Is Your Self-Deprecating Sense Of Humour Psychologically And Socially Damaging?

Self-deprecation is a handy tool to diffuse tension and add humour. But, in putting down your talents, appearance and personality, could you be permanently blighting your self-esteem and reputation?

Have you ever replied to a compliment about your outfit with a knee-jerk, negative response? Such as, a quip about looking a bit podgy or an eye-rolling admission of the coffee stain near the hem?

Have you been introduced to a stranger at a party and immediately downplayed your job title; making out that you were either incredibly lucky to have nabbed the position or have no idea what you're doing half the time when, in fact, you worked your butt off to get a promotion and spend several evenings a week working late in order to finish projects to impress your boss?

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In social situations, we often use self-deprecation as a handy tool to defuse tension, seem humble or add humour.

It shows vulnerability and authenticity, weakens hierarchies, lowers expectations in case of failure, reflects a mirthful disposition, deflects attention for the shy and, when used insincerely, reassures and inflates the ego of the conceited.

I, myself have learned to use it as armour against external criticism; a badge of my modesty and of my Northern identity. After all, your insults won't be half as witty as my own about myself.

However, during my early twenties – the 'formative adult years' in which I'm supposed to find myself and learn how to do the gas meter reading without calling my Dad – I've started to wonder whether I'm doing some disservice by continuously downplaying everything cool about myself.

A bit of self-ridicule is healthy if you're confident enough to really take it as a joke. It's surely better than blind, pigheaded narcissism. Of that, I am sure we can all agree.

But... and it's a big 'but'... in highlighting our insecurities, putting down our talents, and striving for the laugh instead of congratulation, could we not just be cementing a negative narrative about ourselves?

At a certain point, if you call yourself 'stupid' enough times, you'll start to believe it and so will other people.

The dark side of self-deprecation

As children, we're frequently told to treat others as we would like to be treated.

However, with the challenges of puberty, a transmuting identity and society's obsession with critiquing weight, intelligence, success and beliefs, the kindness we show ourselves doesn't usually measure up to that which we'd be quick to show other people.

Unlike the days when we'd blindly accepted our parents' compliments about being the smartest, prettiest and most hard working of children, in our adolescence, our self-worth gradually starts to fluctuate, depending on our most recent successes or failures, compliments or insults.

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We begin to find it hard to tread the middle ground between self-promotion and self-deprecation, wanting to seem confident without coming across as an insufferable know-it-all.

Clinical psychologist, Ros Taylor, explains that for the majority of women: 'We tend to go in the opposite direction and discredit ourselves.'

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But Why Is It Bad?

Although poking fun at yourself might make you seem charming and likeable, in the long run, it's probably not a good habit to practice.

According to Ros Taylor, it's something we do instinctively to lower other people's expectations, to reduce the chance that we will fail in their eyes.

But really, should we be so besieged by the thought of failure?

Also, there is the disturbing thought that 'it can make others take the impression we have of ourselves as fact', adds Ros.

In other words, if we tell people we're not good at things, even as a joke, the likelihood of people going away with the impression we genuinely aren't good at them, is quite high.

In the same vein, if we tell people even in jest that we're not well read, attractive or hard working, they might just believe it.

Who Suffers The Most?

While the thought of failure may not affect the most confident of social butterflies, it's unsurprisingly most damaging for those who already suffer from low self-esteem.

We tend to go in the opposite direction and discredit ourselves, so not to raise expectations in case we fail.

Jessamy Hibberd, a clinical psychologist and co-author of the This Book Will explains: 'These 'harmless' jabs mean you're focussing on why you think you're not doing well and accepting a negative commentary about yourself. In turn, this will have a negative impact on your mood, make it harder for you to gain confidence and build a realistic picture of your capabilities.'

Is it any surprise, then, that we struggle so much to sell ourselves convincingly in job interviews and on CVs?

Even the idea of talking about our bonafide leadership skills, previous experiences of successful projects or explaining why your skill set is better than other applicants, will have many a hopeful employee cringing.

Unfortunately, this is usually much more difficult for women.

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Women and self-critique

It may come as no shock to you that self-deprecation is widely viewed as a gendered trait, used more among women, than men.

Let's not forget, it wasn't until the turn of the last century that young women were to be 'seen not heard' and were to act demure and modest, while men were permitted to be self-congratulatory, demand a raise and command respect, simply because as men, they were perceived to be the backbone of society. The foundations on which everything else was built.

We women were the soured milk in the fridge you daringly pour into cereal in the morning to save the trip to Sainsbury's – always present, often forgotten.

These 'harmless' jabs mean you're focussing on why you think you're not doing well and accepting a negative commentary about yourself.

And, from the sounds of it, not much has changed when it comes to self-confidence and self-satisfaction among women.

Hamira Riaz, a chartered clinical psychologist and business consultant explains: 'Even today, we know that overconfidence in men is much more likely to be rationalised away as a sign of drive and ambition, but that for a woman, it is taken as a sign of a character flaw.'

Is it any surprise, then, that the grand total of female CEOs of FTSE 100 companies can be counted on just two hands?

Women are socialised from birth to assume they are valued and rewarded on their talents, determination and hard work. After all, it is those attributes that have contributed to their nearing to the ever-present glass ceiling.

However, they are also taught first to value the emotions and promotion of others over their own, with data from the Emotional and Social Competency Inventory (ESCI) last year finding they are 45 per cent more likely than men to be seen as demonstrating empathy consistently.

