Self-deprecation is a basic character flaw or personality defect, one of seven possible “chief features” adopted in adolescence to protect the self at the level of false personality.
Self-deprecation means belittling yourself, or running yourself down, 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; 
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”; 
expressing disapproval or being critical of oneself. 
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.
Like all chief features, self-deprecation involves the following components:
- Early negative experiences
- Misconceptions about the nature of self, life or others
- A constant fear and sense of insecurity
- A maladaptive strategy to protect the self
- 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.
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 inadequacy—never 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.
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.
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.
For an excellent book about the chief features and how to handle them, see Transforming Your Dragons by José Stevens.