The power of self-deprecation: turning weaknesses into strengths

Jun 30, 2022 - updated Apr 24, 2023

3 mins

The power of self-deprecation: turning weaknesses into strengths
Marlène Moreira

Journaliste indépendante.

Have you noticed that people can’t make fun of you if you get in there first? If humor is a great weapon to have, then self-deprecation is a superpower. At work, it can get you out of some awkward situations and make you more popular too. The good news is that you don’t have to be a natural at turning the joke on yourself – this is a skill you can develop.

Being prepared to make fun of yourself can help you to turn awkward situations, mistakes, and even failures into sources of amusement for everyone, rather than something to worry about. To boot, it can benefit the body as well as the mind.

It’s ok to laugh

Getting into the habit of laughing at ourselves, and laughing in general, boosts optimism, which in turn builds resilience and allows us to thrive in the face of adversity, according to Dr Arnie Cann, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina and a humor researcher. Having a chuckle at our own difficulties eases the pressure of striving for perfection.

For a long time, self-deprecation has been associated with negative psychological traits, such as anxiety, stress, and low self-esteem. Recently however, science has shown that the opposite may be the case. Jorge Torres-Marín, one of the authors of a 2018 study on the topic, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, says: “We observed that a greater tendency to use self-deprecation indicates higher scores in aspects of psychological well-being, happiness and, to a lesser extent, sociability.”

Being able to see the funny side is good for morale, but its benefits go beyond that: laughter fires up our hormones, releases dopamine, strengthens the heart, increases blood flow and boosts the immune system. In other words, habitually watching quality standup offers some of the same perks as hitting the gym — and, importantly, without us having to break a sweat.

Can self-mockery boost your career?

It’s also a fact that humor and laughter are linked to power and status. In that sense, making yourself the butt of the joke won’t just make you feel better, it can also help you to climb the ladder.

Leaders (and aspiring leaders) take heart: admitting your shortcomings and difficulties at work won’t make you seem less capable. Research suggests that managers who can laugh at themselves are seen as more likable, trustworthy, humble, and caring. The magical combination of self-awareness and confidence necessary to practice self-mockery minimizes differences between you and your team – and helps to build buy-in. So if trading your ego for a happier work environment sound like a good deal, then consider admitting to your 19-year-old intern that you don’t know how to save an attachment to Google Drive.

Self-deprecation is also a great way to deflect attention during an uncomfortable social interaction. Those who reveal negative information about themselves using humor, rather than in a serious manner, are perceived as friendlier and more competent, according to the Harvard Business Review. Information shared in this way appears less real and less important. This is a good thing to remember after you’ve jammed the office printer for the third time in one week.

How to become a master of self-deprecation

While, for most of us, it’s easier to beat down on ourselves than to accept the criticism of others, mastering self-deprecation still takes some practice. Here are some tips on how to hone your skills:

  • Get into the habit of looking for the humor in awkward situations. Yes, professional life is punctuated by mistakes as well as embarrassing mishaps, but dwelling on the difficulties rarely offers a solution. Laughing about them lightens the mood and makes these small – and big – trials easier to bear.

  • Don’t go too far. If you make too many jokes about yourself, you’ll be perceived as pessimistic, insecure or both. Don’t play the victim either because it will be difficult to shake off that label. Finding the right balance is a delicate art.

  • Be careful that you aren’t using self-deprecation to mask a deeper issue. Researchers who focus on this facet of humor note that it can indicate a form of suppressed anger or insecurity. If you make fun of yourself every time you fail, you may not be dealing with the real problem.

  • Use self-mockery only in areas unrelated to your skills. Would you like to hear your surgeon laugh about his “incurable clumsiness?” No. Apply humor in ways that won’t put your expertise in question.

  • Pay attention to the potential for collateral damage. Joking about your love handles in front of a coworker who hasn’t been able to find belts in his size for years is insensitive. Even if your joke is directed at yourself, be careful that you don’t unintentionally target your colleagues.

In the end, self-deprecation is a roundabout way of using compassion to accept your imperfections. Making fun of yourself means admitting your flaws with kindness and it invites those around you to do the same. What’s not to like about that?

Translated by Lorraine Posthuma

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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