When Does Self-Deprecating Humor Become Detrimental?

man looking down, clown graffiti behind him

Updated on 10/01/2020

A key piece of advice that I have always held onto is to “not take myself too seriously.” At my old job, I tried to console a coworker who was more than a little angry with our manager. She looked at me and said “Has there ever been someone who, just by looking at them, makes you feel sick to your stomach?” Without a thought, my response was “of course…I have a mirror.”

To be honest, I was pretty proud of the self-deprecating joke until I saw the horrified look on her face. I began to think about the convenient wall that my self-deprecating sense of humor allowed me to put up between my emotions and my interactions. While it is good to be able to find the humor in life, striking the right balance is important.

There have been countless studies outlining the benefits of being able to laugh at yourself, and, I will admit, self-deprecation — which is defined as the tendency to disparage or undervalue oneself — has its place. A self-aware joke can not only diffuse an awkward situation, but it can also lead to higher levels of emotional well-being.

While all of that may be true, the fact of the matter is that self-deprecation is only beneficial in moderation.

Read on for indicators that your self-deprecation may be verging on unhealthy as well as ways to maintain a healthy balance in terms of self-deprecating humor.

Signs Your Self-Deprecation Might Be Unhealthy

You can’t take a compliment

While compliments are usually well intended, the reactions that they provoke are not universally ones of gratitude. Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, CFTP, and a Talkspace therapist from the DC area, notes, “For many of us, sometimes, hearing words that are supposed to make us feel good can cause discomfort, fear, and even panic.” Nobody wants to come off as conceited, so we sometimes find it easier to invalidate the compliment for the sake of humility.

An inability to accept praise, however, could point to some more deep-seated issues. People with low self-esteem often struggle with compliments because they run contradictory to their deeply held, but most often flawed, self-conception. The compliment recipient may even try to decipher an ulterior motive from the complimenter, which can cause the panic that Catchings described.

Self deprecation has become a reflex

As was the case with the incident with my coworker, people with self-deprecating tendencies make fun of themselves almost instinctively. If you notice that your natural inclination is to engage in self-deprecating humor and make jokes at your own expense, without first thinking about the intent, you may want to look at breaking that habit.

Your jokes fall flat

There is no worse feeling than saying something that you expect to send a crowd into fits of laughter, but instead it makes the room go silent. This is especially true when it is a self-deprecating dig at yourself, because the punchline is personal. These situations, however, can be learning experiences. Next time you hear crickets after a self-critical comment, make a note of it and think about why your sense of humor might have made people uncomfortable.

Silence is not the only indicator that a joke has fallen flat. If someone explicitly states that what you said has gone too far, it’s a pretty clear indicator that you need to consider changing your self-deprecating patterns.

You’re self-deprecating when you’re alone

It is easy to convince yourself that your self-deprecation is just a means of socializing. It becomes a little harder to justify, however, when you’re the only one in the room. We can’t always control our thoughts, but we can control what we do with them.

“If you are continually speaking about yourself in a manner that puts yourself down,” says Jill E. Daino, LCSW, and a New York-based Talkspace therapist, “over time those comments and beliefs become a part of how you view yourself and impact your self-esteem. I think of it as slowly chipping away at the foundation of your sense of self over time.”

While there may sometimes be logical justifications for being self-deprecating in a group setting, there is no reason to keep up that act when you are by yourself.

You start believing the punchlines

The ultimate sign that you need to ease up on the self-deprecating humor is that you start accepting as reality what you originally intended to be a light-hearted joke. The point of self-deprecation is to make light of your flaws and come to terms with the imperfections of humanity, not validate insecurities.

How to Maintain a Healthy, Humorous Balance

Force yourself to break the cycle

When someone compliments you, frequently the best response that you can have is “thank you.” Take the compliment, no need to reinvent the wheel. People appreciate when their complements are well received, and a simple “thank you” can go a long way. As Carl W. Buehner once said, “They may forget what you said — but they will never forget how you made them feel.” You’re being complimented for a reason, and responding by putting yourself down has the opposite of its desired effect.

It may feel unnatural at first, but eventually, saying those two words won’t feel so difficult. One idea to get some practice (without fishing for compliments) is to compliment yourself every once in a while. It may feel uncomfortable, but forcing yourself to stop and appreciate the things you do like about yourself is a step in the right direction.

Stop perpetuating the self-deprecation of others

It is sometimes easier to recognize other people’s behavior than it is to examine your own. Pointing out when others are being overly self-deprecating will not only help them to break the cycle, but it could also force you to stop and think about your own similar moments.

Additionally, with technology playing such an active role in connecting people across the world, it is even more important to carefully consider what we say. Promoting negative messages on social media can have detrimental effects on your own self esteem and refraining from posting harmful messages can help shield others as well.

Read the situation

If you notice that your self-deprecating humor is falling flat, you might want to start being more cognizant of your surroundings. One of the most common places that we see self-deprecation is in the workplace. Given that this environment is centered around your performance, people often struggle to strike the right balance between confidence and humility. It is important to remember that you are often selling yourself in your workplace, and being self-critical can lead to selling yourself short. It might not be the best place for your self-deprecating humor!

One writer for Forbes even described an interaction she once had at work, where her coworker said to her “You may want to rethink boasting about your spelling issues while working at a magazine!”

Work is not the only setting that should remain deprecation-free . It’s important to use your better judgement to make sure that your attempt at having a light-hearted sense of humor doesn’t have counterproductive effects.

Journal

If you notice that your self-deprecating thoughts are creeping into your alone time, you might want to start finding a healthy place to release them. According to Daino, “Journaling is a very powerful tool in general — and while not everyone likes to use it, it can be very helpful in reframing negative thought patterns.”

In addition to having the ability to counteract the original negative thought pattern, Daino notes that “you have the opportunity to go back and re-read it and add to the new thoughts over time”

Sometimes all it takes is to put your emotions on paper for you to realize that your negative emotions toward yourself are unproductive (and often wrong). Journaling does not require any writing skills whatsoever — it is for your eyes only!

Speak to a therapist

When in doubt, talking to someone who is licensed and professionally trained in self-esteem issues could be beneficial. Therapy can help provide strategies to better cope with the underlying reasons behind self-deprecation, especially if it is negatively impacting your life.

If sourcing and commuting to a brick-and-mortar therapist sounds daunting, you might want to consider an online therapist. Talkspace therapists are trained to deal with self-esteem issues and are available whenever and wherever you need them!

Ultimately, an ability to make light of yourself can have benefits, but if it begins to dominate your sense of humor or becomes a go-to coping strategy when you’re uncomfortable, it might be an issue you want to address.

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