Self-Disparagement | Self-Doubt | Self-Consciousness
Imposter Syndrome | Social Anxiety


SELF-DEPRECATION is one of seven basic character flaws or “dark” personality traits. We all have the potential for self-doubt or social anxiety, but in people with a strong fear of exposing inadequacy, Self-Deprecation can become a dominant pattern.

Self-deprecation means belittling yourself, or running yourself down, both internally and in the eyes of others. It is a drive to make yourself small or even invisible.

Self-deprecation is defined as:

  • The disparagement of one’s own abilities; [1]
  • Communication that expresses something negative about its originator; making negative statements regarding one’s own appearance or abilities, such as saying “I’m so fat” or “I’m such an idiot”; [2]
  • Expressing disapproval or being critical of oneself. [3]

As with the opposite chief feature of arrogance, self-deprecation is a way of manipulating others’ perceptions of yourself in order to avoid taking a ‘hit’ to your self-esteem.

In this case, however, the basic strategy is to get in first—to launch a preemptive attack on your own failings before anyone else can do so. While the arrogant person tries to deny their imperfections by feigning perfection, the self-deprecating person believes their own imperfection is absolute: I am simply not as good as other people… And it’s perfectly obvious to everyone else, so there’s no point denying it.

Like all chief features, self-deprecation involves the following components:

  1. Early negative experiences
  2. Misconceptions about the nature of self, life or others
  3. A constant fear and sense of insecurity
  4. A maladaptive strategy to protect the self
  5. A persona to hide all of the above in adulthood

Early Negative Experiences

In the case of self-deprecation, the early negative experiences typically revolve around failing to live up to parents’ high expectations.

Perhaps the parents are perfectionists and expect the child to measure up to an impossible standard. Perhaps the parents are over-achievers and cannot accept having a child who isn’t similarly talented or driven. Either way, the child can never be up to scratch.


From such experiences of being constantly below standard, the child comes to perceive himself as something fundamentally flawed, basically inadequate.

Again and again, the child in this position learns that “who I am is not good enough.” The love, care and attention that he craves is unavailable, and the reason for this is—apparently—his own deficiency as a person. His constant sense of failure, and of being a constant disappointment to others, give rise to a fundamental sense of shame.


Who I am is not good enough. Nothing I can do will ever be good enough.

I should feel ashamed of myself just for being me.

Even before I try, I know I’m going to fail—so there’s no point in even trying.

At least I will always be right about one thing: my inadequacy.

I have nothing of value to offer anyone. I don’t belong here. I am an impostor. 


Based on the above  misconceptions and early negative experiences, the child becomes gripped by a specific kind of fear. In this case, the fear is of inadequacynever being good enough to please or satisfy others, never being good enough to deserve success or love or happiness.

The child feels like a gatecrasher in life, an uninvited guest, an interloper, and constantly fears being caught and exposed.

His attempts at living a normal life cause great internal conflict because he feels a normal life is not something he deserves, being below standard as a human being.


The growing individual becomes hyper-sensitive to the possibility of being exposed as inadequate, and sees the threat of this exposure everywhere.

His basic strategy for coping with this threat is to manipulate others’ perceptions in advance. Typically this involves:

  • avoiding others’ attention if possible: he will try to divert attention away from himself, keep the focus on other people or things;
  • managing others’ expectations: to lower others’ expectations, he will tend to apologise in advance for every forthcoming “failure” and deliberately act as inadequately as possible so that no-one expects anything else.

Remember, the individual with self-deprecation truly believes in their own inadequcy. They see little point in denying it. Their ploy, then, is one of damage limitation:

I cannot succeed in life, I cannot feel good about myself, I cannot get on with others. The best I can hope for is to limit the damage by hiding myself from view.

If I am belittled, I probably deserve it. But at least if I belittle myself first, I leave others with nothing to belittle me about.

As they enter adulthood, they come to rely on this strategy more and more.


Emerging into adulthood, the individual probably does not want go around being overtly afraid and insecure about their fundamental inadequacy. Hence the defensive strategy of self-deprecation puts on a mask of invisibility. He will tend to make himself small, silent and invisible; he will tend to talk very quietly, cover his face, look downward. This mask or persona continually says to the world, “I am not here. Look the other way. Pay me no attention. And if you do happen to notice me, don’t expect anything special.”

Outwardly, he also pretends to be the most inadequate person in the world—so that anything he then manages to do just adequately or even better comes as a nice surprise to everyone and might even elicit praise.