As Margie Warrell, Ambassador for Women in Global Business, explained to the Daily Mail last year, the double standards of men and women in the boardroom continues to undermine our ability to be confident and to progress.

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'We as a culture think women should be nice and gentle and take care of people. When you defy that norm you get branded as bossy, yet when that behaviour is exhibited by men it's seen as acceptable and normal,' she noted.

As a result of society's undermining of the female voice and confidence, women have subconsciously developed a tendency to self-deprecate as a way of satisfying, what Riaz explains as , 'the patriarchy's need to see women as hopeless and helpless, fuelled more by emotion than reason'.

'We live in a society where women are still seen as more neurotic than men,' she adds.

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The view of gendered self-deprecation is a claim supported by linguistics expert Dr Judith Baxter, who in 2012 undertook an 18-month study into the speech patterns of men and women at meetings in seven big companies in the UK, including two in the FTSE 100.

An analysis of the 600,000 words used during 14 meetings (seven led by a woman and seven by a man) found that 80 per cent of male humour in meetings could be defined as 'off-the-cuff witticisms or banter', as reported by the Guardian, with approximately 90 per cent of it receiving a positive response, usually in the form of laughter.

Meanwhile, 70 per cent of instances of female humour came across as self-deprecatory, with 80 per cent of received in tumble-weed-like silence.

Perhaps these women weren't naturally very funny – look, we can't all be like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler – but, Baxter argues, the lack of laughter and approval from the women's male peers was 'partly because it is less culturally acceptable for women to use humour and partly because women haven't traditionally been part of the leadership tribe'.

We live in a society where women are still seen as more neurotic than men.

In this situation, the women's jokes were read as a sign of self-loathing and confessions of insecurities, unlike the men's, which were deemed hilarious...naturally.

The Up-Side Of Self-Deprecation

When it comes to comedy, some women have self-deprecation down to a fine art. You only have to take a look at the likes of Chelsea Handler, Amy Schumer and Joan Rivers to see the endearing power of self-deprecation.

From jabbing at their weight and mental health issues, to their body confidence and relationships, these comedians are experts when it comes to becoming accessible to their audiences through the medium of teasing themselves.

As a result, their stand-up sets and one-liners are biting and hair-raising, yet evoke empathy and understanding with their audiences because comedians are god at reflecting back at us the things we perceive about ourselves.

As Schumer famously once said: 'People are so angry and love to burn somebody at the stake. So I'll just burn myself.'

Self-deprecation is a trick British comedian Luisa Omielan uses as a way of showcasing how ridiculous social constructs are – be it regarding weight, failed relationships and thigh gaps – taken not from a place of weakness, but from a place of strength.

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'Once you show something up for what it is and have made people laugh in the process, you are then in a position to use humour to dissect and discuss more important and pressing issues that do need attention such as self esteem, mental health, relationships and career goals,' she adds.

People are so angry and love to burn somebody at the stake. So I'll just burn myself.

But Only In Small Doses

But as Luisa Omielan - who's hugely successful Edinburgh Fringe Festival stand-up show What Would Beyoncé Do?! recently aired on BBC Three - goes on to explain, there's a reason why you'll see more female comedians doing this than male ones.

'Socially, we have been taught to judge ourselves with acute harshness. "Never feel too confident or happy in your own skin, don't you dare stand out with self esteem and show any hint of tall poppy syndrome" (a tendency to discredit those who achieve success). This rhetoric has been very damaging.

'As girls grow into women, they learn to constantly second guess their self worth and base their value – seen in their appearance, sex appeal, or the ability as a mother or the choice to not be a mother) - on the approval of others. Women have been taught to hate themselves, therefore it is more socially acceptable to be public with the self-loathing,' she adds.

Socially, we have been taught to judge ourselves with acute harshness. 'Never feel too confident or happy in your own skin, don't you dare stand out with self esteem and show any hint of tall poppy syndrome'.

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Belief In Yourself Is Paramount

Coming to a stage of self-love and assuredness comes with time and practice, as the likes of body positive activist models Iskra Lawrence and Ashley Graham have discussed on numerous occasions.

It's hugely important to embark on a comedic moment of self-deprecation only after you've made confident peace with who you are.

'Your outer dialogue feeds into your inner dialogue, so first change the inner dialogue about yourself,' suggests psychologist Ros Taylor. 'A lot of the time, we don't actually evidence-base our thoughts about ourselves.

If a presentation hasn't gone well, and you think it was 'rubbish', discuss it with colleagues or phone a friend so you can ground your beliefs in reality,' she says. It's incredibly hard to disaffirm the many truisms that exist about women and especially young women.

We've a long way to go before we get to a place where society wont burden us with unrealistic expectations and double standards. It's so easy to be doubtful of our skills and to question our value.

Essentially, there's nothing wrong with a bit of self-deprecation, but it needs to be used sparingly, from a place of confidence, rather than used to gauge the opinion of others or to cement a narrative of worthlessness.

We need to be aware of how we frame ourselves in the wider context of the world, so that people learn not to take our sheepishness or our self-deprecation for granted. We can learn to use humour as a tool to connect with others, poke fun at society's hilariously unreasonable expectations and expose our flaws for what they really are – human, universal and blummin' normal.

As Eleanor Rooservelt once said: 'No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.'

Luisa Omielan's 'What Would Beyonce Do?!' is out on BBC1 on 19 May at 11pm

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