Is Modesty Dead?

Finding modesty in U.S. society is becoming harder as Americans become more consumed with the rich, famous -- and vain.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Webster's dictionary defines immodesty as offending against sexual mores in conduct or appearance; indecent; boastful, and arrogant. Think Donald Trump, or former Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens doing a dance after he makes a touchdown.

By contrast, the dictionary defines modesty as the lack of pretentiousness; simplicity and/or freedom from vanity or conceit. With shows like American Idol and The Apprentice that involve participants vying for attention and status, and role models like Trump and Owens, it's much easier to conjure up images of the immodest today than the modest.

When we are told we need to have positive images of ourselves to feel good and we need to be promoting ourselves at work to be sure we are recognized, where does modesty fit in anyway? Is modesty dead? Does it even matter if it is?

"Vanity and conceit stem from feelings of inadequacy and insecurity," says Ellen Helman, MSW, a psychoanalyst in Miami Beach, Fla., and member of the American Psychoanalytic Association. Braggarts often "feel so inadequate within themselves that they need to [brag or show-off]. People who are really secure and accept themselves don't have the need to be so vain. Immodesty whether sexual, physical, or psychological, leads to an imbalance in life.

"There is a refusal to value the inside and an emphasis on being young, thin, beautiful, and rich," she says. "That's what's valued, not how you think and feel and what your dreams are and what your goals are."

The onus to bring these values back is on parents, schools, and the entire community, she says.

"Within the home, patients need to be more protective of children and not allow them to be so exposed to overstimulation on TV, Internet, and games," she says. "This has to go on in schools and in communities to help kids develop a sense of what's really important in life in terms of feeling good about themselves. The bottom line is that you don't have to brag if you really like yourself and feel good about yourself."

"Modesty comes from different places in different people," says Susan C. Vaughan, MD, a New York City-based psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, also in New York City. "It could mean prudishness or self-respect," she says. A recent episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show warned that some people who act modest really are fearful others will envy them because they have so much going for them.

"The fact that there is so much media and so much hype about everyone succeeding and all these new shows launching people into fame and fortune is driving people to be more out there and less modest," she says.

"The message is that if they are aggressive enough they can catapult themselves into the limelight," she says "When you are immodest about everything from accomplishments to showing off your body, you're at-risk for feeling very jaded about everything."

American Idol and Apprentice wannabees may want to "look at their motives for being less than modest and figure out whether it is making them happy or not," she suggests. "Is it insecurity or security?

Remember, "modesty is a form of separateness and keeping yourself private, and it's nice to have parts that are not always on display," she says.

"People feel a lot of pressure these days to be less modest physically and to show off," says Susan Jaffe, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City. "Am I as rich as Donald Trump? Am I as beautiful as Paris Hilton? Everything becomes a show and you have to promote yourself in this world where everybody knows what is going on because of the media," she tells WebMD. "Everybody knows everything about everybody today and because there is so much information out there, people feel that they have to one up [the next person]," she says.

"When I think about somebody who is very much an exhibitionist, I think about why they need to be that way," she explains. "Is it to overcompensate or because they want to show off?" Understanding why someone is a braggart is important.

But to be overly modest can be a problem as well, she says. "You think about that person as being more inhibited."

Whether too modest or too immodest, "we are talking about excess as opposed to moderation, and people are healthier when they do things in moderation," she says.

Show Sources

Published Jan. 9, 2006.

SOURCES: Susan Jaffe, MD, psychiatrist, New York City. Ellen Helman, MSW, psychoanalyst, Miami Beach, Fla.; and member, American Psychoanalytic Association. Susan C. Vaughan, MD, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst; assistant professor of psychiatry, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York City.
© 2006 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved. View privacy policy and trust info