I think, for a shift of gears, we’re going to focus once a month on Bad Practices. These will be things that we do that become ingrained habits, perhaps with the best of intentions but with less-than-optimal results.
Let me tell you about the most self-deprecating man I ever knew.
He was a great guy. He had a steady job, an agile, ready wit, he was kind, he was generous. He did volunteer work, he took great care to spend time and do things for his family (none of whom, to the best of my knowledge, shared his characteristics). He was tall, strong, with a manly beard and a pleasing baritone voice. He was reliable, honest, substance-responsible and conscientious in how he lived.
Lemme tell ya, this guy was quite the catch.
Which is why I spent years – decades, almost – wondering why he wasn’t married. He wanted to get married, he wanted a family, but for some reason in spite of all his stellar characteristics, women would date him for a while, and eventually drift away. He rose to the top of my Friends Most Deserving of a Happy Relationship list. I even (this is back before I learned not to do this kind of thing) tried to figure out what it was that kept getting in the way.
It was self-deprecation.
Why Would They?
In most conversations with my friend, especially about women (did I mention he also had a penchant for good beer and usually would buy a round? I’m telling you, this was a great guy) I noticed a trend. He would continually put himself down either absolutely or by comparison. Over and over I’d hear some variation of Why would they want to be with someone like me, when they could be with someone like… and then he’d fill in the blank. Richer, thinner, taller, darker, happier (that one drove me crazy), funnier, more confident….he could come up with a million examples of why they wouldn’t want to be with him.
It puts me in mind of the famous John W. Campbell incident (for you poor souls who are unfamiliar, he was the editor of the seminal scifi magazine Analog)
Perhaps the most famous Campbell story, which Hal Clement relates, is that of a young writer who approaches Campbell at a convention, saying he’d written a story for Analog but it wasn’t what Campbell was looking for. Campbell raised himself to his full height, hands on hips, and said, “And since when does The Condé Nast Publications, Incorporated pay you to make editorial decisions for Analog?”
In short, he was making the decisions for his partners (potential, past, and present).
In fact, I wish then I’d been able to tell him what I now realize.
Self-Deprecation = Arrogance
I wish I could tell him that because yet another stellar quality of this man was that he wanted to be nice. He really wanted to be a good man, and if he had realized that his self-deprecation was taking away the other person’s right and ability to make their own decisions I think it might have stopped the cycle of put-downs.
Self-deprecation, as Chris Brogan put it recently, has the noblest of intentions: you don’t want to be That Guy, the one who has a hard time finding doorways wide enough for his head. The thing is, the egomaniac and the self-deprecator are basically doing the same thing: telling you how you are supposed to feel about them, rather than letting you make up your own mind.
It’s a lot of other things – such as predicting what will make others happy (which we do really, really badly) as well as giving our inner critic a giant megaphone, a pedestal, and a captive audience of at least two (yourself and whoever it is you are talking to). But I think that the chief sin of the practice of self-deprecation is that you are imposing your own viewpoint on someone else, rather than giving them the opportunity to have an authentic experience of you.
For that matter, you’re also spending all your time trying to predict what that authentic you is like instead of actually doing it. But that’s wasting your own time, and I think wasting someone else’s is the greater harm.
Hope is Not Lost
I’m pleased to say that there’s a reason I keep talking about this guy in the past tense: he got better. A lot better, in fact. He met a remarkable woman (intelligent, beautiful, successful, charming, witty – in other words, a lot like him) and I had the privilege of being one of the groomsmen at their wedding (which was also beautiful). He lives in a nice house with a nice dog and is successful at his job in a time when you have to be to survive corporate cutbacks. He may not always remember that he’s a model of success – but I watched it from the outside, and he is just as triumphant a winner as any Olympic athlete standing on the top pedestal.
I still see the old self-deprecator, occasionally, but for the most part he seems to have let go of that and accepted that he’s a pretty remarkable guy, and even given himself some of the credit for his success in his quest to be happy and get what he wants.
It’s well deserved, and the last time I had an authentic experience of him in his natural environment I found myself immensely envious at his success.
After all, it’s not as if a guy like me could ever manage that kind of…oh. Wait.
Hey, I never said it was easy. But check your arrogance the next time you put yourself or your work down. Nobody’s paying you to make their decisions about you for them, so stop working for free, and start working for yourself.