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Somewhere between the olive bar and the cheese counter at Whole Foods recently, I ran into an acquaintance whom I've always admired. Following a friendly greeting, she raved, "I loved that article you wrote about struggling to get into shape for your wedding! It was hilarious."
I waved off the compliment with my hand. "Oh, that? That was just kind of silly." I inflated my cheeks until they were round. "Apparently, it didn't stick."
She tried again. "But you always look great."
My brain told me to accept the compliment gracefully and move on, but I couldn't control myself. I smiled, leaning in conspiratorially. "That's what a lot of makeup, a professional photographer, and a little airbrushing can do for you. If they can make someone like Larry King look alive, they can do anything, right?"
She laughed awkwardly. There was a brief but tangible silence. The exchange culminated in a promise of lunch plans that felt unlikely at best.
As I continued on my search for the perfect goat brie, I was distracted by the sense that I'd somehow disappointed her and maybe myself. Instead of accepting her praise, I'd felt the need to make self-deprecating jokes. Why?
It seems that this behavior develops early in life for a lot of us. "The habit forms in childhood and adolescence as a defense against criticism," says Laurie Sutton, a psychotherapist in West Los Angeles. "When you are a teenager, the paramount thing is to be liked by your peers. If you worry about being singled out for being smarter or taller than others or for being an independent thinker, putting yourself down -- before anyone else has the chance -- is a way to fit in, ironically."
The seemingly harmless banter doesn't disappear when you graduate, grow up, get a job, and join the adult world. Whether it's a joke about finishing a race in last place or a zinger about missing out on a promotion, we're still at it long after the awkward teen years have passed. And the habit, it turns out, has damaging side effects: People who default to self-deprecating comments are more likely to exhibit low self-esteem, according to a Princeton study. "When you repeat a behavior again and again, it starts to form neural pathways in your brain," Sutton explains. "Pretty soon you start to change the way you think about yourself."
Luckily, with practice you can break this pattern. Recent research in neuroplasticity, the ability to physically rewire your brain to alter its responses, shows that repeated affirmative self-talk can help change your biochemistry so that you act and feel more confident. Start here with these tips for thinking positive in tricky situations.You're up for a promotion at your company.
A coworker says: "I think you're going to get it."
You say: "Doubt it, considering that sloppy memo I sent out last week."
Why you do it: You really want to be liked, and you may believe that appearing too confident puts people off. "While competition among men is encouraged, women typically are more concerned with being well liked," says Judith LeMaster, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Scripps College in Claremont, California.
The risk: Downplaying your successes in a work environment can backfire. "A little self-deprecation may be a way of connecting with people," LeMaster says, "but in a job situation, confidence is equated with competence." And competence is what will win you the promotion, not the number of friends you have.
Next time, say: "I hope so. I've worked really hard for this."
Why it works: By emphasizing the effort you've made, you are acknowledging that a promotion doesn't come easily and still showing that you're willing to do your homework. "Other people are drawn to your strength and self-confidence, not repelled by it," says JoAnn Dahlkoetter, PhD, a sports psychologist and author of Your Performing Edge.
You say: "Oh, really? I thought I had gained weight. I've been eating everything in sight."
Why you do it: Sometimes people feign modesty to (ahem!) draw out additional praise. Positive feedback makes you feel warm and fuzzy; it boosts your confidence by validating your achievements. Plus, you hope if you pretend you're not trying that hard to shed pounds, the feat will seem all the more impressive.
The risk: People can tell when you're faking it. A false humble response can communicate the exact opposite about you. "When it's obvious that someone has done something significant to change her looks, and then she deflects it left and right, it comes off as disingenuous," says Lauri Johnson, a life coach in Los Angeles.
Next time, say: "Thank you." Yep. It's that simple.
Why it works: Accepting a compliment has the additional effect of making the giver feel as good as the receiver. "When someone acknowledges you with flattering comments, think of it as a verbal gift," Johnson says. If you gave a friend a present, you would feel good knowing that she liked it, right?
You say: "Please! I'll be lucky to finish."
Why you do it: Doubting yourself aloud instantly relieves any pressure you may feel. If you fail to do well, at least you predicted it, so you can retain some sense of control.
The risk: Forecasting an unwanted outcome can result in psyching yourself out and achieving a less impressive goal. Language has a powerful impact on your ability to succeed; in this case it may render you unable to finish a race strong, Dahlkoetter says. "If you set low expectations, chances are you won't rise," she explains. "A lot of self-deprecation comes from anxiety about what may happen, and the body tends to follow those negative instructions."
Next time, say: "I'm definitely going to try!"
Why it works: If you talk the talk, you're more likely to walk the walk (or run the run, as the case may be). "In many cases, performance is 10 percent reality and 90 percent perception," Dahlkoetter says. "If you can talk positively, intense situations feel less threatening."
You say: "If we did anything more intense, I'd probably get injured. I'm so clumsy!"
Why you do it: You don't want to make a friend feel bad or push her beyond her comfort zone to satisfy your own needs. You assume that a tougher class would feel threatening to her, not exciting.
The risk: Disparaging one's own ability in order to bolster a friend's confidence is thoughtful the first, maybe the second, time. After that you're holding yourself back and undermining her capacity for improvement, possibly even underestimating it, Johnson says.
Next time, say: "I'd love to try a more advanced class. I think we're up for it."
Why it works: Success begets success. Your skills in cardio class will help spur your pal to meet her fitness goals. "Think of it as an energy train: We're all pushing each other to do our best and get to the finish line," Dahlkoetter says. "It's good to be caring, but there's a difference between being selfish and taking care of yourself." Besides, most classes cater to a range of abilities, so there's no reason you can't sweat together -- each at your own pace.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, July/August 2011.