March 12, 2019

What it Really Means when we Crack Self-Deprecating Jokes.

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I have always had a self-deprecating sense of humor.

I joke about my “child-bearing hips” and my unruly hair that sometimes looks like an Einstein wig when I wake up in the morning. The thing is, I see those things as fodder for humor.

Do I really think I’m fat and ugly? Well, I am a little curvy, and I’ve been called “unconventionally pretty,” but no, I do not think I’m fat or ugly.

In the past, when someone found it troubling that I cracked myself up about myself, I would think, clearly, they don’t get it if they think I’m serious.

“Don’t be so down on yourself,” they’d say, if I gently poked fun at myself for something like, oh…wondering why a lamp wasn’t working (it wasn’t plugged in). But I wasn’t going so far as to say, “Boy, am I stupid,” or “Oh, I’m such a loser.” In fact, I know I’m intelligent. Everyone does silly things like that from time to time; that, to me, is the point. The ability to laugh at our mistakes, and even, sometimes, our perceived shortcomings, does not always mean one is “down on herself.”

Years ago, a woman at my daughter’s preschool introduced herself to me as “Sevvie.” “Just remember, it rhymes with heavy,” she said, with a laugh. Though she was on the Rubenesque side, I didn’t think for a minute that she had low self-esteem or was down on herself. It was just her humor. Like mine.

It wasn’t until I was sitting in front of a fire with some friends in a Vermont ski lodge that I really began to think about self-deprecation a little differently.

I was wearing jeans and a cozy, heavy fisherman sweater—not dressed for skiing, but for writing by a fire, with maybe a hot drink. Beautiful, sexy people walked by in their body-con ski attire (Don’t believe those memes claiming that all perfect bodies are a result of airbrushing; there are plenty of real bodies that look “perfect,” too). I propped my feet on an ottoman, revealing my polka dotted socks peeking out from what I call my “massage therapist shoes” (comfortable and foot-friendly clogs).

As two more ski-tights-and-Lilly-Pulitzer-clad young women floated by and glanced sidelong at my socks and clogs, I suddenly felt conspicuously unsexy among the sleekness surrounding me. My first instinct was to make a joke about it.

I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember how my boyfriend responded: “That’s the fourth self-deprecating thing you’ve said this morning.”

Was it? Really?

If it bothered my boyfriend, maybe it got to my friends, too. I had to stop myself from apologizing to them all, thus being self-deprecating about my self-deprecation. But it caused me to think about just why I made so many self-deprecating comments—funny or not.

While there are some things I’d like to change about myself, or at least work on (besides the self-deprecation), I don’t have low self-esteem issues any more than any other reasonably healthy person does (and I think most of us do, from time to time).

I’ve gotten to a place where, for example, I don’t waste much time with someone (friend, lover, or otherwise) who signals that they think I’m somehow “deficient.” And yet, I was realizing that I sometimes come across as exactly the opposite. Why? Maybe it wasn’t always from a place of innocent humor.

Sitting by the fire, I tried to explain myself to my friends. They (and I adore them for this) began a lovefest in my honor. They listed all of the things that were good about me and that they liked about me. Though it felt warm and pretty wonderful, I also realized that they were motivated, at least in part, I think, by their desire to boost my confidence. This drove home the impact that my self-deprecation had on others. Words matter.

Though self-deprecating humor doesn’t always come from a lack of confidence or from a place of low self-esteem, I’m realizing several things about some of the times we tend to list and lay out our flaws for all to see, whether it’s in the context of humor or in a blatant self-put-down. When we’re tempted to make a wisecrack about ourselves, it’s important to think about where it comes from.

Maybe someone in our lives—a parent, a teacher—continually pointed out what was wrong with us, until that became louder than what was right with us. As a result, we are continually hypervigilant about others noticing our perceived flaws. Sometimes, our quips about ourselves are our way of saying, “Hey, I caught that flaw before you did. I’m on it. No need for you to point it out.”

Unless we’re under the age of about two years old, most of us have grown up steeped in men’s commentary about women’s bodies and appearance. We internalize many of these remarks, whether they’re directed at us or at someone else. Many women learn on some level, even if we don’t want to or intend to, that we need to be pleasing to men, and if we’re not (or we perceive that we’re not), we need to make it right.

My brother liked to comment that I looked like a beached whale in my swimsuit. No doubt, he meant it harmlessly (In reality, I was shaped like a pipe cleaner throughout my growing-up years). At the beach or at the pool, I routinely overheard men say things about other women’s bodies.

The one that has stuck with me most over the years is one that I heard a man say to no one in particular about a woman who was clearly enjoying herself in her bikini, despite her “flaws:” “Women who look like that in a swimsuit should be lined up and shot.”

Hateful messages like that can shoot through even the strongest, healthiest of selves, right to our vulnerabilities (If you are bursting with so much confidence that none of this has ever fazed you, then I salute you).

Other women, too, can be just as cruel and critical. It can feel even worse when a woman judges our appearance or our being, because we expect women to be advocates for each other. Recently, for example, in a roomful of women I considered friends and felt safe with, one of them contradicted a comment about how beautiful Beyoncé was, pointing out that Beyoncé wasn’t attractive because she had “bad legs”—Beyoncé!

I like to think, in a good way, that my strong legs are somewhat “Beyoncé-ish.” You can be sure, though, that if I’m ever in a shorts or swimsuit situation with the woman I’ve just mentioned, a part of me may have to fight off my first instinct to dispel any silent critique of my “flawed” legs with humor before she has a chance to evaluate them.

Many of us grew up with the idea that it’s rude to accept a compliment too readily. We fear that we might appear conceited instead of simply confident. We’re taught to minimize ourselves and focus on how we don’t quite measure up, especially if it makes a situation easier for someone else.

It’s not easy to break this habit when it’s been our go-to. But when it’s our inner self-talk that motivates our self-effacement, we may evoke a laugh or we might make someone else feel better, but we’re also being unkind to ourselves.

Here are some things we can do instead:

Let people experience us without our narrative.
Here’s an example: I don’t think I’m terribly photogenic (I know—again with the self-deprecation). So, when someone posts a photo of me somewhere, I am frequently tempted to point out how very un-photogenic I am. Does this serve any purpose? Of course not. The truth is that, good photo or bad photo, people who know and love us see us. They don’t like us less or judge our character, our talent, or our merits based on a good or bad photo.

Be with those who help our being.
Centuries ago, Rumi was on to something. The more we surround ourselves with those who support and believe in us, and eliminate toxic people from our lives, the healthier our spirits are. We should seek out friends and partners—our angels who lift us up and who love and enjoy us for our imperfections, as well as for the ways they think we’re perfect.

(Incidentally, if you do find yourself in a situation where you feel like a polka dotted thorn among Lilly Pulitzer roses, you should immediately dump any friend or lover who sees you as deficient in comparison!)

Think of how we would talk to a precious child who was feeling awkward or uncertain.
Would we be as mean to that child as we can be to ourselves? If it were our small child, would we say, “Sarah, you look terrible in that dress”? To our friends, would we apologize or draw their attention to how terrible we think Sarah looks in her dress? There is a little child inside each of us who needs our kindness and gentleness instead of our scorn when she struggles or feels uncertain.

I wish, like many articles and memes claim, that it were always easy to say “F*ck you. Take me or leave me. In your face with my me-ness!” I wish that telling someone (or ourselves) to “be confident” were always enough to make it so.

But what I really wish is that, whether we care about what others think, and whether we sometimes feel awkward and less than wonderful (and most of us do, at one time or another), we could always treat ourselves with the kindness, love, and acceptance for our own perfect imperfections that we deserve.

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