We all have those moments in conversations where we go on autopilot, right? The “uh-huh”s and the “yep”s that just feed into the exchange of noises between two human beings. This usually happens without any meaning behind it, but what about some of the other phrases we utter? “Oh no!” or “that’s so crazy” easily slip out of our mouths without so much as a second thought.
But what about those phrases that land like a lead balloon in the space between two people; the unintentional attack, the triggering phrase, the remark with a little too much criticism? Recently, I noticed a colleague giving a string of compliments that caught my attention. Not because of the sentiment, or the situation, but the fact that they always included self-deprecation. Compliments like, “oh, you’re so great at that—I could never do that!” and, “thank goodness you’re on this team, I’d be so lost without your help.”
On the surface, they’re run-of-the mill compliments among coworkers, right? I don’t my colleague gave a second thought to the actual phrasing of the compliments. However, as someone who’s particularly prone to negative self-talk, those self-deprecating comments threw up a red flag to me immediately. Putting yourself down, even in a seemingly harmless way such as when trying to underscore a compliment to someone else, isn’t a problematic habit at the best of times. In the current state of the world, it’s even worse to have your own brain throwing shade at you.
During a one-on-one meeting with that colleague, they gave me another self-deprecating compliment and I couldn’t restrain myself. I gently retorted that they could, in fact, do the Excel formula I was showing them if they wanted. “You don’t give yourself enough credit—you’re a talented, intelligent person,” was more-or-less my response. That caused them to pause and then agree with me. I’m not sure if I really did anything to help my colleague in that exchange, but I hope I did.
Afterward, I wanted to know more about what causes people to couple compliments with self put-downs, so I did a little bit of research. What I found while researching was quite surprising.
As suspected, self-deprecating compliments were frequently tied to negative self-talk. Additionally, several articles I found indicated it was more common among women, and especially related to compliment each others’ appearance. As a cisgender man with no psychological training, I am not qualified to discuss this, so I will just leave it as an observation.
Negative self-talk is a common issue many people face, whether they realize it or not. So, what does someone do if they realize it? Not everyone lets their negative self-talk leak out into their external conversations for other people to point out. Thankfully, there is a lot of information and many helpful tips available online, mostly based in cognitive behavioral therapy. Linked below are a few good articles to read if you’re interested in more information.
- “Mayo Mindfulness: Overcoming Negative Self-Talk” by the Mayo Clinic
- “10 Types of Negative Self-Talk (and How to Correct Them” by Nick Wignall
- “Negative Self-Talk: What It Is and How to Deal” on healthline.com
The common themes that stand out among all of these is firstly identifying that it’s happening, repackaging the talk from a global statement to a specific situation, and realizing when you’re barking unrealistic expectations at yourself rather than being your own friend.
During my own mental health journey, I’ve realized that words have a lot of power—the words we use with others and the words we use with ourselves. Be careful with them.