Self-Depreciation: Why Do We Do It?

by Casey McMullin on April 2, 2019

In my social circle, humor has a tendency to revolve around self-depreciation. One of the most common responses to “Why did you do this?” is often something like, “Because I’m a disaster and don’t know what I’m doing!” This sense of self-depreciation is deeply ingrained in many of my peers as well as myself and, despite it being presented as humor, I often find I cannot tell the difference between joke and truth. I have found that, when discussing strong emotions, many millennials feel uncomfortable expressing emotional intimacy without making a joke out of it. Any hint of vulnerability often cannot be spoken with sincerity, but is instead offset by sarcasm, jokes, and self-depreciation, which usually work in tandem with each other.

Why do we do that?

Self-deprecating humor is a learned reflex we use, often to deny ourselves credit. It can be described as a method your brain uses as it “continuously monitors the social environment for cues regarding the degree to which [you are] being accepted versus rejected by other people” (Leary 32), typically finding more harm than good. Our own self-critical lens is thus biased, making us feel as if we are not worth praise or positivity as a result of any deviations from the norm. This is because we tend to focus our attention on “shame[,] highlight[ing our feelings of] unworthiness, weakness, and other negative features” (Owens 297). We treat ourselves in ways that we would never treat another person, often with no mental pushback. These negative evaluations are not fair to ourselves, ultimately resulting in undue stress and mistrust.

Self-depreciation is not just telling yourself you are awful. Self-depreciation is also undermining your own authority by claiming to be wrong to maintain humility, silencing yourself in favor of others, and tormenting yourself over mistakes that do not matter. In fact, inferiorization plays a large role in self-deprecation, as we continuously make ourselves smaller, deny ourselves credit, and beat ourselves up for past mistakes (Adam 51). We should not torment ourselves because we are not who others want us to be, but, as we all know, achieving this level of inner peace is difficult.

I know I certainly beat myself up about things from the past that don’t matter, from magic tricks going wrong to not saying no when I needed to say no. If you keep these mistakes with you even after they lose relevance, you accumulate heavier burdens and make it more difficult for yourself to keep moving forward. By weighing yourself down with your mistakes, you fail to forgive yourself and learn from the experience, which is the most important aspect of making a mistake. Like Ron Swanson says in Parks and Recreation after Leslie Knope tries to insist that she “did something bad” and is thus “a bad person,” it is imperative to realize that “It’s not that simple. You know what makes a good person good? When a good person does something bad, they own up to it. They try to learn something from it and they move on.” By actively denying yourself forgiveness for small mistakes, you are inhibiting your ability to grow from them. After all, if you cannot move on from the past, you can never live in the present.

Empty positivity is therefore a way of cheating yourself out of a learning experience, since saying something is okay does not necessarily mean you believe it. You have to understand that you are worthy of forgiveness in order to forgive yourself, which might take a lot of emotional effort in asking why you are so hung up on your mistakes. Time may be able to heal all wounds, but you have to make sure they don’t get infected by an obsession with perfection. Instead of trying to be someone who is perfect, try to be a better you. Perfection is essentially glorified conformity, but you are a unique individual that can offer the world something that nobody else can.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should overlook all of your negative qualities. Self-confidence without the presence of self-doubt leads to a lack of critical thinking, both regarding yourself and the ideas around you. When people ask others to overcome self-doubt, it’s usually by asking them to speak up, but the loudest voice in the room is often not the most important or even the most well-informed one. Timothy Owens explains in his psychological research that “[people] with high global self-esteem have self-respect and a feeling of worthiness, and yet acknowledge faults and shortcomings” (288), which requires a certain level of honesty within yourself. Being unable to acknowledge your faults, while it can assist with battling self-doubt, only makes you a weaker person through an inability to take criticism and learn from the past. To grow, we must make mistakes, acknowledge them, and learn from them.

Self-doubt, while it can be a plague on the minds of visionaries, helps keep ourselves in check. However, it is important to note that we are all constantly changing – if you can understand why you did something without defending your regrettable actions, you are making progress towards creating a better future. While you are allowed to express your frustrations with yourself, consistently putting yourself down through self-deprecating humor is not a healthy way to express this. Instead, we all must think critically about why we say such negative things about ourselves. It is only then that we can move on from past failures and unhealthy coping mechanisms in order to create healthier behaviors, which we can utilize in the future to create a better self.

References:

Adam, Barry D. “Inferiorization and ‘Self-Esteem.’” Social Psychology, vol. 41, no. 1, 1978, pp. 47–53. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3033596.

Leary, Mark R. “Making Sense of Self-Esteem.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 8, no. 1, 1999, pp. 32–35. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20182550.

Owens, Timothy J. “Accentuate the Positive-and the Negative: Rethinking the Use of Self-Esteem, Self-Deprecation, and Self-Confidence.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 4, 1993, pp. 288–299. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2786665.

“The Trial of Leslie Knope.” Parks and Recreation. NBC. WCAU, Philadelphia. 01 Dec. 2011. Television.