Self-deprecating humour isn’t as harmless as it seems

Making fun of ourselves can cause damage to self-esteem and self-worth

It’s possible to be your own bully, and that’s not OK. Illustration: Sabrina Kedzior/The Peak

By: Kelly Chia, Staff Writer

“Sorry, I’m a such a mess, aren’t I?”
“I just want to die right now.”
“I know, I’m so annoying.”

These are the sort of comments that I hear from students on a day-to-day basis being shared by students. Hell, these are the jokes that float around consistently in my friend group. I used to make the same sort of jokes until I realized the toll it was taking on my mental health. I learned something really important that I wish more students would realize: self-deprecating humour can be a valid coping mechanism, but it can’t be the only way people talk about themselves. 

It is all too easy to use self-deprecating humour like so many others, but people have to realize that this sort of humour is deceptively insidious. It starts as a casual joke at one’s own expense, but when they’re the only jokes to fall back on, it can warp a person’s self-perception and self-worth. Through these jokes, I found that I internalized a lot of hurtful thoughts about myself. I became my own bully, and these jokes made up a version of me that I rationalized as my true self.

I largely ignored this because my peers were all making these kinds of jokes, but they need to be acknowledged for what they are: socially acceptable ways of putting ourselves down. I’m not calling them the devil, and I certainly don’t think they are the root of all mental health problems, but they’re not harmless either. 

My main problem with these jokes is that for some, they are easy ways to talk about our personal issues without really examining them. For me, I found that I was unwilling to acknowledge that my self-esteem was deteriorating, even when I became the first person to put myself down. I didn’t recognize when the self-deprecating humour stopped being a joke. I missed the point when people weren’t laughing along. In hindsight, the laughter of my friends was probably given out of empathy until the degree that I put myself down made them uncomfortable. 

A cousin of self-deprecating humour is apologizing profusely for things that no one should ever apologize for, such as asking for someone’s time, or passively existing in a space. I used to do this often, and honestly, it’s hard for me to stop. But while it is important to take accountability for things that actually bring harm or offense to someone else, it is just as important to recognize when self-blame is being assigned for things outside of individual control, or that no one else finds fault for. An easy way to break this habit is to replace “sorry” with “thank you.” For example, when late to a meeting with a friend, thank them for waiting instead of immediately apologizing for being later. That way, both parties get to feel positively impacted by the recognition of a less-than-ideal situation. 

What changed my mind about my habit of self-deprecating humour was a Tumblr post about switching jokes that put ourselves down with jokes that lift us up. The author insists that self-aggrandizing jokes are still accessible in the same way to our peers, but they don’t do internal harm to the person making the joke. 

When I read this, I realized that I was much more willing to make jokes at my own expense, including incredibly dark jokes that prodded at my self-esteem, than I was to elevate myself in silly ways. As the author says, self-aggrandizing jokes are good practice for talking about oneself positively, which I was at the time very uncomfortable with doing. But reading the post was pivotal in helping me both replace self-harming language with something more loving, and to realize the hurt I had been inflicting on myself. 

I want to make the disclaimer that this is by no means a dig at people who make similar jokes about themselves. Sometimes it’s the first way we become comfortable talking about how we perceive our personal faults. I wouldn’t want to take away from that. Nor am I telling anyone that talking about oneself positively is a sure-fire solution to all mental health problems. However it is still necessary to acknowledge that negatively joking about ourselves isn’t entirely harmless. I still catch myself making similar jokes, and personally, I know I’m doing more harm than good. 

If any of this has rung true to you, or to a friend you know, please reach out to them or seek out the people in your life that you can talk to — your family, a mental health specialist, or some trusted friends. Explore where the instinct to make these jokes comes from, and some possible healthier ways to communicate your inner self-doubts.