Humblebrags and Humility: a help or a hindrance?

“Ok, if you could just not be modest for the next thirty seconds, tell me just how tough this race is. It’s 268 miles; it’s not flat, it’s tough, and the weather is pretty brutal…”

BBC interview with Jasmin Paris shortly after she smashed the overall Spine Race course record in January 2019

We see it all the time. People downplaying their achievements. The athlete who is “Just a normal person really”, notwithstanding the hours, days, months and years of pure grit, sacrifice and dedication that lie behind an incredible performance.

Disclaimer: this blog is full of questions. It’s a topic I’ve only recently started trying to grips with, and as such, I have zero answers. Do let me know if you’ve got any!!

There’s no talent here, this is hard work. This is an obsession. Talent does not exist, we are all equal as human beings. You could be anyone if you put in the time. You will reach the top, and that is that. I am not talented, I am obsessed.

— Conor McGregor. Not sure I agree entirely but it’s an interesting viewpoint.

I was at a Plas Y Brenin talk by James Mchaffie a few years back, when an audience member – presumably a new climber – asked: “But how do you hold onto bits of rock so small?

It can be fairly hard to discern the complete lack of handholds from a few epic pictures on a slideshow, much less an “ordinary looking bloke” (who happens to be a phenomenal climber). Mchaffie’s response? “I’ve been climbing every day since I was three.”  The room fell silent, having caught a brief glimpse of what it takes.

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Again, there are nuances, but it’s a striking thought. Thanks Jo for the image and constant inspiration

And this sort of (excessive??) humility is typical. Is it a British thing? (No, look at the ever-modest Irish legends Carol Morgan and Steph Dwyer). Is it a female thing? Evidently not exclusively; see above. Is it linked to our excessive apologies, as Brits and women? Why do we come across as sorry – or even embarrassed – for things we should be so, so proud of? Well yeah; I did a 105 mile ultramarathon, but I walked most of it; I was pretty slow and only just made the cutoffs (I like to think the two obnoxiously bright fluorescent orange t-shirts in my possession go some way to counteract this. Probably shouldn’t have worn one to yoga, not very calming.) Am I just preempting the naysayers? (“You’re not an ultrarunner if you walk” – oh f*** off…and yet I don’t call myself an ultrarunner; despite having completed 10 for 10 ultramarathons and done quite a bit of running.)

When Jasmin Paris rushes to point out that the weather on the Spine this year was relatively good – i.e. ripe for a course record – is she diminishing her achievement, or just saying what she knows people are thinking? When people faster and stronger than me say they’re “slow”… “not an athlete”… how does that relate to others behind them in the field? Why is modesty a virtue? Is it a positive that we’re making it look like anyone can do it? Are we making it look too easy; minimising the hard work that it took? Or are we making it more accessible?

And how does modesty affect the headgame of modest badasses? How can you be mentally tough if you believe you’re “nothing special”? Or is there a persona at play? One voice for the media, one for friends & family, one for the race? Is this misrepresenting what it takes to achieve your goals?

“I am confident. I am resilient. I have faith in myself.” is one of my mantras. But when someone asks how I did the L100, I don’t say that. I say “I didn’t run 100 miles. That’s the secret. I did 27. Then 20. Then 12. Then 10, then lots of 1s. One step at a time.” I don’t say “I did a f***load of physical and mental training and reccied the route to death.” I say “Oh I’m very low mileage, I only did about 30 miles a week and I got away with it.”

Is that what we think we’re doing when we reach our goals; getting away with it? Is it a case of imposter syndrome?

Image result for everyone feels like an imposter

Because it’s a common trope that no one’s ever done enough. So many of us are chronic over-preparers. It’s a rarity to hear “I’m really pleased with my training. I’m excited to see what I can do”… but that’s what we’re supposed to tell ourselves. How can we do that when we refuse to say it to our friends?!

As someone who’s working hard to be less self-deprecating (although I have joked that if I lose friends to my newfound “arrogance”, I’ll have more time for running), I’d love to know: how do you stay grounded but strong? How can you be a modest badass, when people are telling you you’re a badass? Should we all just grow our egos a bit more?

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Two of my favourite badasses having a great time on my birthday run
Lately, having struggled quite a lot with comparing myself to others, I’ve started rereading The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion. It’s a fantastic book; the basis for my mental training for the Lakeland 100. If you’re interested, there are loads of podcasts about it here.

I’ve been reading about self-presentation and impression management, and while it doesn’t mention modesty or humility by name, it may have some explanations for us.

“When you’re on the receiving end of someone else’s in-your-face impression management, it’s annoying precisely because you’re on the opposing team. Shrinks call this a self-evaluation threat. It sends the message that their social standing is higher than yours… And it’s f*cking irritating. Sometimes it’s really overt, such as someone literally telling you how great they are… Some people prefer to reverse engineer the process entirely by faking inadequacy…portraying themselves as deficient in order to catch opponents off-guard and gain an advantage.”

The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion – Simon Marshall, PhD and Lesley Paterson

It appears to be all about a balance between self-criticism and “self aggrandizement” (which Marshall and Paterson describe as “telling people how awesome you are”). I have a sneaking suspicion it’s got a hell of a lot to do with what’s socially acceptable, for unknown and probably very complex reasons.

So is it to do with what we say in different situations, and marking a distinction between how we present ourselves and what we actually believe? Is it all just to do with confidence? They say arrogance can be over-compensation for lack of confidence of ability, but of course so can modesty.

There we are. Lots of questions. 28 to be precise. Very few answers. Care to help me answer some?

7 thoughts on “Humblebrags and Humility: a help or a hindrance?

  1. Great blog n heres my 2cent. Long distance / endurance challenges are like mastabation fun to do, but no one really wants to hear about it. Unless there as depraved as you!!
    I find it hard to talk to people who don’t understand what you have done/been through so prefer not to talk about it. some of my trailfamcompare it to soldiers post operation. Been through the shit but can only really open up to those who went through it too!

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  2. I enjoy your ponderings. As a nation, we worry too much about what others think. I don’t really understand why people are embarrassed in so many situations. Embrace what you achieve as your own achievement and sod what anyone else thinks. We only live once, let’s go and have fun the way we all want to, each to our own!

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  3. It would appear to me as a casual observer that the instinct to be humble is a learnt response and one that is a product of our society’s norms and expectations. It may be cliched but you wouldnt expect an American to be as reserved as a Brit about their own successes. I think we are culturally conditioned from a very early age that boasting is a bad habit and since it is hard to quantify the difference between bragging and genuinely deserved self-admiration most civil people would err on the side of caution perhaps?

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  4. I just stumbled upon this blog so a bit late to the party! I wrote about this recently too when I started questioning why some elite ultra runners don’t seem willing to acknowledge how much work or focus they put into accomplishing huge goals. Or they say that doing well is ‘just a bonus’ when they clearly set out with their eyes on the prize. I don’t know the answer either but think it is quite disrespectful of ‘normal’ runners who are trying hard to be their best and looking at these amazing athletes that say they don’t really put any graft in! I say we should be comfortable with wanting to do well and be proud when we achieve. I guess there is an element of worrying about arrogance and saving face when things go wrong which is very hard when people expect a lot from you. It’s a tough one!

    Liked by 1 person

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