He might even become so adept at deliberate self-deprecation that it develops into a personal style of humour, much enjoyed by other people. His obvious lack of arrogance will also be attractive to some. If he completely identifies with the sense of inadequacy, however, this could have a debilitating effect. Whenever he receives praise or appreciation, he will simply not believe it.

All people are capable of this kind of behaviour. When it dominates the personality, however, one is said to have a chief feature of self-deprecation.

A d v e r t i s e m e n t

Positive and Negative Poles

In the case of self-deprecation, the positive pole is termed HUMILITY and the negative pole is termed SELF-ABASEMENT.

+ humility +




– self-abasement –

Humility, or modesty, is a state of having little ego or pride, and therefore not trying to elevate yourself in the eyes of others. Ideally, this is a state in which you can appropriately recognise and accept your “ordinariness”. You feel free from ego concerns. We could all do with some humility.

Self-abasement, on the other hand, is a state of excessive, unwarranted humility. In other words, a state of self-inflicted humiliation and degredation. It is a state in which you are trapped in a vicious circle of self-criticism. Even if you come to understand that you have adopted self-deprecation as a false defensive measure, this is just further “proof” of your ultimate inadequacy.

Handling Self-Deprecation

People with self-deprecation may feel constantly ashamed of themselves for no good reason and are often apologising for themselves. Depression is a possible outcome.

As with every chief feature, the key is becoming conscious of how self-deprecation operates in yourself. If you have self-deprecation, you can begin by observing your outward social behaviour and persona in action:

  • Do I criticise or belittle myself to others?
  • Do I try to manipulate how others judge me by lowering their expectations? (e.g., “Knowing me, I’ll probably get it all wrong.”)
  • Do I sometimes exaggerate how incompetent I am in the hope that others will be pleasantly surprised by my results?

Try to catch yourself in the act of putting on your “I’m useless” mask.

Then dig deeper:

  • Why do I try to manipulate others’ perceptions and expectations?
  • Why do their judgements matter to me? What am I afraid of?
  • What do I fear would happen if others saw the reality of me?

Approaching the deepest level you may need outside help in the form of a counsellor, therapist or at least a close friend:

  • Where does this fear of being inadequate come from?
  • How was I hurt?
  • Can I let it go?

Insight in itself will not remove the self-deprecation. By the time you reached adulthood, the neural pathways underlying this defensive pattern were pretty well established in the brain. Nevertheless, the brain is plastic, malleable, reconfigurable. Just as you can become more aware of self-deprecation through self-observation and self-enquiry, so too you can gain more control over it through using that awareness and by exercising choice in the moment.

  • Whenever I am tempted to run myself down before I’ve even done anything, I will now be more willing to let my results speak for themselves.
  • Realistically, I now know that even if I am judged as less than adequate, that will not kill me. It need not even hurt me. I shall pay far less attention to others’ expectations and judgements.

Another way to handle a chief feature is to “slide” to the positive pole of its opposite. In the case of self-deprecation, if you are getting caught in the negative pole of self-abasement (self-inflicted humiliation and degradation), you can re-balance yourself using the positive pole of arrogance, namely pride. In other words,  pay attention to things that make you feel truly proud of yourself. Better still, do things that make you feel truly proud.





Further Reading

TYD For an excellent book about the chief features and how to handle them, see Transforming Your Dragons by José Stevens.

133 Responses to “Self-Deprecation”

  1. 1 zemazem 14 Nov 2013 at 11:55 pm

    childhood abandonment emotionally and physically, created this feeling of inadequacy. To deal with this i designed a style of humour as a teenager and i hid from people as best i could. As i matured in my early twenties, i began to utilize this self deprecation as a thirst to improve in my art and to gain self mastery. For a while I thought I was arrogant because because I gain so much pride in what I had learned and mastered, but it hit me arrogance cannot conceive of its own arroganceness(haha not a word I know, the self deprecate in me had to make these brackets). As a king soul self deprecation has been such a blessing and im thankful for this energy in my life. All the best to all who read this and to you and your site mr barry.

  2. 2 kristi 04 Jan 2014 at 3:41 pm

    Interesting. I have heard teachings that say this form of behavior is actually an upside down ‘pride.’ It still displays an obsession with ‘self’ rather than freedom from ‘self.’

    • 3 barry 23 Jan 2014 at 8:36 pm

      Well, you could say that self-deprecation/disparagement is an obsession with what’s deplorable and inferior about oneself relative to others, while arrogance is an obsession with what’s superior or special about oneself relative to others.

