This is a post about self-deprecation. This is me thinking through thoughts. It is a 'web log.'

I'm a lifelong self-deprecator. I'll try not to do it in this post. As I get older, my own self-deprecation feels less charming, and more mean (to myself) and uncomfortable (for others). It's not an easy habit to break, though, and I never gave it, or why I do it, much thought until recently. Of course, it's not really just a 'habit'; I imagine a more accurate term would be the dreaded 'coping mechanism.'

Not being an expert1, I can only process self-deprecation through what I have heard about it from other people, seen of it in other people, and experienced directly on my own. Obviously, countless books have been written about the topic, but in googling to see whether 'self-deprecation' has a hyphen (biting my tongue: ah, and of course it does, and I was pretty sure it did, and...), I realized I never, ever want to read anything about it. Generally, my willingness to read about what's wrong with me falls into one of two categories: a) It fascinates me in some way, either or both because it makes me feel special or reveals something about myself I had never even considered, or b) It is just too terrifying to give five seconds of my mental energy to. My self-deprecation habit, while not as scary as diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, is as uncomfortable to think about as anything to do with my physical ailments. It's so uncomfortable to think about that, until now, I never even stopped to think that thinking about it made me uncomfortable.

Usually, people who want to talk about their own self-deprecation do it in a way that makes it sound cool, or even healthy. They position it as: I give up a side of myself to be hurt that I am okay with being hurt so that people who want to hurt me don't hurt the parts of me that can be hurt. It becomes an expression of control and power, which gives it the allure of liberation -- liberation from a lot of things, both good and bad. People can be self-deprecating about a flaw they have thick skin over to distract from a harmless flaw (real or imagined) that has hurt them in the past. But they can also be self-deprecating about a flaw they have thick skin over to distract from more sinister (real) flaws.

When people, like self-help authors or therapists, talk about self-deprecation others do, their observations are mostly useless. 'They do it because they don't like themselves. They should pick up a hobby and develop a skill so that they can be proud of their capabilities!' First, I don't know that it's self-evident that all self-deprecation comes from 'not liking yourself.' But, second, everyone should have hobbies and skills they can be proud of. Give me something I can use!

I have also seen people write about self-deprecation in the context of ADHD, that it comes from simply repeating what others have told you your whole life: you're a screwup, lazy, stupid, clumsy. I mean, other people can certainly give you some ideas to get started with, but I see self-deprecation as an intentional, if sometimes unconscious, act that comes from within rather than without. This may not jibe with the official definition of self-deprecation (I am not even going to go so far as to look it up, no way, rabbit hole), but, to me, being an egoless parrot is a different problem.

Here's another one: Being self-deprecating is a way to appear unthreatening. This can be done by people who are scared of confrontation or hostility, or wolves in sheep's clothing.

I still don't have a great explanation for why I do it. I used to think of it as almost like the first example, with a tilt toward showing my belly so that people won't give me grief about things. Because I go through life often oblivious to my corporeal form, being made fun of or put down for something wrong with me that I have given no thought to and is not even an intentional choice to have wrong with me is deeply unpleasant! So if you just start things off with a nice, 'Haha, I don't know about that...' and offer something up, people tend to leave you alone. They do this, as far as I can tell, either because they feel sorry for you or they think, 'Okay, this guy knows he sucks and I'm not about to work overtime.' Or maybe they find it funny! A lot of people find it funny, which... if you like making people laugh, and I do, makes for a real problem. If I mindlessly say a mean thing about myself knowing someone will be there laugh at it, will I drown myself in that well for a tiny boost to my mood? Absolutely.

Behaviors like this can be modeled, no doubt, and I come from a long line and wide plane of self-deprecators. So there's that, too.

But what got me working on this post is something that hit me the other day: Self-deprecation gives me an insight into the other person. Sort of like a stupid interview question, where the actual answer is less important than how the candidate gets there or how they react to the shock of the question. If I slight myself, there are a series of potential outcomes:

  1. 'Ah gee whiz, don't say that about yourself!'
  2. Some form of commiseration, an attempt to join in by putting themselves down too.
  3. The self-slight is ignored.
  4. The person uses it as permission for them to slight me, also.

Out of all of these, what I like to hear back most is #2. That's when -- okay, we are on the same wavelength here. Some people are self-deprecating to get #1, probably, but that's not me. I genuinely do not think much of myself and I do not love hearing that assertion argued with! #3, ignore it, that's fine. The last one, though... #4. That's a warning sign. It's like a first date with someone who leaves a bad tip. You just know the person at that point. You know that when the person sees a chance to demean or humiliate or overstay their welcome, they will do it. Maybe they have their own problems and traumas that make them like that, whatever.

I say all this like I sit down and carefully plan out when I am going to be snarky to myself and in front of whom and then how I will score their reaction. Until sitting down to write all of this out, I had no idea any of that was going on behind the scenes. I was just 'doing a behavior' and then 'getting a result' and 'reacting.'

