From Competition to Collaboration: Reflections on Humility, Self-Promotion, and Gender


“Is self-promotion sinful?” Author Marlena Graves asked this question on Christianity Today’s Her.Meneutics blog back in 2010. Reflecting on her experience of having a manuscript rejected by publishers for being a “no name” and not having a big enough platform, she wrestles with questions like “how much of what we do as Christians and churches is about promoting ourselves?” and “are we using the church as a vehicle to make a name for ourselves?”

Graves never directly answers the question  but she imples that most of the time self-promotion is sinful. She concludes that when we are presented with platform-building opportunities, most of the time the most righteous path is to for us to take a step back in order to revaluate and humble ourselves. But, other than turning down opportunities to grow our professional presence, what does humbling ourselves mean?

Last week I was listening to Krista Tippett’s interview with Tiffany Shlain on the On Being podcast when the subject of humility came up. Both women agreed humility is a beautiful virtue, but that in common use the term is often gendered and terribly troublesome. How do we live into humility in ways that do not cause us to be ineffective or self-deprecating? How do we push back on the idea that women ought to give up their seats at the table in the aspiration of Christ-like humility? Ms. Tippett gave an alternative understanding of humility from her own close reading the Jewish and Christian scriptures, and it resonated with me deeply:

Spiritual humility is actually not about making yourself small or about debasing yourself. It’s about having a proper awe before everything else and everyone else.

The opposite of humility isn’t necessarily self-promotion. To fail to have humility is to lack the perspective of one’s self in a larger context, to fail to appreciate and stand in awe of the sacredness of other beings.

Last week I had a troubling experience that has stuck with me longer than I’d like to admit. I received a nomination for an award that recognized my work in the field of global reproductive health advocacy, and I was reaching out to colleagues, friends, and families to ask if they would support me by casting a vote. Although overwhelmingly the response was positive, I got one reply from a minister in my denomination that took me aback. She said that my request for votes was self-promoting, obnoxious, rude, and if that weren’t enough to drive the point home, she ended with an accusation that I was “pimping out” my network.

My stomach dropped. Logically I knew that this negative response had more to do with the sender than with me, but it stung. The response was so vitriolic that for some time I wondered if I had in fact crossed an ethical line by asking people to support me. My inner critic had a field day with this one. What if I really was being obnoxious by daring to ask for people to take time out of their day to cast a vote to support me? What if I really was just out for myself?

Truly the answer to whether or not self-promotion is a virtue or a sin depends on the gender of the person engaging in it. A few months ago there was a meme running through my social media feeds that said, “Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man.” For white men exuding confidence, even when it is unearned, is expected and accepted, but similar behavior in women is criticized as aggressive. Even women who have made it to the top of their organizations struggle with this. But women are caught in a double bind because without self-promotion, they are viewed as less confident. Oh, the frustration!

What happens if we apply Ms. Tippett’s definition of spiritual humility to this dilemma? Instead of minimizing our gifts and successes, what if we did with the recognition that our contributions are pieces of a larger context—but that our pieces are essential to the well-being of the community? And if we choose instead to cower from recognition in pursuit of self-sacrificial anonymity, we withhold our talents and experiences from those who need them for their own work and lives.

I would much rather live in a world in which our efforts focused on celebrating the gifts of one another rather than denigrating our own.

Katey Zeh, M.Div is a strategist, writer, and educator who inspires intentionalKatey Headshot communities to create a more just, compassionate world through building connection, sacred truth telling, and striving for the common good.  She has written for outlets including Huffington Post, Sojourners, Religion Dispatches, Response magazine, the Good Mother Project, the Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion, and the United Methodist News Service.  Find her on Twitter at @ktzeh or on her website


Categories: Activism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Ethics, General

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23 replies

  1. Good for you for seeing that notions of humility/kenosis so often remain focused on the independent ego/self, whereas in fact we are embedded in a web of relations. It seems to me that your critic has not read Valerie Saiving who opined some 50 years ago that the sin of pride is more likely to be the sin of powerful men, while women’s sin is more likely to be self-negation. Nor has she read Charles Hartshorne who said that the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself requires that we also love ourselves!!! If you win the award it will not be because you are prideful, but because you have enough sense of self and self-love to put yourself out there in the struggle to help others. Hope you win!!!


    • Exactly Carol! Self negation among women is merely reverse pride masked as humility and it’s a huge part of our acculturation. It’s similar to the competition between women about who has the smallest appetite: “Oh I couldn’t possibly eat all that!”


    • Reading Valerie Saiving’s essay for the first time was my only moment of true conversion. The impulse to deny self is often not done virtuously but sinfully! The vitriolic response I got is connected to another related issue, which is competition. Envy manifests itself either as tearing another person down or idolizing her/him. Maybe I will write about that next. Thank you for your good thoughts!


  2. Thanks, Katey. This answer, to me, is perfect! — “I would much rather live in a world in which our efforts focused on celebrating the gifts of one another rather than denigrating our own.”


