My friend gazed at me through FaceTime, a kind smile on her face. “I just want to let you know that I just counted you saying the word ‘stupid’ six times when talking about yourself.”
She grinned. “I’m telling you this for your sanctification.” A little church-girl humour there. I thanked her.
I wasn’t surprised that I did it, but that I did it so frequently. I know self-deprecation is one of my “tells” when I’m stressed.
I’ve gotten better about not making jokes about my body, though a few years ago, I made a comment to my sister about my hulking shoulders, which I thought made me look like a linebacker. In all seriousness, she replied: “Would you ever talk that way around your daughter?”
All of this makes me wonder why I’m more comfortable with putting myself down than talking about my strengths.
After some thinking, here are a few whys I’ve come up with:
- Ever since high school (where I was literally voted the special award of “Most Apologetic”), I’d rather beat people to the punch of criticising me. It’s a defence mechanism that comes from having been hurt before. So I thought, if they know that I see my faults, they won’t feel the need to harbour irritation or invoke their own criticism. It’s not as funny to mock a girl who admits her own faults, right?
- Saying that what I wanted was “stupid” is easier than dealing with dashed hopes. Dwelling on my own weakness, my lack of worth, is easier than dealing with rejection. Or the idea that I didn’t matter to someone.
- When I was younger, making self-deprecating remarks was actually a form of fishing for a compliment.
Early in our marriage, my husband explained that these so-called “opposites”, pride and insecurity, are in fact the same sin. Because just like pride, insecurity stems from trying to find my value in my ability to perform; to be accepted.
I’ve found this to be true in myself and in others. We tend to find our value in what we do, what we have—our reputation, our family, or control, our popularity—or in others’ approval, rather than in who God made us to be and what He’s done for us.
Self-deprecation versus humility
What’s the difference between self-deprecation and humility, particularly in confessing something vulnerable?
Briefly, it’s an underlying sense of worth. Vulnerability requires an underlying sense of our acceptability, our worth. Self-deprecation can perpetuate a sense of shame.
You might wonder, can I engage in self-deprecating humour, i.e., laugh at my mistakes, without looking down on myself? I think so. Being able to take ourselves less seriously and embrace humility can be a great thing. That said, we do have to keep in mind that examining our motivations does matter.
Author Heather Davis Nelson writes: “Guilt’s message is, ‘I did something bad,’ and needs justification and forgiveness. Shame’s message is, ‘I am bad,’ and needs an identity shift and relational connection.”
It’s the difference between “God’s kindness leads us to repentance” and the heat of fear curling us inside. Shame welds what we’ve done onto who we are, so we’re rendered unworthy of being accepted. Self-deprecation zeroes in on that. We’re not speaking our weakness out of courage, but out of insecurity.
In thinking through all this, here are the truths I’ve gathered from God’s Word:
1. A healthy tension exists between our two selves: Sinner, yet made in the image of God, and saved by God’s totally undeserved favour.
That’s the definition of humility to me: Seeing ourselves as God sees us.
2. I need to look at myself with “sober judgment”—telling the truth about myself to me and others. No more. No less.
It won’t always be good stuff I share about me. (That’s healthy vulnerability, and people like David model it.) But telling the truth, i.e., not lying, means conveying my worth even as I communicate my weakness.
For example: “I’ve had a genuine problem with arrogance/an eating disorder/porn addiction. But God’s been so kind to continue to change me from the inside out. He keeps lifting my shame.”
As writer and Bible teacher Mindy Clemons puts it, when people in the Bible—Jeremiah, Gideon, Moses, Esther—question their abilities, God responds to this effect: “I chose you. I made you the way you are. I have a plan for you. I will help you. I will make you capable. I will give you everything you need. And I forgive you, so how about forgiving yourself?”
3. Am I communicating compassion toward weakness and failure?
If I wouldn’t talk about someone else that way (Gosh, so stupid!), why speak of myself that way? Is this how I expect others to speak of themselves? And what about my daughter—do I want her to be a strong woman who can embrace both her strengths and her weaknesses, where God triumphs? (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
Can we accept praise with humility?
Jeremy Taylor, a chaplain and writer in the 17th century, wrote 19 practical tips toward humility. One of them was this:
Humility does not consist in criticizing yourself, or wearing ragged clothes, or walking around submissively wherever you go. Humility consists in a realistic opinion of yourself, namely, that you are an unworthy person.
Yes, I was unworthy—and He changed all that (Galatians 2:20). Over and over the Bible defines God as “my strength and my song” (Exodus 15:2, Psalm 118:14, Isaiah 12:2): My power; my beauty. Because of Him, there’s beauty and life being nurtured in me and through me every day. That’s where I can camp out when, through the kindness of God, I shine.
In John 3:30—He must become greater, I must become less—I used to hear that I should be invisible. I don’t want to steal God’s honour, right? Absolutely. But John the Baptist, who said those words, certainly was no wallflower. He just directed his awe in the right place. The problem isn’t with the glory, but where it’s headed.
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
you have loosed my sackcloth
and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever! (Psalm 30:11-12)
There’s no need to minimize glory and praise. We can shine–and direct the light singularly, in the right direction.
Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness! (Psalm 115:1)