“Proud” and “Humbled”: I do not think it means what you think it means

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” - George Orwell

5 min. read

There’s an epidemic happening, people. It’s in my Facebook newsfeed and my Twitter tweetsfeed and my Google+ hahakiddingIdon’tcheckthatfeed. I believe it’s evolved from the fairly harmless confusion of their/they’re/there into the now dangerous misuse of “proud” and “humbled.”

The short version: people are saying they’re “proud” when they are really affirmingly excited, and they’re saying they’re “humbled” when they are really proud.

The Longer Version

I’m not going to call people out directly, because I don’t want them to feel like sad pandas. So instead of quotes (or screencaps, because I just saw several outbreaks of this plague, which led to this article), I’ll give you a couple broad reenactments of what I’m talking about.

Opening Argument

People of the jury, honorable judge, and all you scumbags in the nosebleed seats: I am humbled to be here to have this opportunity to present this case, and will be proud of you knowing that, after I present the evidence, you will likely come to the conclusion that these words are being falsely represented all on your own.

Exhibit A: The “Proud”

“I’m so proud of [this group that did something cool / this person who did something cool / Smokey the Bear who, unlike you, prevented forest fires]. They’re so great.”

Exhibit B: The “Humbled”

“I’m so humbled that [this great thing has happened to me / I’ve accomplished or been recognized for this thing I did / I won an Emmy (I’ve got some bourgeois Facebook friends)].”

Exhibit C: The “Proud” Definition

  1. feeling pleasure or satisfaction over something regarded as highly honorable or creditable to oneself.

  2. having, proceeding from, or showing a high opinion of one’s own dignity, importance, or superiority.

  3. having or showing self-respect or self-esteem.

  4. highly gratifying to the feelings or self-esteem: It was a proud day for him when his son entered college.

  5. highly honorable or creditable: a proud achievement.

Exhibit D: The “Humbled” Definition

  1. to lower in condition, importance, or dignity; abase.

  2. to destroy the independence, power, or will of.

  3. to make meek: to humble one’s heart.

(thanks, Dictionary.com)

Closing Argument

So as you can likely see, when people say they’re “proud” of someone else’s accomplishments, they’re really saying they are entitled to some honor or credit in the accomplishing of those accomplishments; and when people say they are “humbled” by other people recognizing them for their accomplishments, what they really mean is they’re proud of how awesome they are. Can I get an Amen?! *Drops Bible* *Storms Out of Courtroom*

Judge: “Why was he holding a Bible?”

What’s the problem? Am I a Word Police?

The problem is that words mean things, and our misuse of words, or misconstruing the meaning, also means things. What we’re saying with the above two-punch combo of social-media-back-patting is:

  • This group/person did something worthy of back-patting. I want some of that back-patting, too. “Check out this awesome thing someone else did! It couldn’t have happened or you wouldn’t know about it without me.
  • Ooo, I did something worthy of back-patting myself, but it’s vain and bad to be proud of myself. Oh, yeah, it’s good to be humble, I’ll use that word. “I’m humbled! By how awesome I am.

We’re giving ourselves undue credit in other people’s accomplishments, while not fully crediting ourselves in our own.

And all of this, I’m supposing, is because we’re conditioned in a society that reinforces buying into this paradox.

We’re supposed to work hard and be special and be exceptional, but we’re supposed to be modest lest we be perceived as egotistical, vain, or “I bet you think of yourself when you masturbate.”

Add to all of this a crippling desire to be externally validated for a sense of accomplishment (something we were trained to need by years of grades and ribbons and standardized tests and gold stars), the image-crafting of social media, and a society that creates and worships a small group of elite… and we have a lot of obstacles between us and happiness.

So what can do we do differently?

Say what you mean. If you think someone has done something awesome, applaud them for doing something awesome. You might even be “humbled” by what they’ve done. Cool. If you deserve credit for their accomplishment, you’re more than welcome to be proud of them.

If, on the other hand, you’ve done something awesome, and you want to be recognized, you’re also welcome to be proud. But you’re not humbled, and you’re ruining that word (it’s a powerful, important word), so stop using it. Let’s stop thinking that false modesty is preferred over legitimate pride.

Let’s affirm people in being proud of what they’ve accomplished, and do our best to subvert the discomfort people feel that leads them to being falsely modest.

But, more importantly and bigger picture, let’s try to create a space for our friends and loved ones where they don’t need to seek external validation to be happy, where they don’t see accomplishment as a prerequisite for people to appreciate them, and where they feel unconditionally appreciated just for being

We can start by fully learning this for ourselves, and having an open heart with no minimum admission requirements.