The Difference Between Humility and Self-Deprecation

Often, when I give my friends a compliment, they minimize it or don’t accept it. To be honest, sometimes I do that too. Sometimes it’s because I don’t believe I deserve the praise; sometimes it’s because I don’t like being in the spot light. At times, I will even go as far as to point out what was wrong with the thing I am being praised for. I criticize the praise! When I do this, I often think to myself “If someone else says that to me, I would find them rude. And yet, I can’t stop me from saying it to myself!”

The discomfort that occurs inside when we get praise is interesting. We are so used to being critical, that getting little doses of positive feedback is hard to process. To bring comfort to ourselves we do what we know: we go into critical mode.

Socially, women have been taught that humility is an appropriate, moral behaviour. We shouldn’t be arrogant, egotistical, or relish in praise. We should be modest and support others while staying in the background. Kind of like a superhero, if you think of it. We try to do amazing deeds while concealing our identities or our part in the work. However, there is a difference between not expecting or giving yourself praise when the good deed is done, and tearing yourself down when given praise.

Humility is the act of being humble, or modest. It addresses intrinsic self-worth as it relates to a greater context (ranking, level of expertise). It provides a greater, more realistic perspective of the act that you are receiving praise for. Self-deprecation, on the other hand, is when you under-value yourself, often beyond reason. It simply is negating your abilities.

Here’s an example. When you’ve made a dessert for the first time, after having it at a restaurant. It might not have turned out as well as the restaurant version, but it was still pretty good. Someone might say, “That dessert was delicious.”

The humble response: “Thank you, I wanted to try this recipe out after having it at a restaurant. It wasn’t as good as at the restaurant, but it wasn’t bad for my first try. I have ideas of how to improve it in the future.”

The self-deprecating response: “Oh, it wasn’t that great. It’s nothing like the one I had at the restaurant. I baked it a few minutes too long, and the berries were too sour…”

It is easy to slip from humility to self-deprecation. We do it for a number of reasons. Often self-deprecation is used as a form of humor, to make fun of your shortcomings. However there is a fine line between being able to laugh at yourself and sacrificing your self-worth for others’ amusement. If it would be offensive to say that about someone else, then likely it’s not humble humor. Also, many of us practice self-deprecation to ensure that we don’t seem arrogant or egotistical. We feel so uncomfortable with tooting our own horn that we dismiss or diminish it when others do.

I strongly encourage you to consider how you receive compliments, and question whether you are humble or self-deprecating. Continuing in self-deprecation mode can have long term effects on your self-worth, as well as your relationship with others. If you want to improve in this area here are some tips on how to practice humility without becoming self-deprecating:

  • If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. If you think you can’t keep the rest of the response neutral or positive, just say “thank you.” Don’t follow up with a self-criticism.
  • Reframe faults. If you feel compelled to point out a fault, don’t just stop with the self-criticism: either pair it with something you did right or share the learning you received from this mishap.
  • Share the spotlight. If you don’t mind the praise, but don’t like feeling “singled out”, share what/who contributed to your little success.
  • Keep a realistic perspective. No one is expecting you to be a professional at everything you do. When they give you a compliment, they are acknowledging that your efforts are above an average person’s abilities. Take it as such.
  • Brace yourself. Before saying anything, stop and take a breath. I find I often put my hands on my heart when I’m experiencing something intensely emotional, even when getting praise. It helps with the awkward discomfort. What do you do to physically sooth yourself when in uncomfortable situations?

I encourage you to go out and test this out. Start with giving others genuine compliments and see how they respond. If they are humble, learn from them! If they are self-deprecating, edit the response in your mind to a humble one. And of course, take more notice when you are receiving praise.