Are You a Humblebragger?

Becky Banham
By Becky Banham,
updated on Oct 26, 2018

Are You a Humblebragger?

‘I always need my ID on me – people never believe how old I am.’ ‘I’m so stressed. I applied to six jobs and I’ve been offered them all, so I don’t know what to do.’ Everyone loves to celebrate their achievements, but no one likes to feel big-headed. This is when humblebragging can sneak in...

It feels good to share our successes, doesn’t it? We all want to feel valued and important, and that’s why we like to boast about our accomplishments. Now, thanks to social media, we’re able to share that excitement more than ever before. What was once only said at a get-together with friends, is now broadcast to everyone with a quick post.

Some brags are about a specific personal accomplishment – the key to a new house, an engagement, or a promotion. But, other brags can be more subtle. And if you look closely, they’ll often sound a lot like complaints.

“I always regret doing a good job on a project, because then my boss makes me the lead on another one.”

“I hate that I look so young; even a 19-year-old asked me out.”

Ah, the humblebrag. A seemingly modest or self-deprecating statement, with the intention of drawing attention to something you’re proud of. But is this just manufactured modesty? Are people doing it as a guise for overt bragging, or is it because we’re just too modest to sing our own praises directly?

Charlotte Fox Weber, head of psychotherapy at The School of Life, says it can be difficult to tell what the precise motivations are behind this.

two friends talking

“Humblebrags come at you pretending to be something else. Is this person complaining? Self-attacking? Fishing for compliments? What’s happening?”

A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that people choose to humblebrag as an attempt to enhance self-presentation, and ultimately, to gain respect from others. The problem is that we live in a culture that prizes modesty, but also values self-confidence.

The art of the humblebrag then, is in minimising the potential for people to see you as egocentric, by diluting the brag. By adding a negative comment, the hope is that listeners somehow won’t detect the brag – or at least they won’t be offended by it.

According to psychotherapist and counsellor Anne Millne-Riley, humblebraggers are regular frequenters of the therapy room. “These types of clients generally book a session to discuss their dissatisfaction with some area of their lives, be it their career, relationships or finances. However, the real issue – and what they all have in common – is that they usually have low self-esteem, and they are almost certainly self-absorbed.”

So, humblebragging may actually be a coping strategy for those with low self-esteem, looking to boost their own ego.

But as it turns out, humblebragging may fall flat on its face. According to a study by Harvard University, Massachusetts, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, it can receive a more negative response than straight-up self-promotion. Researchers found that regular bragging faired better on tests surrounding the speaker’s perceived likability and competence, because it comes over as genuine.

So, sincerity appears to be the key ingredient.

Even though bragging and boasting can be frowned upon, at least it comes across as sincere. Humblebragging, on the other hand, feels strategic – and it seems we can see straight through it.

Charlotte says: “I find myself feeling confused by humblebrags because of the insincerity – there’s a sense that the person is saying one thing but means something else, and that’s the part that feels inauthentic. Just show off! Or admit to an insecurity.”

women talking

But maybe it’s more than that. Hearing a humblebrag is also thought to trigger any personal struggles we have and, inevitably, we compare ourselves to the speaker. “When a humblebragger asserts their superiority by dropping in comments which let you know how important or brilliant they are, your news – that your child just learnt to ride a bike, or that you’ve been enjoying learning to cook Italian food – then doesn’t seem so interesting in comparison,” says Anne.

But, rather than falling into the comparison trap and allowing the humblebragger’s comments to make you feel less than worthy, we can use self-awareness to minimise the humblebragging effect. The trick is to try empathising with them instead.

Anne tells us: “I urge you to notice humblebragging when it happens, because the braggers are likely to be far more insecure than you. Sooner or later, they will have to face the reality that humblebragging doesn’t protect them from feeling vulnerable indefinitely.”

Charlotte adds: “I think we all humblebrag to some extent, and it’s important to keep an open mind about why. Most of us crave recognition or affirmation, and we don’t feel that we’re allowed to boast. So rather than showing off, we smuggle in self-praise in a way that we hope will alert people to our wonderfulness, covertly. It’s not so covert, and it usually backfires, but it’s insecurity, badly expressed.”

So, the moral of the story is that, sometimes, we all need to toot our own horns. But, the trick is to take the “humble” out of humblebragging, and make sure we’re doing it loudly and proudly.

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