Umbrellas in Dublin

Self-deprecation gets you nowhere

Oh, you liked my latest blog post? You think I’m a good writer? Thank you! I mean, I think I’m alright and everything but there’s obviously much better writers out there than me. You see what I did there? Obnoxious, unnecessary, self-deprecation.

Lately, I’ve really noticed that I am bubbling over with self-effacing ‘jokes’, negative comments and rambling replies that rain all over my own parade. Now that I’ve realised this, I want to punch myself, Ed Norton in Fight Club-style, every time I do it. But surely there’s a better way to deal with self-deprecation that won’t leave me swimming in self-loathing or potentially with a black eye? There is.

But first, let me tell you all the reasons why self-deprecation is really just self- sabotage. Sure, everyone will laugh at your ‘witty’ jokes about how you have no idea what you’re doing in life and how your skills are so limited you’re practically an amoeba. But, the truth is people believe what you say about yourself, especially in situations like a new job or an interview, where you’re a shiny whiteboard just waiting to be scrawled upon. With no prior experience of you, people will take you on your word. After all, you know yourself best, right?

Think about it: We’ve all met people who were pretty mediocre in the attractiveness stakes but they sold themselves, à la Samantha Brick, as Hot Stuff. And so people treat them like they’re Hot Stuff. Similarly, we’ve all worked with bog standard people who practically wore neon ‘Genius, Incoming!’ signs and were accordingly treated as if they’re something special. Baffling as it may be, there’s no big mystery for Jessica Fletcher to solve here; if you tell people you’re great at something (unless you spectacularly fail at it) chances are they’ll believe you.

Not only will other people believe the negative things you say about yourself – no matter how jokey your tone is – but you’ll slowly start to believe it too and that road is a confidence cul de sac. As clinical psychologist Ros Taylor says in this great Elle piece on the same subject, “Your outer dialogue feeds into your inner dialogue.”

Downplaying your talents so as to not be perceived as threatening is insane but also understandable. I’ve worked as a freelance journalist for almost 5 years and, let me tell you, I’ve met freelancers so cutthroat they must’ve been pageant moms in a past life. When confronted with fiercely competitive people, I tend to panic a bit and would prefer to let them know that I’m just gonna do my job and not rip anyone’s hair out over a commission. To do this, I rely on my magic bag of self-effacing comments.

There are many problems with this approach but the biggest one, career-wise, is that when you qualify your views or your achievements with a not-so-subtle putdown, you’re signalling to everyone around you that you have no self-belief or confidence. No matter how supportive and friendly the place you work at is, Fretting Fiona Who Thinks She Is Crap does not get the promotion. Confident Colin gets it. Every time.

So, what can you do to avoid falling into the self-deprecating joke trap? Firstly, just take the compliment. Whether it’s flattery about your dress or a positive comment from your boss about a project, resist the urge to say ‘thanks, BUT I got this on sale/I really don’t know how I did that!’ An enthusiastic thanks is always enough.

Take a look at what the men are doing. Really. Unsurprisingly, self-deprecation is a gendered issue. Even if they are the most mediocre dudes masquerading as the next Steve Jobs, I have yet to hear a man say something like ‘yeah, I finished that task but I wasn’t really sure what I was doing’ or ‘yes, I can do that job for you…but are you sure I’m capable? I mean, ME?’ Never. Of course, I’ve worked with men who weren’t exactly Kanye West about vocalising their self-belief but they never articulated their self-doubt either. Instead, they just got on with it. (If you want to read more about self-deprecation and gender, try the excellent Feminist Fight Club by Jessica Bennett, or this Guardian piece.)

You see, talking about yourself in a self-deprecating way often stems from a place where you’re seeking validation or reassurance. But, in the workplace, no one’s going to hold your hand, tell you you’re great or give you the validation you’re fishing for. Not to go all Oprah (again) but you can only find that validation in yourself and through your work.

Another way to avoid talking about yourself in a self-deprecating way is to just stick with the facts. When someone asks you to do something, a simple ‘yes, I can’ is more than fine. When my supervisor asks how I’m getting on, I’m going to say ‘good!’ There’s no need to add a negative just so you don’t sound overly-confident or in any way threatening. You might feel like you’re no fun initially but there absolutely has to be something else to laugh about that doesn’t involve belittling yourself. Go on, let someone else be the butt of the jokes for a change.

One of the best life lessons I ever learnt was from The Bell Jar. Remember the scene with the finger bowl? Plath’s protagonist discovers through a minor social faux pas that if you do things confidently, you’ll get away with anything. Somewhere along the way – while adulting, as the cool kids say – I forgot this. Self-deprecating humour might lighten the mood at an awkward job interview or make your mini-Blair Waldorf colleague think you’re no threat, but presenting a confident front when you’re inwardly quaking and feeling way out of your depth? That’ll take you where you want to go.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like this one about how to deal with self-doubt and negative thoughts.

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