When Self-Deprecating Humor Becomes Harmful

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Have you ever made fun of yourself to get a laugh from others or to diffuse a tense situation?

Or perhaps you have a friend who perpetually puts themselves down because of the reactions they get from others?

That’s self-deprecating humor.

You’ve undoubtedly come across this type of humor before or even taken part in it yourself, without even being aware that you were doing so.

In fact, some of your favorite comedians likely roast themselves on a regular basis, much to our amusement.

So, what is this type of humor exactly, and why do we get such a kick out of it?

And furthermore, when does it stop being funny and becomes something that’s far more harmful instead?

Let’s take a look at where it stems from and how it can end up doing more harm than good.

Speak to an accredited and experienced therapist to help you stop using self-deprecating humor in an unhealthy and unproductive way. Simply click here to connect with one via BetterHelp.com.

What is self-deprecating humor?

In simplest terms, self-deprecating humor involves making jokes at the expense of oneself, usually in a comically insulting fashion. This can involve mocking one’s own mental or emotional shortcomings, physical appearance, personal traits, or less-than-ideal life choices.

Why do people use it?

There are a number of reasons why people turn to self-deprecating humor, depending on the individual and the types of jokes they make about themselves. Below are some of the main reasons why people take part in this kind of behavior.

Making fun of oneself hurts less than mockery from others.

There’s a clip from a film called Pitch Perfect in which this concept was encompassed. One character, played by formerly overweight actress Rebel Wilson, introduced herself to the group as “Fat Amy.” When asked why she called herself that, she replied: “So twig b*tches like you don’t do it behind my back.”

Quite simply, if a person makes fun of their own perceived flaws, then others are less likely to insult them. They’ve already taken care of that, time to move on.

You might have noticed that when people insult or make fun of others, they’re spurred on if the recipient gets upset about it. Negative reactions such as crying or anger just add fuel to the fire: those flinging the insults feed off these responses and redouble their efforts so they can feed off the negative energy that ensues.

If the person joins in—or even preempts their mockery with self-deprecation—then there’s nothing for them to feed on. It’s rather like wild animals urinating on their own food before anyone else can steal it or claim it with their own scent. If that meal already smells like pee, then there’s no point in either running off with it (because pee) or adding to it.

Covering for an extreme lack of self-confidence.

People who don’t have much self-confidence might feel anxious in various social situations. Most commonly, they’ll avoid advocating for themselves when the situation calls for it, and they’ll also feel awkward about speaking up in work or school meetings.

Since they have so little confidence in what they need or want to say, they preface everything by making fun of themselves. That way, if they’re wrong (or if whatever is said ends up being taken badly), they’ve set up a buffer zone that explains away their perceived ineptitude.

As an example, they might preface offering feedback in a meeting by saying something like: “I know my dysfunctional brain doesn’t operate the right way, but I think…”

Similarly, if they’re entrusted with an important assignment, they’ll let the others know to brace themselves for inevitable mess-ups. By being the class or office “clown,” they’re absolved of feeling bad if things they say or do fall short of the mark or aren’t taken the way they’d intended.

In terms of general socializing, these people might desperately want to fit in and be part of the crowd, but they are so afraid of rejection that they preempt it with disparaging remarks aimed at the mirror. Once again, it’s a situation of hurting themselves before others can take care of that mistreatment for them.

“Owning” mistakes and missteps so they don’t become sources of future shaming.

When and if something embarrassing happens to someone, their friends, family members, and many others who have witnessed it (or even heard about it) are likely to mock them about it for a good long while. Nicknames might ensue that reference whatever happened, and jokes related to the situation might linger for years.

As an example, a high school friend of mine failed his driving test several times over. Naturally, other people mocked him about it, and the ridicule intensified with every failure. He received toddler driving toys, bus passes, and a bicycle with training wheels for Christmas.

Rather than getting offended, he made fun of himself for his repeated failures. When his driving instructor picked him up after school, he donned inflatable water wings and a Superman T-shirt while trying to pass the course yet again. He sang songs about driving, but he changed the lyrics to encompass his inability to do so and insulted himself playfully on a regular basis.

As a result, nobody else said a damned word about his failure again. He owned it so completely that mockery just wouldn’t have been funny anymore. There was only one last hurrah in that regard, and that was when he finally did pass the test. At that point, he got a standing ovation in the cafeteria, and that was that. End of story.

Alleviating other people’s discomfort.

This ties in with the previous two reasons, albeit from a different perspective. Those who have physical disabilities or differences that make others feel uncomfortable have often experienced awkward social interactions. Some people might walk on eggshells with everything they say or do to avoid causing offense, even unintentionally.

Alternatively, others might choose to not interact with them at all, lest they make some grievous social faux pas.

As a result, some people choose to openly make fun of their own issues in order to put others at ease. They feel that by making jokes at their own expense, others will feel more comfortable around them and less worried about doing or saying something “wrong.”

