It’s ok to feel uncomfortable when someone else’s self-deprecation goes too far. It’s hard to hear friends put themselves down and feel insecure!

In order to respond, let’s first understand why it’s tempting for some to communicate through self-deprecation. Then, we’ll go over ways to reply when someone is overly self-deprecating.

A self-deprecating joke here and there can seem pretty harmless. Most of us make them. They can even ease tension in awkward situations, like when I first started working at a cafe and could not figure out how to make the gorgeous latte art that customers expected! 

Whenever I’d hand a particularly ugly one to a customer, I’d make a joke about how I’m still working on my latte art skills, we’d laugh together, and both go on with our days feeling a little lighter.

While self deprecation is a perfectly valid defense mechanism, it might not always be the right choice to compensate for larger issues of insecurity or self-hatred. Especially not when self-deprecation becomes a replacement for direct communication about an issue.

Sometimes it feels like this kind of humor is a plea for reassurance (which the other person may really need). So how do you reply when another’s self-deprecation feels like a masked call for help? In these cases, you might feel uncomfortable saying anything. How do you respond?

Why is it easy to over-use self deprecating humor?

It’s easy to be hard on oneself. We all grow up with an idea of how to be a good person, and of what being a good person means. We have all kinds of goals — within the realms of career, family, love life and more — that we want to achieve.

And adding to the pressure we put on ourselves, some of us were raised in environments where flaws were not acceptable and perfection had to be attained at all costs. This kind of upbringing tends to increase anxiety about approval and acceptance from others.

If someone’s parents had high expectations, or even emotionally abused them, they are probably even more likely to be hard on themselves. They are probably their own worst critic, as a way to avoid being rejected for their flaws.

To many, self-deprecation may feel like a miraculous tool: you can admit to a flaw in a way that makes light of it. You can admit to a flaw before someone else has a chance to attack you over it. Who wouldn’t rather make someone laugh than be told off for not being good enough?

So how can we steer others away from the impulse towards self-deprecation? How can we help our friends who are stuck in a self-deprecating rut? The answer might lie in helping them feel accepted and good-enough, despite their flaws.

We have compiled a list of things you can say, that we hope will help: not only with friends who may have self-critical streaks, but also when dealing with your own self-deprecating impulses when you see them.

Ways to respond when someone is too hard on themselves

1. Help ground your friend in reality.

Remind them that forgetting their keys at home does not make them “a total idiot,” or whatever they have said about themselves. We all make small mistakes. Remind your friend that they are smart, and this one incident does not mean they are not worthy of love.

2. Be honest when self-deprecation makes you uncomfortable.

It can be painful to listen to negative self-talk from people around you, especially if you are dealing with your own struggle in this area. Point out to your friend when they are being extremely harsh on themselves and ask them to be mindful of negative self-talk.

3. Provide evidence against the self deprecating comment.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Positive thinking helps with stress management and can even improve your health.” While positive thinking does not solve everything, remind your friend of the potential consequences of internalizing negative beliefs.

4. Watch Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette with them.

Gadsby’s powerful comedy-storytelling special contains a particularly poignant section in which she explains:

“I built a career out of self-deprecating humor… And I don’t want to do that anymore. 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.”

I think about this every time I catch myself making a negative joke about myself. When I do that, who am I trying to make myself small for? Shouldn’t we be owning our successes instead of focusing on our flaws?

5. Try this thing to ask an insecure person.

Another easy trick is to ask, “Would you say that about a friend?” or “How would you feel if a friend said that about you?” If saying it to another person would be mean-spirited, why would you be so mean to yourself?

6. Offer up a smaller box.

Psychologist and author of Freeing Yourself From Anxiety, Tamar E. Chansky, PhD, offers another neat trick: The small box.

She says that when negative thoughts intrude you should try to “quickly narrow it down and put your problems into the smallest box possible… If you think you screwed up in a meeting, instead of saying, ‘I’m an idiot; I ruined my career,’ say, ‘Man, I used a poor choice of words.’ Visualizing that box can really help.”

You don’t have to deny that something embarrassing happened. You just have to help the other person recognize that the embarrassment exists inside a very small slice of their life.

So when someone is overly harsh on themselves, put their self-deprecation into a small box for them. They say: “Wow I can’t speak English”? Your smaller-box version: “I mean, everyone trips over words when they get especially excited!!”

“I’m a pimple-faced freak!” can become: “One pimple on your cheek does not make you a freak! It makes you a human with reproductive hormones!”

7. Focus on the good stuff!

Help your friend make a list of all of the things they have achieved, which they can be proud of. If you’ve both always relied on self-deprecating humor, maybe you can even come up with more positive jokes using your lists of accomplishments!

8. Ask if there is something deeper going on.

If someone is struggling with serious anxiety and depression, it is often hard to look at the world — and at the self — in any way other than negative. Open the door for an honest dialogue and offer your support. Professional therapy or online peer support chats may be good next steps.

9. Remember that self deprecating humor is a habit.

You need practice to break any habit. If you know someone who’s overly self deprecating, try starting a “swear jar.” But instead of paying in when you curse, both of you should pay in at any hint of negative self-talk or self deprecation! Once you notice the habit fading, use the contents of the jar to treat yo’selves.

Another way to help them break the self deprecating habit is to ask: “What could you say instead of that in the future?” or, “How could you rephrase that to be more generous to yourself?” A simple prompt may provide important food for thought, and a reminder to help stop self deprecating tendencies.

In parting, you’re awesome for wanting to help someone you know! Keep in mind that you can take steps to maintain your own wellbeing while helping someone else.

And before you offer help, refresh yourself on best practices for lending a hand.