Self deprecation as a bad habit

The outline of a person blurred by red lights.

Photo by Guillaume Bourdages on Unsplash

I have always been prone to making self-deprecating jokes and comments. In the last couple of years, however, I’ve been working to wean myself off of this bad habit. It’s hard and slow-going, but I feel like I am making some progress.

The more I become aware of the effect of my speech and actions on myself and others, the more I see all the different ways in which self-deprecation is toxic.

I tend to use self-deprecation as a way to deflect praise — I haven’t yet learned how to deal with compliments gracefully. A self-deprecating comment in response to credit or praise is a way of managing expectations downwards. “Well, I’m not really very good at this at all, so hey, please, don’t expect much from me, ok?” Often, it means I’m unwilling to own the fact I am good at a thing, and not wanting to take the responsibility that might come it. It’s a way of making myself small. This is perhaps the most obvious way in which self-deprecation is harmful.

At other times, my self-deprecation goes beyond deflection, and becomes a subtle form of rejection. It is not honest. Someone approaches me with “So-and-so told me you are the right person to talk about about XYZ”, and I make a joke about how I really don’t know anything and they’ve been misled, when what I’m really saying is “Well, I don’t know if I can or want to help you with that”.

As I’ve grown into leadership roles, I’ve also come to see the negative effects of my self-deprecating speech on my teams. If your manager or lead keeps trying to make herself small, what does that mean for you? If she really doesn’t believe that she is that good, you’re really a long way off from mastery yourself, aren’t you? I put a fair amount of energy into giving credit and praise and helping my teammates accept and internalize it — my self-deprecation is working against this. A bad case of “do as I say, and not as I do”.

There is also the Buddhist perspective: is self-deprecation Right Speech? Is self-deprecation “Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter”? I think not.