St. Teresa of Avila on False Humility

This post is an excerpt from 30 Days with Teresa of Avila by Anthony Lilles and Dan Burke.

I am not surprised at your imperfections as I find many in myself, although I have had much more spare time here than I have enjoyed for a long while, which has been a great comfort; may our Lord comfort your soul too, as I beg of Him. Amen. You exaggerate your imperfection; I have experienced something of the sort myself as well as of the rest you mention, but my naturally grateful nature and your zeal make me pass for a very different person from what I really am. And yet I am on my guard! . . .

Your Lordship’s unworthy servant,

Teresa de Jesus


False Humility: Here we have the opposite problem as revealed in the previous letter where St. Teresa rejoices in her spiritual advisors ability to see her faults. Just as the hiding of faults is rooted in pride and vanity, so exaggerating our faults can also be rooted in pride and vanity.

This is often called “false humility” or a kind of humility expressed to gain some positive reaction from another rather than a disinterested and sincere expression of the true state of our soul.

Though harder to detect than the kind of pride and vanity that hides weaknesses, this kind of pride can be more dangerous because it masks itself in self-deprecation and a kind of openness to criticism. Often those that harbor this defect are self-deceived into believing that they actually are open to criticism or are self-critical. This deception can be very dangerous as it blinds the pilgrim to their deeply rooted need to be seen as humble when humility is actually in short supply, though desperately needed.

At the same time, the Carmelite doctor of prayer is not surprised or upset by imperfections in others, including false humility. As perfect as her love for God and neighbor had become, she expected imperfection and reveals personal familiarity with it. She also does not let those she loves define themselves in terms of failure. Instead, she zeros in on something good God is doing: in this case, she recognizes her friend’s zeal for the Lord. If the great mystic of Avila is self-effacing, it is only with an eye to encouraging a friend who is too preoccupied with her own inadequacy. She does not allow her friend to suffer this inadequacy alone. She identifies with the struggle and discloses it as her struggle too.

Many of those who look to us for affirmation exaggerate their imperfections. Whether we are dealing with our own children, a spouse, or a good friend, St. Teresa’s thoughtfulness is good to imitate. Correcting failure should be as brief and succinct as possible. Consoling and affirming what is good in a compelling way takes real discretion and charm.


This post is an excerpt from 30 Days with Teresa of Avila by Anthony Lilles and Dan Burke.