I love creating. I love cooking, sewing, writing, scrapbooking, songwriting and singing. Yet the second it comes time to share that joy, I revert to apologetically telling people, “It’s okay if you hate it. It’s terrible, but it made me happy, but it doesn’t have to make you happy.”
Sometimes I wonder, why the hell do I say this stuff? It’s not that I don’t actually know the answers, I just hate what those answers are. Part of it is because I want to lessen the pain of you inevitably writing off my work as complete garbage. Part of it is to amuse you. Part of it is to make sure you don’t think I’m some cocky P.O.S. — a little trick to make myself more tolerable.
I can come up with reasons for putting myself down all day long, but when it comes down to it, those aren’t justifications. They’re excuses for me to keep leaning on self-deprecating humor.
Self-deprecating humor, otherwise known as self-defeating humor, can wear on us, no matter how good our intentions. A too-easy joke here and a snide remark there can quickly add up to a habit of deriding yourself, and that can take a toll on your self-esteem and general mental health. There’s a line of thinking that says joking about something makes it less burdensome, but when it comes to self-deprecating humor, the negative language we use against ourselves feeds our cognitive distortions. In other words, when we try to make light of something we perceive as a flaw in ourselves, we give it aggressive, unsympathetic attention that ultimately makes our perception of said flaw worse. For example: me joking about being as good a dancer as an inebriated wombat ultimately scares me out of dancing, even if I think it has helped by lowering the expectations of those I’ve told this to.
Sometimes we attack large parts of ourselves, parts we value, through humor. We don’t deserve that shame, and we are not obligated to belittle ourselves for others.
I want to speak to my experience of self-deprecating humor, especially as a person who holds marginalized identities. As Hannah Gadsby put it in her Netflix special “Nannette,” “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.” Like Gadsby, I don’t want to humiliate myself anymore.
I don’t want to refer to myself as a “useless lesbian” for a cheap laugh at my own expense, as though it’s my fault I’ve been conditioned to believe interpreting a woman’s interest as romantic interest would reflect my own perversion.
I’m tired of joking that my mental illnesses are a personal failing, sighing that if only I didn’t have “chronic dumb b**** disease” I’d be thriving. My mental illnesses are complex, and I am not obligated to write them off so that they are more palatable to people who cannot understand them.
I’m tired of calling A-minuses “Asian F’s” and carrying that academic shame with me whenever my grades are less than perfect. My academic successes are a testament to my own work, not my race and my failures are my own in equal measure.
I’m tired of making jokes at my own expense. I don’t need the approval of people who will never understand my struggles.
Every day, I choose to treat myself with more love and compassion. I practice positive reframes on the regular. “I forgot something in my room, god, I’m such an idiot,” becomes “No, sometimes I’m a tad forgetful but that is not a reflection of my general intelligence or base worth.” “I’m so scatter-brained, no wonder I’m struggling in class” becomes “I’m overwhelmed with work at the moment, and that is taking a toll on my performance, but I can bounce back.” I will literally say these things out loud, no matter who is or isn’t present, because every day I am fighting to give myself the love I have deprived myself of for over a decade.
Crack all the jokes you want to, I’m not going to stop you. I just know a self-deprecating joke has never helped me, and I think it’s important to be critical of our own behavior because mental health takes work. I want you to know that the bad things you say about yourself probably aren’t true, and you don’t have to belittle yourself for anyone. You do not owe anyone your humiliation. You have a right to be your best self in every aspect of your life, to be proud of your strengths and understanding of your weaknesses. But you never, ever deserve to make yourself out to be anything less than what you are.
The author for this piece is Junko Anderson, a member of a chapter of the organization at Occidental College. Active Minds is a national organization that aims to reduce the stigma surrounding illness and promote good mental health.