You’ve likely seen disabled comedians who use their disabilities as fuel for their jokes. They say things about themselves that others wouldn’t dream of saying aloud in the hope of making others laugh along with them.

Shane Burcaw, who has spinal muscular atrophy, wrote a book entitled Laughing at my Nightmare, in which he shares all the excruciating and humiliating aspects of being completely dependent on other people.

Shane can’t move any part of his body other than his head/face and a couple of his fingers. He has a beautiful, loving wife (whom many assume is his nurse rather than his partner), and often makes self-effacing jokes about their intimate life.

These jokes have two major outcomes: one is that he can deflect quite a bit of hate that’s leveled at him on a regular basis, and the other is that he makes people more comfortable about interacting with him. They can see that although he has physical limitations that are different from their own, he’s still a regular person whom they can interact with as equals, rather than as a frail being who’s suffering merely by existing.

Making jokes makes it easier to deal with criticism.

You probably know someone who can’t take criticism at all, even if it’s constructive. Some can take criticism with grace and others get defensive and argumentative about it, but there’s also a portion of the population that makes everything into a joke.

If they’re written up at work for being late, they might joke about how it takes them a long time to get ready because they look like Gollum when they roll out of bed in the morning. Are their school assignments sub-par? Well, then they’ll joke about how they burned out their last remaining brain cells trying to understand the assignment, and they’ll try to do better, and so on.

They might be so sensitive to criticism that they protect their fragile egos by refusing to accept it. Instead, they laugh it off and blame some disliked aspect of themselves instead.

Furthermore, some people use legitimate health issues to counteract any potential criticisms aimed toward them. This is a form of weaponized victimhood, as it puts the one criticizing them in the position of being a bigoted jerk.

Unfortunately, it does the person a great disservice in the long run, because they aren’t taking what’s said to heart. The criticisms they’ve been receiving might be absolutely valid, but they’re so hypersensitive to any negativity that they refuse to believe or acknowledge it.

As a result, they might end up losing their job or being turned down for promotions because they’ve shown themselves to be juvenile and flippant rather than dependable. It’s a huge mark of personal integrity when one can accept feedback about shortcomings and use them as fuel to do better. In contrast, refusing to accept criticism shows the person to be immature and unwilling to correct their mistakes.

If this refusal results in the person losing their job, then they’ll inevitably blame their employer rather than acknowledging what they did (or didn’t do) to earn the termination. They won’t learn from the experience and will keep on repeating the same behaviors over and over again.

Some people can’t take a compliment and make fun of themselves instead.

Many people who suffer from cripplingly low self-esteem get uncomfortable if people offer them compliments. Quite often, they’ve been so bullied and mistreated by others for most of their lives that when someone says something kind to them, they’ll either assume it’s a joke or they simply won’t believe it.

As such, they use this self-deprecating humor as a means of alleviating their discomfort with said kindness.

For example, if someone is complimented about a selfie they took, they might joke about having smeared Vaseline on the camera or having used a “not-hit-with-the-ugly-stick” filter.

When does self-deprecating humor become unhealthy?

Self-deprecating humor can be great—and hilarious—in the right circumstances. For instance, if you drop a tray of drinks in front of your friends, it’s practically expected that you will mock your own clumsiness. Or maybe you wore a ridiculous costume and you’ve created a nickname for yourself to reflect how outlandish it was.

Problems arise, however, when this type of humor ends up negatively affecting other aspects of your life. For example:

We really do recommend that you seek professional help from one of the therapists at BetterHelp.com as professional therapy can be highly effective in helping you to stop being so self-deprecating, even in a humorous way.

When others think it’s okay to insult you the same way you insult yourself.

Problems can arise when other people grow accustomed to jokes at your expense and choose to join in. They think that since you’re making fun of these aspects of yourself, you must be okay when others do so as well.

This is rarely the case. In fact, most people who take part in self-disparaging humor get horribly hurt if others join in and mock them too. After all, they’re talking crap about themselves to avoid being made fun of by others or to deflect from perceived shortcomings. When other people join in, they’re lending credence to these cruel words, which make them feel more real and valid.

When and if your self-deprecating humor becomes harmful avoidance.

It’s a lot easier to make a joke out of a serious issue than to face it head on. In fact, many people go into denial about some pretty intense stuff as a means of avoiding the uncomfortable emotions that go along with it.

For example, let’s say a person has been given a diagnosis of terminal illness and knows they only have a short time left. They might poke fun at themselves about it, ranging from body changes due to surgery or laughing about how at least they don’t have to worry about paying their late library fees, and so on.

Trying to keep one’s spirits up amidst difficult circumstances can be a good idea, but not when they’re trying to avoid facing the sobering—even scary—reality ahead of them. If they don’t acknowledge that they only have a short amount of time left, they might squander it rather than using it to its full potential. For example, they might go on spending or drinking sprees instead of writing letters to their loved ones and making sure their affairs are in order.

