Self-Deprecation: Tool or Toxin?

The Oscars have come and gone and this morning everyone is talking about the unfortunate mishap that occurred during the final moments of the ceremony. True, it was a pretty news-worthy event that people will be talking about for some time. No doubt, I too was discussing it with my wife this morning. But something that did not receive as much attention is what I have been thinking about all morning. After her win for best supporting actress in the movie “Fences” and a moving acceptance speech, Viola Davis was interviewed backstage. During the interview she discussed being proud of her Oscar win and the realization that self-deprecation is not the answer to humility. Apparently in past situations of a similar vein, she has used self-deprecation to deal with thoughts of uncertainty and as a response to situations in which she felt humility was in order.

I cannot stop thinking about this. When I was young, I was bullied in school frequently and began to develop a defense mechanism to both cope with and fend off the attacks. Self-deprecating humor allowed me to attack myself before anyone else could. You see this from comedians a lot and it is a powerful tool to develop that also serves to lower the defenses of others when they converse with you. Others know through your self-deprecation that you are not a threat to them and they can open up and bear their own fragile souls. It has served me well for many years, but it also has a darker side. It can take on a life of its own and become major part of who you are. For every great and open conversation I have had with people over the years, I have ten instances of crippling depression and anxiety to counter them. After so many artificial attempts to tell someone I am not that great, or can’t do something well, I have accepted those statements as reality.

Now, in my forties, I am struggling to be strong and take a bow for what I have accomplished in life. There are so many people around me who encourage me and yet it’s still difficult to accept this alternate reality. When I was being bullied, I trained myself not to trust others and always look for an ulterior motive. I always examine what is being said and look for the “but” in every complement. It’s sad to know that in my world a complement is a loaded statement. Asking myself where the trap door is all the time is exhausting as you can imagine. And those people around me offering encouragement are likely getting exhausted too. After a recent presentation that went very well and got a lot of laughs as well as nods of approval, my CEO mentioned that I should consider reigning in the self-deprecation a bit. He was worried that it would hurt my brand and I tend to agree with him.

As much as this self-defense mechanism as opened many doors for me, I think it may have closed a few as well. Used the wrong way, self-deprecation establishes precedence that you are uncertain or “iffy” on your own abilities. If you are in a situation in which you are being looked at for a new role in an organization, especially one that is new or experimental, you may be sending the interviewer the wrong message. In those cases, they want someone who is certain they will make the new role work in their organization. In my case, my self-deprecation is so far from accurate that I tend to think of it as a way to bring humor to otherwise stressful or overly-serious situations. Don’t get me wrong, I am not arguing for the abolishment of self-deprecation. In fact, I think it is a great communication and relationship builder. What I would like to convey is that it is okay to express confidence in your abilities. There is a line between bragging and being proud of your accomplishments. Continuously reminding people about your degree or that last project you completed successfully for the sake of gaining favor is bragging. Discussing your accomplishments and the impact they had on an organization during an interview is confident reliance on your abilities. Don’t go pushing everyone out of the way to bask in the glory of the limelight, but don’t stand in the dark corner either.

I have served in the Army, built contact centers, managed large successful projects and recently completed my first book and I am damn proud of these accomplishments. Although, I have to say that my family is my most proud accomplishment, I feel that my contributions to my field of work are nothing to scoff at. Even if there are others you feel are making greater contributions, this is not a race. It’s okay to be happy with who you are and be proud of what you have built, so enjoy you! Besides, it could be worse, you could be balding and out of shape like me. ;-)

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