Whether it’s Jennifer Lawrence making fun of her appearance or Jim Gaffigan joking about his inability to stop eating, self-deprecation is often thought of as a form of humor. However, too much self-deprecating humor can create a negative feedback loop and lead to self-sabotage. Here’s everything you should know about the practice of putting yourself down, including why you do it and strategies to stop.
“Curb Your Enthusiasm” Credit: John P. Johnson/ HBO
Self-deprecation is the act of criticizing, belittling, or otherwise expressing excessive modesty about yourself. Self-deprecating behavior may include:
- Negative self-talk
- Low self-esteem
- Putting yourself down to other people
- Joking about your flaws and foibles in a hyperbolic way
Self-deprecation isn’t always negative—it can mean expressing a prosocial sense of humility and is often used for humorous purposes. However, self-deprecation can also be a form of self-sabotage that causes feelings of anxiety and inferiority to grow and confidence to tank.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent Credit: Katalin Vermes
As a defense mechanism: According to psychologist Ros Taylor, when you put yourself down, it functions as a sort of buffer if others put you down, too. Self-deprecation can feel like a way to get ahead of criticism; if you point out your own flaws, someone else won’t do it for you. Consider this scene from “The Office” when Michael Scott embraces his embarrassment—a bit too much.
To appear humble: Downplaying your positive traits can help keep you from appearing conceited. Rather than risking coming off as egotistical, “we tend to go in the opposite direction and discredit ourselves,” Taylor explained in an interview with Elle.
To be funny: Self-deprecating humor is funny because it presses up against social boundaries without violating them. As evidenced in this clip, comedian Rodney Dangerfield built his career on self-deprecating humor that pushed against social boundaries (making fun of someone’s appearance) without violating them (it’s his own appearance, so it’s acceptable).
Gaffigan further explains just why self-deprecation is funny here.
To be likable: Many people use self-deprecation to talk about their past self, which makes their present self appear more likable by comparison. Here, Lawrence makes fun of her “drunk alter ego,” whom she says has a crooked face and presidential hair.
As self-sabotage: Finally, self-deprecating behavior is often used by people who feel that they don’t deserve praise, success, or any of the other good things life has to offer. This and other negative forms of self-talk can increase feelings of anxiety and depression.
“tick, tick...BOOM!” Credit: Macall Polay/Netflix
Many performers use self-deprecation techniques in response to rejection, impostor syndrome, and the overall stresses of the entertainment industry.
Rejection: Since ongoing rejection is synonymous with breaking into the biz, many actors use self-depreciation as a defense mechanism. Putting yourself out there time and again only to keep being rejected can hurt, and actors are often advised to “try and reframe the feeling of rejection and the act of auditioning itself” to cope. When done in a productive manner, this means making the most of each audition and learning to experience and grow from failure. However, reframing rejection through the lens of self-depreciation is less productive—and even harmful.
For example, you might tell yourself that you’re probably not going to get the part anyways, and then it doesn’t sting quite so much when they pass you up for another actor. But next time, you might tell yourself that you shouldn’t even try out for the gig, since you won’t get a callback, anyways. Self-deprecation becomes self-defeating behavior becomes self-sabotage.
Impostor syndrome: Impostor syndrome is a condition when someone doubts their accomplishments and fears they will be exposed as a fraud. Its prevalence and severity is determined by the Impostor Phenomenon Assessment (IPA), which names self-deprecation as one of its main symptoms. Since actors must constantly prove their abilities to themselves, fans, casting directors, and critics, many consider impostor syndrome a part of the job.
“Literally every time I go to work, that part of me will slowly emerge from the deep waters of my subconscious like a sea monster,” said Andrew Garfield (“Tick, Tick… Boom!,” “The Amazing Spider-Man”) of his experiences with impostor syndrome. “It’s just ready to remind me of how I should give up, how I have nothing to offer, how I’m empty inside. ‘How dare you even try? You’re going to embarrass yourself. They’ll find you out. You’ll never work again!’ It gets extreme. It happens, but [that’s] the most important part: to know I’m going to go through that.”
Overall stresses: The stresses of the industry can make it difficult to respond to mental health challenges in a constructive manner. Rather than taking the time and energy to work through issues—which can be extra difficult to do in the fast-paced world of entertainment—some may choose to engage in self-deprecating behavior as a defense mechanism.
“To All the Boys I've Loved Before 3” Credit: Katie Yu/Netflix
Preventing a cycle of self-deprecation is a matter of naming the behavior, understanding why you do it, and replacing it with positive self-talk.
Name the behavior: Spend some time thinking about the way you talk to yourself. Consider whether you compare yourself to others too much, if you’re unable to take a compliment, and if you rely on self-deprecating humor. These signs point to an over-reliance on self-depreciation.
Understand why you use self-deprecating behavior: Do you engage in self-effacing behavior to get a laugh? To protect yourself? To appear humble? Think of the past several times you’ve put yourself down and excavate the reasoning behind your choice to do so.
Figure out when you use self-deprecating behavior: Once you know why you do it, you can figure out the situations that make you want to self-deprecate. You might always engage in negative self-talk after an audition, before a performance, or when you spend time with actors further along in their career than you. Knowing when it happens can help you prepare for the situation ahead of time.
Replace with positive self-talk: Now that you know why and when you engage in self-deprecating behavior, think of ways that you can replace your negative self-talk with positive self-talk. The next time you’re about to enter a triggering situation, actively seek to turn your thoughts around.
A good rule of thumb is to treat yourself as though you are your best friend. “The negative things that you say to yourself in your mind, you would never say them to your best friend, not ever,” advised Lana Condor (“To All the Boys”). “Treat yourself like your own best friend and be soft and gentle to yourself.” If your best friend failed at something, would you tell them that they can’t ever do anything right, or would you tell them that it was brave of them to try? Try applying that type of compassion to yourself.
Act confident: It can also help to rely on your acting skills: Act as though you are confident and not someone who would disparage themselves, and your thoughts will follow.