I used to be very self-deprecating.
Growing up, I developed a very low opinion of myself, and because of what I thought about myself, I assumed that’s what everyone else thought about me, too. We all know how mean children can be to each other, and I learned early on that it was safer to make fun of myself before other people had a chance to highlight my faults. Even when the other kids weren’t being mean, I went right on protecting myself with self-deprecating comments until what I said about myself became what I believed about myself.
Dictionary.com defines self-deprecation as “belittling or undervaluing oneself; excessively modest.” As I got older and learned in Sunday School about the dangers of pride, I thought my self-deprecation fell into the category of false humility. I thought I made derogatory comments about myself and deflected compliments because I really had a too-high opinion of myself and was trying to mask my excessive pride. So I tried to lower my opinion of myself even more and reject any praise as pride. I thought I was finished caring what other people thought about me.
What I didn’t realize was that I cared an awful lot about what I thought of myself.
Fast forward a few more years, and I began to realize that deflecting compliments only made the conversation longer as people persisted in highlighting something positive about myself that I could not believe or receive. Prolonging the conversation with self-deprecation only made me more uncomfortable and the compliment-giver try harder to convince me they were right. So I began to thank people and immediately change the subject so they would think I had really accepted the compliment when in fact I knew that accepting a compliment (which in my mind was synonymous with caring what others think) was only being prideful.
Then one day while I was working in the bookstore as a graduate student, I had a God-moment. Without any provocation and while having a conversation with my coworker about something completely unrelated, I realized I had been self-deprecating for so many years because I had low self-esteem.
Now, low self-esteem was always something other people had, those sorry individuals who were chained to the opinions of others, or maybe my 7th-grade self. But no, not the graduate student with big dreams of becoming a writer someday and making a real difference in the world. I didn’t have low-self esteem. I had pride and false humility and clever tricks to refocus a conversation. I was self-deprecating because it was funny or charming…or true.
Uh-oh. There it was: the truth. I was self-deprecating because I believed I was little and had no value. I deflected compliments not to be modest but because I believed I was unworthy of any praise. I was self-deprecating because that was what I really believed about myself.
So I decided, right in the middle of that unrelated conversation with my coworker, to try a little experiment. If I really believed what I said about myself, maybe I could improve my self-esteem by saying something appreciative about myself. At that moment, my coworker said, “That’s a good point.” And I said, “Thank you. I make excellent points.”
Now, I was being hyperbolic, and he knew it, and we both chuckled and carried on with our discussion. It was a small moment. My coworker probably never noticed anything had changed. But I did. I noticed. And I haven’t stopped noticing.
Maybe some of you lovely readers really do struggle with pride or false humility, and I have been there, too. It’s an easy trap to fall into, but this post isn’t meant to warn you against false humility. It’s to warn you against the other side of that coin.
What we think about ourselves matters, and what we say about ourselves influences what we think about ourselves. Our words have power. (There’s actual brain stuff involved there, but I’ll save the science for another day.) So next time you make a comment about yourself, think about what you’re saying, and ask yourself if it’s true. Maybe it’s what you believe about yourself, but is it really true?
Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you’re not sure what’s true anymore. Maybe you’ve gotten so wrapped up in what your friends say, what your parents say, what your classmates or coworkers say, what your boss says, what that magazine quiz you took in the check-out isle says, what the movies and TV shows and self-help books and all the rest of the world says about who you are that you can’t hear what God says anymore. God’s voice was drowned out a long time ago, and now you’re not sure you can believe anything you think you hear, even from yourself.
Well, then you’re in luck. God wrote down a bunch of the stuff we need to know about who we are. (We’ll take a look at some of that stuff tomorrow.)
So for all you self-deprecators out there, next time you start to make a comment about yourself, try a little experiment. Try saying something nice about yourself instead. You’ll probably still make a joke out of it. You probably still won’t believe it. At first. But try it again the next day, and the next.
God just might surprise you by speaking to you in your own powerful words.