the world?”
“Supposedly an important thing. But we spend the greater part
of our time wandering around the deserts.”
implore you to confess what it is that can subdue you,” insisted the
The evil spirit, compelled by a supernatural force, was pressed to
answer: “Humility—which we can never overcome.”
Ancient Fathers of the Desert: Section 1
V. Rev. Chrysostomos, trans.
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Healing by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D. explains how psychological
defenses help to protect us from emotional injury. But if you cling to the
defense mechanisms that were created in your childhood and carry them on
into adulthood—as most everyone does unconsciously— your quest for spiritual
healing will be thwarted by overwhelming resentments and conflicts. Still, God
has been trying to show you that there is more to life than resentment and
conflict, something so beautiful and desirable that only one thing can resist its
pull: hate So now, and in every moment until you die, you will have a profound choice
between your enslavement to old defenses and the beauty of God. That decision has to
come from you. You will go where you desire.