  3. Thinking about Jesus in this context. After the feeding of the five thousand, he resisted massive pressure to declare himself king/or war chieftain. I don’t believe he did this out of distaste for promoting his message/himself but because the “platform” being urged on him was discordant with who he was. He wanted to define his own mission as he did when he staged a massive demonstration riding into Jerusalem on a donkey (I believe in accordance with some scripture) and then confronted the Temple money-changers in a very in-your-face (as distinct from self-effacing!) manner.

    As an author, I am very aware of the pressure to self-promote. I don’t particularly enjoy being a public person. Maybe fortunately for me, I am a very small fish and don’t have that many chances. But I generally take the opportunities I am offered out of loyalty to my work, which I love and believe in passionately, as you do in your work.

    And I think you are absolutely right, men are generally praised, not shamed, for their ambition. Thank you for this excellent post!


    • Thank you for the connection to the life of Jesus around the feeding of the five thousand. I had never thought about that story in this way, but you are spot on. Telling our own stories rather than having a narrative thrust upon is part of honoring our sacred calling and purpose.

      I’m glad you take the opportunities to self-promote, rare as they may be, because you have a unique contribution to the work that others will want to know and share. Thanks for your good thoughts.


  4. This resonates with me as well. My Jewish grandmother believed in the “evil eye”, if you express too much pride in something, that jinxes it. I became conscious of the effect of this after a job interview. I was asked to name something I had done in my current job that I was proud of. I couldn’t think of anything; all of my work had been done in co-operation with others and I didn’t think it fair to take credit by myself. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. I wish I had thought of the analogy of being embedded in a web. Thank you!


    • Judith, experiences like that are so painful. Realizing how little we are encouraged to identify and speak about our contributions to our work harms us in monetary ways, not to mention the effects it has on our spirits. I do hope that you are learning to claim your gifts!


  5. Is all self-promotion sinful or is some self-promotion sinful? If any or all self-promotion is sinful, then I guess every one of us who write for FAR are sinners. But is that true? I’m self-employed. I edit books for smart people who don’t know how to write. If I didn’t promote myself, I would have no income. Ergo–self-promotion can be useful, not sinful. How about the other people who write for FAR?


    • This is a very good point! Anyone who offers an opinion publicly, shares a status update, posts a picture–it’s all one form or another of self-promotion. I like the framing better of being an interconnected community in which we need others and they need us. I don’t know where I would be without editors like you!


      • What could be better and more inter-promotional than a wide community of smart, strong women and men who are simpatico? That’s why I’m here. For the community. As part of the community. Yummy!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Love this post, and love this challenge to humility as self-emptying or self-erasure. I wonder, too, what we mean when we say “Christ emptied himself on the cross” – is this an act of self-erasure, or an act of violence inflicted on a minority whose identity was corroded (in Jesus’ case, temporarily?) for the sake of a sinful empire? Can it be both? At any rate, Katey, this piece is superb! Thank you for promoting your work and for seeking affirmation whilst also holding in tension your own self-confidence.


  7. Reblogged this on dmariesings and commented:
    I sooo needed to read this post today! This is a great challenge for me. Thanks, Katey Zeh and FAR!


  8. Thank you sooo much for this, Katey! I sooo needed to read this post today. This is a struggle for me still even though I’ve read Valerie Saiving’s writing about pride and self-negation and had embraced it. Recent experiences have done a great deal to erode the sense of self that I had been growing into. I’m working to regain that. Thank you sooo very much!


    • D’Marie, I’m glad it resonated with you, and I pray that despite what’s going on in your life, you can know that the divine is within you. It’s one thing to read a piece like Saiving’s and understand it intellectually–and it’s another to live in our world that devalues women’s contributions and value. You have sacred worth!


  9. In a practical sense, it definitely seems to me women are finding more equality as they take more responsibility as leaders, authors, artists, etc. and the Internet is helping that advancement for women too, both individually and in community.


  10. Katey, I truly enjoyed reading your post. I am a very strong, confidant woman. In retrospect, it is interesting to see how my personality has affected how people have perceived me, then treated me. In high school, I was too intimidating for a boy to date me and and viewed at as “rude” from my female peers. That same negative connotation is given to a strong confidant female today. I am currently in college taking a religious studies course. I find it interesting that a Christian woman states that “self-promotion is sinful”. However, most religions, including Christianity, were spread across the world through promotion. The priest or other religious leaders would go around and spread God’s message. They were promoting God’s message FOR God but, wasn’t it mutually beneficial? Their religion and their God was gaining more followers? This is allowed but asking for friends and family to support in an exciting accomplishment is “rude” and you are “pimping out”? Your quote about humility states it best: humility is about having the respect to respect. Respect each other and each other’s hopes and dreams. As long as someone is promoting the well-being of the community and of themselves, then whatever pride they are showing towards an accomplishment should not be misperceived as sinful self-promotion.


    • Kim, I’m glad that my piece resonated with you. Your description of yourself sounds much like me as a child (and as an adult!) Our world needs confident, passionate women like you. Keep it up, sister.



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