I’ve reached a place where I’ve started calling out my friends and loved ones when I hear them use self-deprecating humor. When someone goes for the easy laugh with some obviously false line about how they are stupid, or incompetent, or unloveable, I’m not buying the narrative, and I tell them so. I’m increasingly convinced this is a big deal, and it took me a long time to get here.
I grew up in a family that deeply valued biting humor. I am the youngest of three boys, and each night at the dinner table was a raucous rugby scrum of conversation, with everyone trying to get heard, vying for the spotlight. The easiest way to get everyone’s attention and praise was with a funny line, and nothing was funnier than a savage put down. A cynical, sarcastic gibe was the coup de grace that ended one topic and cleared space for the next one to begin. As the youngest, I was often the target of these barbs. As I grew, I learned to give as good as I got.
The lessons learned in youth tend to stick around, and I clung to that form of humor as I became an adult. I had a deep love for cynical one-liners. I thrived on the razor-edged humor of Dorothy Parker and the cynical snark of David Letterman. I struggled to make friends, but those I found used humor in a similar fashion, and they rewarded me for my efforts. Even in the midst of a mean-spirited bon mot, I still loved my friends. I told myself, “They know I’m kidding. They know I don’t mean it. They know how I really feel about them.”
In my later 30s, my mother died. She died quite unexpectedly, from a massive heart attack, at the terribly young age of 57. In the year prior, my cousins had lost their father (my uncle). In the aftermath of those deaths, a curious thing happened. Conversations and phone calls with my cousins changed. The cutting one-upmanship fell away. There was no discussion about it, we didn’t make any resolutions about it. It just happened. Instead of trying to verbally undercut each other, we leaned into sincerity and affection. On some level, I think we were all thinking about how short life can be, and how each conversation you have with a person might be the last conversation with that person. Suddenly, every phone call with my cousins ended with a simple, heart-felt, “I love you. Take care of yourself. Be good to yourself.” It was a dramatic, abrupt change. And it felt good.
In my late 40s, I went through a particularly challenging break-up. As is often the case, this presented me with the opportunity for self-reflection. I spent time thinking about the things I had done wrong, the things I did right. I gave considerable thought to what I wanted my life to look like moving forward. I don’t recall a specific seminal moment that started me meditating on this topic, but I started thinking deeply about my love for the witty one-liner, the biting line that could lay waste to my target. I found myself wondering, “Do I really believe that when I say such things, that none of it ‘sticks’ with the recipient?” Is it really possible that 100% of the time, with 100% of the recipients, they knew I was kidding and the witty, cutting, barbed one-liner just rolled off their back? I thought about my own experiences being on the receiving end of such ‘wit’. I can still remember being the target at the dinner table when I was about 6 years old. Over 40 years later, I still remembered. So yeah, some portion of those remarks stick. Let’s be incredibly generous and say that only 0.001% of such comments stick. How many times did I fire off a smart-ass line at someone else’s expense? Even a very low percentage accumulates over time. Like a slow build-up of dental plaque, like barnacles on the hull of a boat, it grows without notice. It builds until the recipient starts believing it. It builds until those cutting comments start being a significant contributor to a person’s self-image. It builds until it becomes a sizable portion of the story that person tells about themself.
So I resolved to change my ways. I made a decision that at the end of the day, at the end of my life, I would rather be known for being generous than being savagely witty. I would rather be remembered for my kindness than my put-downs. If I am contributing to the emotional plaque that accumulates on my friends, I would rather it be a veneer of love and affection, instead of doubt and insecurity.
It wasn’t an instantaneous change. Old habits linger, and I caught myself backsliding many, many times. When I noticed it in the moment, I would try to apologize and correct myself. When I noticed it hours or days later, I cringed and resolved to do better. When I started a relationship with a new partner, it was part of the explicit terms we discussed, of how we wanted to make that relationship work. We both agreed to help “call out” the other when we erred. It continues to be a work in progress, but it has gotten much, much better.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I had gotten dramatically better at avoiding the snark. It still slipped in occasionally, but it was the exception, not the rule. One day I found myself saying something witty and cutting, and did a lightning fast mental check-in. “Crap, I’m not supposed to be doing that any more. Oh, wait. That wasn’t aimed at anyone else, that was aimed at me. That was self-deprecating humor. That’s okay. That’s still allowed, because I’m not hurting anyone else.” For whatever reason, this time the mental check-in went a little further. If the witty, cutting things I said about other people accumulated over time (even if at a mere 0.001%), do I think the witty cutting things I said about myself accumulate too? Fuck. Yes. If I’m honest about it, I suspect the mean things I say about myself ‘stick’ even more than the mean things other people might say about me. Fuck.
I’ve resolved to try to be kind and loving and generous in how I speak to total strangers. Shouldn’t I treat myself at least as kindly as I want to treat total strangers? Sigh. Yes. Just like that, I knew I had to give up on self-deprecating humor too. As with eliminating snark towards others, changing how I talk about myself didn’t happen over night. I still slip up on occasion, and when I do I try to ‘own it’, correct myself, and move on. It’s a work in progress. Further, it means I have to resist deflecting attention when someone else says something complimentary or flattering to me. Just last night, my partner was openly talking about how pretty my legs are, admiring the muscle tone and definition. It was awkward as all fuck to hear, and I had to struggle against denying it, deflecting it, or distracting with an abrupt change of topic. Somehow I managed to accept it with a simple “Thank you”. Which feels, to me, like considerable progress.
Being mindful of my own use of self-deprecation, I’ve started noticing its use in my circle of close friends. And I’m starting to call it out when I see it. If I was in a gathering of folks where someone started running down an absent friend, I wouldn’t sit silent. I would speak up and let people know how I felt about my friend. I would talk about the ways in which I find them awesome and why I am enthusiastic about spending time with them. Why shouldn’t I do the same when the person running down my friend is my friend? When a friend uses self-deprecating humor, I’m not laughing along. I’m pointing out that ‘my mileage varies’, and actually, I think they are amazing.
Such honest affection is often met with deflection. I get it. It’s easy to believe that you’re hiding the worst parts of yourself deep inside, and if only someone knew what a hot mess you are, they would run away screaming. I can identify. We all have a streak of ‘imposter syndrome’. “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”, said Bukowski. Have your doubts; I don’t think I would trust a person who didn’t have some self-doubt. I only ask that my friends be open to hearing that an external observer, someone they know and trust, thinks they are wonderful. Maybe the inner critic is so enormous because it is mounded with the accumulated plaque and barnacles from years of snark and self-deprecation. It’s possible to turn that around. Take that first step.