Here's an example: Let's say you're 15 and in a group of friends and put yourself down with some joke or another. Everyone kinda laughs, but one person really laughs. And you don't consciously hear the venom in the laugh, but, deep down, you hear the fuckin' mean laugh they've got in them. And boy, you will go to your grave remembering how that person just waltzed into your neurosis and kicked your teeth in. Only, not really! Instead, you will bump into this same person time and time again and see them do something, to you or someone else, where you think, 'Ya know, isn't that just like so-and-so. He's always been like this. What's his problem?' But in your Ancient Soul, you know what his problem is: He laughed at you like a dick. He's just the type.

The other night, I was making increasingly exaggerated putdowns on myself about something insignificant. I wasn't even aware I was doing it, or why, and it had become a little too much, so I stopped. And then... another person jumped in with a little zinger on me of their own. And I thought, You would do this to me? In my house? You would come in here and talk shit on me? In MY house? Who gives you the RIGHT?

And someone, probably this person or Dr. Phil, would say, 'You.' (Or they'd say, 'Oh, I'm sorry! I didn't mean it like that.' But that's a lie. A certain kind of person would never and a certain kind of person would! And, maybe, a certain kind of person would and then say they didn't mean to.)

That 'You.' is what got me, though. It's what shook me. It made me realize, 'Oh, yeah, I am being tipped off by that type of reaction because I have definitely gotten it before and the people who do it always go on to be confirmed not my type of guys.' And, yes, they would technically be right to say I invited them in, but that's the test, isn't it? When the door is just sitting there, open, what does a person do? To go back to #1-4, I think, subconsciously, I have seen #2 as the only (common) act of politely closing the door. It's a person saying, 'Uh, hey, you left this open. See? I'm showing you. My door is open now, too. This is how it looks.' None of this is top level stuff I am thinking about as it is happening or, until now, after it has happened.

And now that I see all this for what it is, what insight it gives me, I've been thrown for a loop. They talk about behaviors like self-deprecation as a mental groove. You just naturally fall into them because they're where you always go -- they're familiar, but hard to get out of. Theoretically, realizing you are in a groove is the first step to getting out of the groove. But I have been in this groove since 1st grade, and known it since not long after! It hasn't been until this last week or so, as I pondered this, that I have felt almost scooped out of the groove -- taken out of it with as little say as I was put into it. When it comes to grooves, they teach you, 'First, catch that you're in the groove. Then think of another route, so that you're getting out of the situation a different way. Finally, use that new route as a healthy, positive groove going forward!' But for a person with almost zero ability to identify and adjust what I am doing second-to-second, that kind of active planning is not natural or easy. I mean, it's not natural or easy for anyone, but it feels impossible to me. On the other hand, when I am faced with a new source of intrusive thoughts

aha but it was a TEST
i am giving out TESTS and you Failed

I am forced out of the groove because my brain cannot even get itself back into it. It's not that I believe 'I' am responsible for people being mean to me by being mean to myself. That is a literal Dr. Philfest, and also in the realm of 'Well, they can say it, why can't I?' and 'She was asking for it!' Other people are still responsible for what happens with an open door, especially if the guy whose door it is only half-knows it's open. No, it's that I can no longer think my self-deprecating thoughts without thought now, because they're interrupted by a series of bits and shocks that has turned into this blog post, kind of. Normally, I would still be feeling sour at this person or embarrassed that I was making fun of myself in public to the extent that I was or frustrated I didn't get a 'good' reaction from it (without even first defining what reaction I wanted in the first place! How can I get a good reaction if I don't know what I want or that I am even seeking one!). Now, any time my brain tries to slip into those spaces, it's jolted by: So you mean I used my own self-deprecation as the basis for neurotic years-long grudge-holding? That's kinda funny!

And hey, I don't want to leave the wrong impression: My grudges have not been invalidated. All of these people who've been invited by me to jump in on me have, actually, ended up proving themselves more tangibly to be tools, or just kind of annoying, as time has gone on. And not even tools, or kind of annoying, to me, necessarily -- just in general, to others, to society.

Does this mean I will be nicer to myself going forward? Hard to say! I think it might, for the time being, but I can't be sure. Because... Putting all of this together has not given me second thoughts about some of my more innocent go-to tests. In situations where I am exchanging location history with strangers, I don't see myself no longer sometimes going with, 'Well, my family moved to Colorado when I was nine months, so I don't know that I quite qualify for one of those NATIVE bumperstickers, but...' And there will always be a little chuckle and then they will say:

  1. Oh, you're fine, that counts. (Chill, maybe too chill.)
  2. Those stickers are so stupid! (Either from out of state themselves or 'I was born here and I hate those things' -- Ha, dare I say, same!)
  3. No, I don't think that counts. (Nazi, but brave for saying it to my face.)

No one's ever looked at you and seen right through so
I can level anything I want
Oh, a smile fades a lie
Meanwhile, I choose to foreknow

Emil's wonderful cover of Eric Gaffney/Sebadoh's 'Level Anything'

  1. This is not self-deprecation! It's a relevant fact! ↩︎