Sometimes it isn’t serious illness that they’re contending with but failing grades at school or faltering performance in the workplace. They might make fun of themselves for being perpetually late or for showing up hung over and failing tests they’d forgotten about, not realizing how damaging these behaviors can be.

In fact, they might end up sabotaging or even permanently messing up aspects of their future because they made self-deprecating jokes about their actions instead of redressing them.

When your inability to accept criticism harms you and/or your relationships.

We touched upon this briefly earlier with regard to not being able to accept criticism at work or school, but this behavior can also affect one’s personal life. This can happen between romantic partners as well as parents and children.

Problems arise when a person uses self-deprecating humor as a means of refusing to take responsibility for their actions. Everything becomes a joke to them, and thus they don’t take anything seriously.

As such, if their partner tells them that something they do is bothering them, they’ll blame their own ineptitude or make a joke about being “dumb,” and brush it off. They won’t take steps to adjust their behavior, which will make their partner feel unheard and disrespected.

The same thing can happen if teen or young adult children tell their parents that they’re overstepping boundaries or parents try to correct self-destructive or inappropriate behaviors in their kids. Nothing sinks in, so nothing changes.

As you might imagine, this can seriously erode any relationship in the long run. Much like refusal to accept criticism can result in being fired, refusing to listen to family members’ criticisms and concerns can end up in break-ups/divorces and parent-child alienation.

So many people look around and wonder why they don’t have good relationships with their relatives, but they refuse to take into account the fact that others have been trying to get through to them for years and have simply given up at this point.

When you can’t accept any compliment or credit without laughing it off.

Further up in this article, we talked about people who use self-deprecating humor to mask their discomfort when they’re given compliments or praise. While this might be fun to do lightheartedly on occasion, it can do real damage if it’s the only response you ever have when someone says something nice to you.

Quite simply, by constantly making jokes about yourself or diminishing your achievements, you’re denying yourself credit that is deserved. Did you receive accolades at school or work but attributed your success to your ethnicity or awkward luck? Then you’re discrediting the sheer amount of effort you put into that endeavor.

Maybe someone praised a piece of art you created, but you mocked it as a useless scribbling you managed to come up with while inebriated. Or you received a compliment on your appearance, only to inform them about some amusingly horrifying trait about yourself that counteracts anything pleasant they might have mentioned.

Both of these types of responses serve to cut you down instead of acknowledging your effort and the unique beauty that only you bring to the world.

Worst of all, these responses can contribute to the worst aspect of self-deprecating humor, which is…

You may start to believe all the awful things you say about yourself.

If the main narrative you receive about your life is that you’re stupid, useless, or unattractive, then that will start to become your reality. Furthermore, what you say about yourself is always much more potent than what others say about you.

To an extent, we are the weavers of our own reality, and the words we say help to shape what we experience. Think about all the times that you’ve put yourself down in the recent past, and ask yourself whether what you’ve said has helped or hindered your personal growth.

If you’ve ever watched people share their daily affirmations on social media, you may have an idea of how powerful these words can be. What we say about ourselves shapes who we are on a fundamental level, so if you keep mocking yourself and minimizing your abilities or achievements, what kind of energy are you broadcasting in your own direction? And what are you drawing to yourself by doing so?

Like attracts like, and if we’re awful to ourselves for the sake of discounting our contributions to the world, then we’ll start to believe ourselves. All those hours spent doing volunteer work end up being invalidated because “you didn’t have anything better to do,” right? And the effort you put into rebuilding your fitness levels was solely so you could fill your Instagram feed with selfies, rather than aiming to be strong and healthy for yourself and your family.

You get the idea.

When you find yourself using self-deprecating humor, try to be aware of what you’re doing and ask yourself if you’d be okay with a friend or partner talking about you that way. If you’d feel hurt, betrayed, upset, or angry if they said those things to you, then why is it okay for you to say them about yourself?

If you wouldn’t allow anyone to say those things about someone you love, then please don’t say them about yourself. You deserve your own love and respect just as much as anyone else, so consider choosing to be kind.

Still not sure whether your use of self-deprecating humor is unhealthy or how to stop it? Talking to someone can really help you to handle whatever life throws at you. It’s a great way to get your thoughts and your worries out of your head so you can work through them.

We really recommend you speak to a therapist rather than a friend or family member. Why? Because they are trained to help people in situations like yours. They can help you to assess your use of humor and self-deprecation in general and give advice on how to keep it healthy and funny rather than destructive.

A good place to get professional help is the website BetterHelp.com – here, you’ll be able to connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message.

While you may try to work through this yourself, it may be a bigger issue than self-help can address. And if it is affecting your mental well-being, relationships, or life in general, it is a significant thing that needs to be resolved.

Too many people try to muddle through and do their best to overcome issues that they never really get to grips with. If it’s at all possible in your circumstances, therapy is 100% the best way forward.

Click here if you’d like to learn more about the service BetterHelp.com provide and the process of getting started.

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About Author

Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.