Self-Deprecation: Harmless Habit or Unhealthy Behavior?

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In everyday discussions or quiet conversations by ourselves, there’s a high chance that we employ language that belittles our accomplishments. Declarations like "Oh, it’s no big deal, anyone could have done it," or "I'm such an idiot" are commonly associated with self-deprecation because these kinds of statements contain a negative self-evaluation.

Self-deprecation is a form of self-talk that reflects a cognitive state, such as low self-esteem or negative self-regard.

Self-deprecating statements tend to play us down to peers, loved ones, and colleagues, but for what purpose? This article discusses why we engage in acts that appear to be self-sabotaging and how self-deprecation affects our well-being.

Why Do We Self-Deprecate?

When interacting with people, conceitedness is, understandably, one of the very last impressions you want to leave behind. To avoid this, there is a tendency to go in the other direction and downplay your positive attributes or even insult yourself to appear humble.

Speaking in this manner is usually to ensure that there is no assumption of ego that can be off-putting or potentially threatening. People also do this to appear more agreeable.

Researchers have realized that we adopt self-deprecation in an attempt to appear more modest or to optimize our statements for a suitable reaction from whomever we may be speaking to. For influential and highly-placed people, this form of communication is often cleverly disguised to appear more down-to-earth and to win support.

If you are a recent winner of a competition or challenge, don’t be surprised when you find yourself using language like "I don’t deserve this" or "there were better participants than me" as a form of compensation to less-lucky participants.

Analysts have also found that to make your present self appear more likable, an easy way to do so is to throw digs at your past self to produce laughs or a deeper form of understanding from your audience.

However, while self-deprecation is often associated with humility, there is a chance that it could promote self-sabotage—an outcome not too many people aim for.

Signs of Self-Deprecation

Let's take a look at some common indicators of self-deprecating language and behavior.

You Can’t Take a Compliment

Whether it’s a comment on how great your shoes look or praise for appearing well-rested on a Monday morning—self-deprecation will often produce responses that explain how old your shoes are or trump up how scary you look under all of your makeup.

To avoid appearing conceited, self-deprecation will often cause a swift rebuttal to different forms of flattery.

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You Instinctively Downplay Yourself  

In certain situations, self-deprecation becomes almost second nature. It doesn’t matter if everyone is aware of how much sleep you lost working on a presentation or how much effort you put into editing your first TikTok video. The moment you receive any praise for it, the kneejerk reaction is to downplay your efforts.

You Believe Promoting Yourself Will Make You Disagreeable

There are cases where you are completely aware of how impressive your skills and accomplishments are. However, acknowledging them, especially to strangers or peers, leaves you with the fear that they might consider you pompous or insufferable.

To avoid that, you may make jokes about the importance of your work or downplay it to appear less impactful.

Impact of Self-Deprecation

Constantly making yourself the butt of jokes or downplaying the work you do may seem effective for producing laughs and appearing more down-to-earth. However, this practice of undermining your authority, picking others over yourself, and staying silent over your achievements can have unwanted consequences, not just to yourself but to others that may relate with you.

The impact of constant self-deprecation may manifest in different ways:

Your Self-Esteem Is Affected

Self-deprecation may be intended to encourage others to feel comfortable, but the reverse may be the case for the person who frequently engages in this act. Being the regular butt of jokes and constantly putting oneself down in front of others can become internalized attacks. Where this happens, self-esteem and self-perception may suffer.

You Begin to Feel Depressed and Anxious

Imagine telling your friend that their accomplishments aren’t that big of a deal or that they’re not as intelligent as everyone else.

Take it a step further and make a habit of doing this in front of their colleagues, friends, and other peers, and you’re certain to cause some damage to their mental health. Doing that to yourself is likely to produce the same effect.

By constantly giving yourself this treatment, your mental health is at risk of being affected. In particular, engaging in self-deprecating humor has been linked to serious conditions like depression and anxiety.

You Begin to Feel Less Optimistic

When your default position minimizes valid feelings and accomplishments, it may be difficult to find the excitement in embarking on a new project or celebrating its completion.

Through self-deprecation, joy can be zapped out of every opportunity—major or minor, that comes your way. This act is known to cause a depreciation in optimism in people who practice it. 

Likewise, others that are on the receiving end of your personal attacks may find it difficult to share in your humor and may feel discomfort when relating with you.

How to Balance Out Self-Deprecation

Self-deprecation may have some benefit when it comes to breaking the ice in uncomfortable discussions or appearing more relatable to others. But while it is a useful conversation opener, this form of communication may pose more harm than good when it comes to your health and well-being.

This is why finding the sweet spot between the humility you crave, and the self-confidence you deserve is crucial in your dealings with others and yourself. 

This balance may be achieved by using the following methods outlined below.

Accepting Compliments

The next time someone lets you know how great you look in the morning or how fantastic your work project turned out, try saying a simple "thank you." Accepting praise, especially where deserved, is a trait you should get comfortable with.

Understandably, it may be a big change for you. But letting yourself get used to applause, flattery, and commendations is necessary to break the cycle of constantly putting yourself down. This change will be a certified step in the right direction for your happiness and well-being.

Keep a Journal

To get a handle on your acts of self-deprecation, it may be advisable to keep a journal detailing the interaction that led to you putting yourself down.

For example, jotting down the negative thoughts that followed a compliment, praise, or otherwise harmless conversation can keep you aware of the changes necessary to be made in your thinking and speech when describing yourself to others.

This act may also be useful in noting your assumptions of yourself.

Make the Decision to Be Positive

To properly balance out self-deprecating behavior, it’s important to think and speak more positively about yourself. Just as self-deprecation becomes close to second nature in your interactions, cultivate a culture where you view and communicate with yourself positively and constructively.

A Word From Verywell

Because we’re so scared of appearing to take ourselves too seriously, deflecting tactics like self-deprecation is oftentimes a common feature of our communication with others and with ourselves.

But while this strategy can be a harmless means of breaking the ice, it also has the potential to affect self-esteem and feelings of self-worth when adopted a little too often in our estimations of ourselves.

The truth is, you can accept compliments and praise for your appearance or accomplishments without needing to put yourself down repeatedly. Instead, remember to lean into positive thoughts of yourself, show yourself a little kindness, and always be mindful of putting yourself first in your interactions. 

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Rnic K, Dozois DJ, Martin RA. Cognitive Distortions, Humor Styles, and Depression. Eur J Psychol. 2016;12(3):348-362. Published 2016 Aug 19. doi:10.5964/ejop.v12i3.1118

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By Elizabeth Plumptre
Elizabeth is a freelance health and wellness writer. She helps brands craft factual, yet relatable content that resonates with diverse audiences.