How to Undo Self-Sabotage
Why Self-Deprecation Damages Self-Esteem
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."
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