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I know how frustrating it is to hear someone else, especially someone you care about, say crappy things about themselves.
“I’m so sorry; I’m the worst.”
“I’m such an awful person.”
“I don’t know why you even put up with me, I’m so terrible.”
How often have you heard—or said—something like that? Most of us have negative thoughts about ourselves on occasion, but for some people, we have a habit of being self-deprecating often, particularly when someone confronts us about something. Occasionally, people self-deprecate as purposeful manipulation, but I’m going to focus on the more common type, where it’s done out of insecurity—but has negative consequences nevertheless.
I used to say things like that far too often, nearly any time a friend came to me to tell me something I did wasn’t okay, so I know what a hard habit it is to break. I’ve also been on the other side too, so I know how frustrating it is to hear someone else, especially someone you care about, say crappy things about themselves.
Self-deprecation is a strong, immediate impulse for some of us. If someone else has criticism for us about something we did, our gut reaction may be to think we must be awful - and then to articulate that. And at times, it’s reasonable to have, or even voice, our insecurities. Sometimes we beat ourselves up about things, and you know what? It’s not ideal, but we usually have more pressing problems with which to deal.
What is a problem is responding to a friend, partner, or family member’s criticism or concerns with self-deprecation. If someone you know talks to you about something you’ve done that worries, hurts, or upsets them, responding with self-deprecation is harmful to your relationship with them and makes the issue worse, not better.
For example, let’s say my partner says to me, “Hey, last night at dinner you interrupted me multiple times and talked over me. When you do that, it makes me feel like you don’t want to listen to me, and that hurts my feelings. Could you please be more aware and not talk over me like that?”
My gut reaction might be to say, “Oh, I can’t believe I did that. I’m such an awful person for interrupting you. I hate myself. I’m so terrible…”
But if I do that, what am I actually communicating to them? Even though I might think I’m expressing remorse, and I’m probably feeling bad for hurting their feelings, if I say that, I’m actually focusing on my feelings over theirs—which only compounds the original problem.
Instead of acknowledging my partner’s feelings and making a commitment to work towards changing my behavior, saying, “I’m such an awful person” instead re-centers the conversation around my emotions. By putting myself down, my partner will feel pressured to comfort and reassure me, and the conversation will move away from my partner’s (completely valid) complaint.
It’s natural to want reassurance when someone you care about has something negative to say about your behavior. However, it’s vital to prioritize the other person’s feelings and respect what they have to say by listening and responding thoughtfully.
The impulse to self-deprecate doesn’t make you a bad person. Just because someone has a criticism of your behavior doesn’t make you a bad person. But the best way to strengthen your relationships with others, while improving yourself, is to acknowledge when you’ve upset or hurt others and to make a genuine commitment to try to change the behavior.
Self-deprecation can heighten existing relationship problems by starting a toxic cycle of forcing one person into the role of comforting the other. My partner told me about how this happened with one of xyr ex-boyfriends. Any time this ex was confronted with his uncomfortable behavior, such as grabbing xym intimately while around other people, he would immediately start talking about how horrible he was, how much he hated himself, and how he’d never do it again.
My partner felt obligated to reassure him and say it wasn’t that serious (because look at how upset he was!). Sadly but unsurprisingly, the exact unwanted behavior would happen again next time they hung out with friends.
Granted, when I talk about how I shouldn’t self-deprecate when confronted about something, I’m assuming that my partner or friend is communicating in a calm, direct, and respectful manner. It’s much harder to stop self-deprecating when people are being aggressive, passive aggressive, or just downright nasty in how they broach the topic.
Also, there are situations in which the complaint or criticism that the person brings up may not seem valid. Perhaps what you did that upset them was actually a reaction to something they did that upset you first. Or maybe you meant it in an entirely different way than they interpreted it. If either of those is the case, it’s still important to acknowledge the other person’s feelings and interpretation, but it’s fair, even helpful, to talk about where you’re coming from too.
But what if you still feel crappy, even if the person brings it up respectfully and you do your best to respond thoughtfully?
I know I struggle with this a lot, and it’s easy for me to sit and just turn my self-deprecation inward. I may not say the negative things I’m thinking about myself (which is a good step!), but it’s easy for it to spiral into unproductive and unhealthy self-loathing.
In my case, I know self-deprecation is related to my anxiety and depression, so I make sure to regularly see a therapist, who is paid to talk to me about my own issues. Apart from that though, sometimes a TV show, book, or video game will help me distract myself. Other times, if it’s something I can specifically anticipate happening again, I make a plan in my head or on paper for how to avoid the behavior in the future.
For example, if my partner was upset because I was late to multiple outings with them, I might plan out train routes for our next event together and write down when I should leave and what route I should take to ensure I arrive early instead of late. After this planning, I still force myself to move on to think about or work on something different.
And finally, if I still need to talk to someone about the interaction and the criticism I received, I talk to someone else I’m close with who can lend a balanced but sympathetic ear. It’s similar to Ring Theory, where you “comfort in, dump out.” Don’t go to the person who was upset or hurt and force them to comfort you; you need to keep your focus on their feelings and concerns (to a reasonable extent).
Instead, find someone outside the situation who you go to for emotional comfort (after taking privacy into consideration). Explain what happened, both the original incident and the conversation. Be honest about your feelings but don’t place the blame on the other person. Your friend will probably be able to comfort you and reassure you that you’re not a terrible person while acknowledging the other person’s complaint and potentially even helping you identify ways to avoid similar problems in the future.
Some of you are probably on the other side more often than not: trying your best to communicate with someone you love that they did something hurtful, harmful, or otherwise just not-okay, but even when you approach it nicely they consistently respond with self-deprecation. What can you do?
First of all, it’s important that if you’re talking with someone who tends to self-deprecate to be as considerate as you can be. Focus on the behavior, not them as a person, and discuss the specific action that was a problem, how you interpreted it, and your feelings, without accusing them of having a particular intention.
Do your best to not engage with their self-deprecation, saying things like, “I don’t think you’re the worst, but I do want to discuss this specific behavior and figure out how we can avoid it in the future.” Keep your focus on the matter at hand, and don’t feel like you need to apologize for bringing the issue up.
In some cases, they might need a little time to process and discuss it calmly (which you should give them if possible), but ultimately to have a healthy relationship, you two will need to be able to have conversations about problems without them turning it into something solely about their feelings without respecting yours.
In some cases, the other person may have mental health challenges that make it hard to break out of self-deprecating behavior, so if it’s appropriate given your relationship with them, it might be worth (at a different time, and kindly) suggesting that they see a therapist. This is not the solution for all situations, but it can be very helpful in some.
I had a lot less trouble changing my communication into something healthier after I started seeing a therapist. My friends had to push me a bit to see one, and I greatly appreciate their patience with me, but they also had to set healthy boundaries. There’s a lot more I could say about healthy relationships when one or both people have mental health challenges, but that’s another article!
Self-deprecating talk is a knee-jerk reaction for many people in response to criticism or concerns from people they love. Unfortunately, self-deprecation makes such situations worse, not better, and re-focuses the discussion from the issue at hand to the feelings of the person confronted. While there’s no easy solution, if both people work on thoughtful, respectful communication, it will strengthen their relationship in a way that self-deprecation never does.
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