(The courtier) should let it seem as if he himself thinks nothing of his accomplishments which, because of his excellence, he makes others think very highly of … (The courtier participates in such activities as dancing and music performing) making it clear that he neither seeks nor expects any applause. Nor, even though his performance is outstanding, should he let it be thought that he has spent on it much time or trouble.
~Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier
“I come across many people who are modest – even self-effacing. But, sometimes, I feel as if they are faking it. I can’t put my finger on it, but the feeling is still there: these people are not genuine, they are disingenuous. Can you shed light on this and advise me on how to tell apart the humble from the feigning?”
The “modesty” displayed by these people – the “fakes” – is false. It is mostly and merely verbal. It is couched in flourishing phrases, emphasized to absurdity, repeated unnecessarily – usually to the point of causing gross inconvenience to the listener. The real aim of such behaviour and its subtext are exactly the opposite of common modesty.
It is intended to either aggrandize the speaker or to protect his grandiosity from scrutiny and possible erosion. Such modest outbursts precede inflated, grandiosity-laden statements made by the interlocutor and pertaining to fields of human knowledge and activity in which he is sorely lacking.
Devoid of systematic and methodical education, he who feigns humility tries to make do with pompous, or aggressive mannerisms, bombastic announcements, and the unnecessary and wrong usage of professional jargon. He attempts to dazzle his surroundings with apparent “brilliance” and to put possible critics on the defense.
Beneath all this he is shallow, ignorant, improvising, and fearful of being exposed as deceitful. Such people are conjurers of verbosity, using sleight of mouth rather than sleight of hand. They are ever possessed by the fear that they really are petty crooks about to be unearthed and reviled by society.
This is a horrible feeling to endure and a taxing, onerous way to live. People who fake modesty have to protect themselves from their own premonitions, from their internal sempiternal trial, their guilt, shame, and anxiety. One of the more efficacious defence mechanisms is false modesty.
Consider the narcissist, the most common variety of such “fakers”.
The narcissist publicly chastises himself for being unfit, unworthy, lacking, not trained and not (formally) schooled, not objective, cognisant of his own shortcomings and vain. This way, if (or, rather, when) exposed he could always say: “But I told you so in the first place, haven’t I?” False modesty is, thus an insurance policy. The narcissist “hedges his bets” by placing a side bet on his own fallibility, weakness, deficiencies and proneness to err.
Yet another function is to extract Narcissistic Supply from the listener. By contrasting his own self-deprecation with a brilliant, dazzling display of ingenuity, wit, intellect, knowledge, or beauty – the narcissist aims to secure an adoring, admiring, approving, or applauding protestation from the listener.
The person to whom the falsely modest statement is addressed is expected to vehemently deny the narcissist’s claims: “But, really, you are more of an expert than you say!”, or “Why did you tell me that you are unable to do (this or that)? Truly, you are very gifted!” “Don’t put yourself down so much – you are a generous man!”
The narcissist then shrugs, smirks, blushes and moves uncomfortably from side to side. This was not his intention, he assures his interlocutor. He did not mean to fish for compliments (exactly what he did mean to do). He really does not deserve the praise. But the aim has, thus, been achieved: the Narcissistic Supply has been doled out and avidly consumed. Despite the narcissist’s protestations, he feels much better now.
The narcissist is a dilettante and a charlatan. He glosses over complicated subjects and situations in life. He sails through them powered by shallow acquaintance with rapidly acquired verbal and behavioural vocabularies (which he then promptly proceeds to forget).
False modesty is only one of a series of feigned behaviours. The narcissist is a pathological liar, either implicitly or explicitly. His whole existence is a derivative of a False Self, his deceitful invention and its reflections. With false modesty he seeks to involve others in his mind games, to co-opt them, to force them to collaborate while making ultimate use of social conventions of conduct.
The narcissist, above all, is a shrewd manipulator, well-acquainted with human nature and its fault lines. No narcissist will ever admit to it. In this sense, narcissists are really modest.
by Sam Vaknin, PhD, the excellent Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited.”