AZ Unlearns: Self-Deprecation as Self-Defence

When I think back to myself as a child, I remember a confident, audacious and direct little girl. I had no issues calling out my elders, singing my own praises or being center-stage in front of a large audience. When I compare that to who I am now- someone who feels self-conscious promoting their work on social media, who can’t take a compliment without minimising their achievements and to whom the idea of any sort of performance before strangers is a literal living nightmare, I feel like I failed that little girl somehow.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last twelve months thinking about where my confidence went and if there’s anything I can do to recover it and it all boiled down to one thing, that at some point I stopped validating myself and started doing the exact opposite. Self-deprecating humour became my crutch. 

Belittling ourselves for a laugh is something that we’re all familiar with, especially as racialised members of the LGBTQ+ community. Our experiences in childhood of being in unwelcoming spaces or amongst people who always made us (or people we identify with) feel like the butt of the joke has armed us with razor sharp wit and a self-awareness which often manifests as taking the piss out of ourselves. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing mind you, a study ran by the Harvard Business Review in 2018 found that a self-deprecating sense of humour can actually be evidence of heightened emotional intelligence. But emotional awareness and high self-worth are two entirely different things and if, like me, you find yourself using self-deprecating jokes as a shield against others’ judgement then know that there are ways to unlearn this.

As with most healing, the first step is to recognise the toxic behaviour and then you have to figure out its root. Deborah Husbands, Chartered psychologist and BME Co-chair at the University of Westminster, says that members of marginalised communities may be more prone to using self-deprecating humour because of “the long legacy of colonialism.” By this, she alludes to the ways in which people who don’t identify with the dominant (white, cishet, male) group, mock themselves to signal a willingness to assimilate with the oppressive culture, thus mitigating any threat of othering or violence. 

Understanding the bigger-picture reasoning behind this type of reactive behaviour can help us recognise whether or not we use self-deprecating humour in unhealthy ways. Think about the last time you told a joke at the expense of yourself. Was your audience a group of people who could readily empathise with you or was it a show of self-loathing thinly veiled as satire to mask a deeper insecurity you were unable to vocalise for fear that those around you just wouldn’t get it? If it was the latter then don’t beat yourself up, it’s an incredibly common coping mechanism for anxiety and feelings of displacement but if you catch yourself putting yourself down for the approval of people you can’t even be yourself around, try and minimise those interactions as much as possible.

Of course this is easier said than done as many of us have to live and work in with people who can’t always relate to us and if we use them often enough, self-deprecating jokes can become reflexive to the point where we put ourselves down out of instinct, even when alone. When it gets to that point it’s time to call in the positive affirmations. Make sure that for every negative thing you say about yourself (even in jest) you have at least one phrase of praise to counteract it. 

I know it sounds corny, but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt this year it’s that it doesn’t matter how much outside validation you get, you can’t cultivate confidence until you learn to validate yourself. So start small by reminding yourself regularly of something you’re proud of yourself for, even if it’s something that may seem subsequential to others, like making your bed or caring for your plants or even making it to the end of your work day without cussing out that colleague that loves to get on your nerves. Whatever it is, make sure you’re bigging yourself up on the regular because the narratives we tell ourselves can easily become our realities.

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