Imagine that you had a friend – or someone claiming to be your friend – who took every opportunity to remind you and anyone who might think you’re awesome that, well, you’re actually not. For your own good, of course.
Say someone congratulates you on finishing the 10K you’ve been training for, and your “friend” jumps in and says “Well, she finished third from last and she got dusted by like eight old ladies and a guy pushing a stroller with giant triplets, but she thanks you!” Or when a co-worker tells you that it looks like you’ve lost weight, and your “friend” buffalos her way between you to confess that you’re actually fat and, in fact, have just pulled your entire face out of a container of Halo Top. Hey it’s an email list
You know how they say some people can’t take a compliment? Your “friend” intercepts them, wraps them in a big ol’ bow of negativity frosted with a thin layer of plain-spokedness and sweetness, and then lobs them back at your head, all the while explaining that she’s just trying to keep you humble. That you’d be more relatable if you were more self-deprecating, more chill about your accomplishments. You know, so people like you more!
This person, of course, is a bad friend. She sucks. She won’t allow you to luxuriate in the joy of any moment, of any triumph, of any anything, under the guise of keeping you humble. Of not scaring people away. Of not being conceited. Of course, big-headed conceited people exist, but this friend won’t let you own your victories, keeping you small and even managing to make anyone who compliments you feel like an idiot for saying anything. You probably wouldn’t let some chick do this to you.
So why do you do it to yourself?
Vocabulary.com defines a self-deprecating person as someone who “knows her own weaknesses and shortcomings and isn’t afraid to point them out, often in a humorous way.” Seems harmless enough, right? We like people who can laugh at themselves and try to make others more comfortable. It’s even been said that a self-deprecating sense of humor can be a sign of a good leader. But the slope between laughing at oneself and beating oneself up is slippery business, and for women, who are traditionally socialized to believe that our femininity requires humility and a slavish commitment to everyone else’s comfort at the expense of our own, it’s all the more covered in axel grease and banana peels.
As the release of my first book, “Black Widow,” gets closer, more and more people are telling me how cool the prospect of publication is. And I find that even as a 48-year-old woman who knows how hard I’ve worked in the wake of my widowhood and single motherhood, and as a proud survivor in the turbulent world of print journalism, it’s hard not to smile shyly and say “Oh, thank you, but lots of people write books.” WHY WOULD I DO THAT? Do you know how hard and how long I’ve worked on this thing? Do you know how difficult is was to basically stab myself in the gut and bleed that out onto a page? I mean, no one expects me to say that in cocktail conversation, but there’s no reason to act like I jotted it down on a Publix receipt and handed it to my editor along with my shopping list. It was a feat to write it, find an agent, get a deal and now seeing it through to publication. Why do I feel the knee-jerk need to downplay that for some supposed sense of relatability?
Elle.com UK writer Katie O’Malley wrote that her tendency towards self-deprecation was, on the surface, about “vulnerability and authenticity,” as well as a way to point out her own flaws before anyone else can. “But… and it’s a big ‘but’…,” she wrote, “in highlighting our insecurities, putting down our talents, and striving for the laugh instead of congratulation, could we not just be cementing a negative narrative about ourselves? At a certain point, if you call yourself ‘stupid’ enough times, you’ll start to believe it and so will other people.”
In the words of Milli Vanilli, girl, you know it’s true. And it’s hard to stop, once you get going, like a reflex as sharp and as involuntary as if we’d been hit in the knee with one of those little rubber hammers by our doctor. For me, I think that impulse comes from a lot of places. It’s that previously-mentioned societal pressure on women to downplay our awesomeness, an insecurity that dates back to being an awkward, goofy kid with bifocals who didn’t know when to shut up, and even an affinity for self-deprecating comedians, from Joan Rivers to Jeanane Garafolo to Wanda Sykes, who draw laughs from pointing out their own flaws, their aging faces, their dating disasters and other weirdness. Being able to accept and laugh at those things is great, but at what point does it put a stopper in our greatness?
Years ago I asked Barbara Corcoran of real estate empire and “Shark Tank” fame what she might have done differently at the start of her career, and she told me that she “would have learned earlier to take credit for it. You see men — it starts when they’re boys on the playground — who yell ‘I’m king of the mountain’ when they’re just halfway up. Women can have gotten up the mountain, built a house and had to paint the kitchen, and still say ‘I think I’m queen of the mountain?’ I would have owned it sooner.”
Boom. We as humans, particularly as human women, have got to stop believing that it’s somehow unseemly – unladylike, even – to own our own success, whether that’s building a company or building a Hot Wheels track at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning without cursing too loud and waking your kid up. We have to learn to accept praise with a simple “Thank you,” without following it with “…but it wasn’t a big deal.” Better yet, when someone says “That must have been so hard,” we have to learn to say “Yes! Yes it was!” We have to learn to be comfortable with our own awesome.
Otherwise, we’re being bad friends to ourselves. And as we’ve already discussed, no one needs friends like that.