How Intellectual Humility Can Foster Holiday Happiness

How Intellectual Humility Can Foster Holiday Happiness

Cover of Goodbye, Perfect by Homaira Kabir

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This article first appeared on Happify

Family gatherings are supposed to be joyful, especially during the holiday season. They don’t always turn out that way because, when it comes to our beliefs and opinions, we have a tendency to become judgmental.

This year, the differences in people’s beliefs around masking and vaccinations have opened up even more venues for disagreement. No wonder that many of us are experiencing an underlying sense of dread about what’s to come. As a coach, I’m hearing more and more clients asking, “How can I make family/friends/colleagues understand how unreasonable they’re being?”

My answer: We can’t. Because when it comes to beliefs and opinions, most of us are pretty darn sure of ourselves.

Research on the overconfidence bias shows that more than 80 percent of people believe themselves to be right when there’s a disagreement. Religion and politics are more susceptible to extreme beliefs because they’re mostly driven by subconscious feelings. We use logic and reason to simply corroborate what we feel at an implicit level, not to change it.

The way I see it, a person who judges, criticizes, or holds others in contempt hasn’t arrived at the truth because they’re trying to prove their worth through their beliefs. It gives them a sense of superiority that makes them feel good about themselves. It makes them feel more knowledgeable or moral in some way.

It takes intellectual humility—the willingness to be wrong—to arrive at the truth. And that’s almost always far more nuanced and complex than what we see when we judge.

Mark Leary, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, describes intellectual humility as a metacognitive construct because it involves people’s thoughts about their thoughts. As such, it’s about a higher level of consciousness that allows us to hold multiple perspectives at the same time, and thus be creative in our solutions, instead of being so dogged about our opinions.

4 Steps to Fostering Holiday Happiness

If you find yourself getting triggered by others, here’s a four-step framework to bring intellectual humility to the situation. The goal is to help you build bridges this holiday season rather than float further in your self-assured bubble.

Step 1: Breathe

When someone says or does something that flusters or frustrates you, breathe. The breath breaks the threat response that wants you to retort instantly, because to your hunter-gatherer brain, someone has trespassed on your territory. The breath helps you center yourself so you can decide what the best response would be in the long term.

As you breathe, you may want to imagine the anger flowing out so you don’t feed it with your thoughts. You may also want to say something that makes you feel safe, as in “It’s okay” or “All is good.”

Step 2: Listen

As the emotional pathways in your brain settle down, you can start hearing the story running through your mind. This story tends to be based on your beliefs about yourself, other people, or the world in general.

In her book Dare to Lead, Brené Brown suggests starting with “The story I’m telling myself is…” so you can see it as separate from who you are. It also makes it more difficult to add fuel to the fire. If there’s a lot of noise in your head, pretend that your thoughts are clouds floating across your awareness—it keeps you from getting hooked onto them.

Step 3: Be Curious

The two steps above can happen within seconds, or take longer, depending on your ability to discipline your mind, and on the situation you find yourself in. When emotions run high, we all need time to find our ground so we can bring grace to the situation. Bringing grace is about recognizing our human truth—that regardless of our beliefs and opinions, we’re all worthy of love and compassion.

This doesn’t mean agreeing with or condoning everything others say or do. As priest and author Richard Rohr writes in The Universal Christ, “Loving is not liking.” But starting with love opens a lot more pathways than starting with judgment.

Here are a few questions that can foster intellectual humility and help you love regardless, by helping you see the full, and not just the partial, story of a judging mind:

  • What’s missing in my story?
  • What do I know about the other person that doesn’t align with my story?
  • What do I not know about them that may potentially be true?
  • What would my story be if I were their advocate?

Step 4: Call On Your Bigger Self

Curiosity widens our perspective and helps us shift from a fear-based reaction to a values-based response. Are there needs or values that require protecting? If so, how will you do that? It helps to ask yourself, “Who do I want to be in this situation?”

In fact, it’s a question you can ask yourself right now, before the frenzy of the holidays, and before putting yourself in a difficult situation. Having a guiding self-image will make it easier to call on it when you need to so you don’t say or do something you may regret at some point.

If you find yourself straying from intellectual humility and reverting to judgment, remember to put feelings over facts. You can still have a conversation, or set boundaries if you need to, but you don’t have to make anyone feel small or inferior for it. Who knows, you may even be able to call upon their bigger self. Now that would make for a truly joyous celebration!

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Homaira Kabir

Homaira Kabir

Written by mentor, author and founder of the Goodbye Perfect Project, Homaira Kabir. Homaira Kabir holds Master’s degrees in Coaching Psychology and in Positive Psychology – the science of human flourishing and wellbeing – from the University of East London. She has just published her latest book ‘Goodbye Perfect: How To Stop Pleasing, Proving and Pushing For Others… and Live For Yourself

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