  3. 4 Troy 23 Jan 2014 at 1:55 am

    This thread seems to focus on all the psychological “negatives” of self-deprecating. I choose to use self-deprecation in my leadership style. I self-deprecate to prevent the perception of arrogance. I have accomplished everything I have ever set out to do and have an amazing life. My family and kids are incredible and I have more than I deserve. (there is some of it) I am internally arrogant but never want to tell anyone of my successes. I find it hard to fail and tend to have a superiority complex which I am not proud of. I do not post pictures of my amazing life on facebook, etc. because I have the sense that it is bragging. I call it humble and I am not in a position to tell anyone how to live their life. I believe that self-deprecation is a leadership quality that can be used effectively in gaining trust. Maybe this is a little different perspective??? Maybe it is a defense mechanism….. Doctors would have a field day with me!!!! :)

    • 5 barry 23 Jan 2014 at 7:07 pm

      Hi Troy

      Basically, yes, the focus here is on the negatives – this page is about when self-deprecation (self-disparagement etc) is a powerful, negative force in the personality. Some people cope with that by being “invisible”, some by managing others’ expectations, and some by feigning arrogance as a way to avoid the feelings of smallness and shame.

      Some people are aware of their negative or ‘dark’ traits and try to manage them, while some people aren’t aware of theirs at all and just act out.

      In your case, you are clearly aware that you have a negative tendency to arrogance, but you don’t want to exhibit it because you perceive it as unacceptable, so you strategically act (as you say) in a self-deprecating manner.

      I hope that clarifies the difference!



  4. 6 Rhonda Dangerfield 26 Jan 2014 at 7:12 pm

    Avoidant Personality Disorder. But, they do not take any criticism well. They are seriously passive aggressive underachievers, opportunists who look for underhanded passive aggressive ways to undermine others who are working very hard to accomplish something or create solutions. Ultra hypersensitive to criticism from others. How dare anyone expect anything from them!!!

  5. 7 anand 21 May 2014 at 7:47 am

    came across this site trying to solve my problems related to blockages in my mind that is preventing me from feeling worthy of any success or happiness.whatever i do ,i expect the worst outcome as i feel i dont deserve nice things. i hve developed social anxiety lately(past 2 years) as i see myself as a failure and lower othrs expectations of me, try to be invisible nd dont trust any compliments frm anyone.
    I hve developed health problems due to not taking care of myself. there r very few things that i really like to do but hve started doubting myself with those things too.( my parents had lot of expectations frm me as l had top grades till highschool, but they consider me as a failure now cos i didnt get in a good college( even i feel like a failure). they always used sarcasm towards me frm my childhood , my father treated our family like crap, now he’s changed but i cannot forgive him.
    i know that changing my attitude can really bring positive outcomes in my life. but i am unable to change… Still with this site i have identified myself. Hope that will help me somehow. thanks.

  6. 8 Eva 17 Aug 2014 at 5:34 pm

    Could it be that I have this feature because of my sense of unfairness? Because my childhood was basically built around school and I always had very high grades, I felt this wasn’t fair so I didn’t show myself, but now it helps to praise others. Or do I describe a different phenomenon?

    • 9 barry 18 Aug 2014 at 9:35 am

      Hi Eva.

      It sounds like you have humility, but I’m not clear if it’s excessive and damaging, either now or in the past.
      So I just want to check a couple of points if that’s OK:

      1. Your sense of unfairness.
      — Do you think this is something you were naturally born with, and are comfortable with?
      — Or was it something drilled into you by parents/siblings/other kids etc that left you in fear of being seen as smarter than average (“Who do you think you are, smarty-pants?” That kind of thing.)
      — Do you still feel it is “unfair” if ANY child gets higher grades than another? Or has that feeling only ever applied to you?

      2. You didn’t “show yourself”.
      — Does that mean you deliberately stopped performing well at school so as to avoid the discomfort of being seen to get top grades?
      — In later life, have you continued to hide yourself – or at least hide away any attention-catching aspects of yourself (e.g., underlying talents, personal feelings, eccentricities)?



      • 10 Eva 20 Aug 2014 at 4:20 pm

        I think it was drilled in me, but it feels more like a lesson I need to learn and I remain getting high grades and now I am getting more comfortable with it. I can now use my intelligence to help my classmates. I think it was a lesson in not worrying about what other people think about me, because I usually act different, for example being alone rather than being with others and loving learning for the sake of learning.

  1. 1 6 Ways to Build Self-Esteem | Mindfulness Muse Trackback on 05 Jul 2012 at 8:57 pm
  2. 2 Hello, Self! Trackback on 25 Jul 2012 at 3:26 am
  3. 3 Self-Deprecation « Mahavalous Trackback on 21 Feb 2013 at 5:54 am

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