When People Speak Poorly About Themselves

A team member came to me: “I’m so sorry! This client entered this information wrong, so it didn’t work correctly in our system. Stupid me tried to fix it, but I didn’t realize that undoing it would undo some other parts of their entry that needed to stay. That’s just me being stupid, not thinking. Can I just re-submit all the correct parts?”

I had to scratch my head. Sure, there had been a mistake made, but it was entirely on the client’s part, and the way my team member was fixing it was exactly right. There was no mistake on her part, nothing she did wrong. She was not being stupid. In fact, if anything, she was being resourceful, taking ownership of the situation, and doing a good job problem-solving. But every day, she seemed to be more sure that she was just terrible at her job. I needed to help her change her mind about herself.

There’s an overarching reason this matters: My team member is a real person deep down, who shouldn’t be hurting inside unnecessarily, and I get to be a part of that journey with her.

“[Managers must realize] the almost sacredness of their responsibility for the lives of so many people. [Managers’ fundamental task is] providing the enabling conditions for people to lead the most enriching lives they can.” – Bill O’Brien, Former President of Hanover Insurance

From a leadership and business standpoint, there’s even more to it:

The Effects of Self-Deprecation in Business

Googling Self-Deprecation gives you this quick definition: “The act of reprimanding oneself by belittling, undervaluing, or disparaging oneself, or being excessively modest.”

Being aware of your weaknesses and owning up to your mistakes is very healthy in business. But disparaging yourself does serious harm, especially when excessive self-deprecation becomes a habit.

When a team member is too negative about his or her self (both inwardly and outwardly) it has serious effects on both that person and the entire team. That means productivity and morale take a hit. It even reaches as far as affecting the branding your business has with outsiders. Here are just a few ways it can screw things up:

1. Doing big things takes self-confidence.

As the great writer Samuel Johnson put it, “Self-confidence is the first requisite to great undertakings.” If you truly believe your negative self-talk, you lose your own motivation to try accomplishing bigger tasks. If you don’t believe you can grow and succeed, you won’t put much into it. And if your negative self-talk is just a show for now, don’t let the power of repeated words take you by surprise: You’ll start to believe yourself eventually.

2. A negative focus discourages the people around you.

If something as insignificant as a rainy day can drain people of their happiness and energy, being surrounded by negative talk will certainly do the trick. When your go-to behavior when confronted with a challenge is to berate yourself (instead of just finding the solution), the people around you get discouraged. (This applies to speaking negatively of others, too. Too much negativity just brings people down.)

3. You make yourself seem less dependable.

This is an important point for those who might put on an airs of humility by speaking poorly about oneself. You may think you’re convincing the people around you that you’re modest, not cocky, a team player, one of the nice guys. Instead, people are beginning to see you as less dependable for one of two reasons: a) They believe what you’re saying; Or b) they know the psychological toll your negativity is taking on you and the team.

4. Outsiders lose faith in your business.

When the public catches wind of your blaming yourself for every little hiccup, they believe you. Why shouldn’t they? After all, you know your business better than they. They’re not there every day to see that you really are dependable. They just hear, “I’m bad at serving you. You can’t count on me.” So being hard on yourself in front of clients and customers, especially when completely inaccurate, is doing more damage to your company’s bottom line than you might realize.

Why Self-Deprecation Happens

Those are just a few of the many ways talking poorly about yourself does a lot of harm. But even those alone are plenty of reasons to help break this habit wherever we see it. As with fixing anything, finding a real solution requires understanding the ultimate causes of the problem. Otherwise, we’d be fighting symptoms.

For instance: “Stop talking so poorly about yourself! That’s very irresponsible and it’s bringing the team down! I don’t want to hear any more of it!” Such a confrontation would be directly attacking the symptom, but would probably just make the person’s self-esteem worse–which just leads to less confidence and more negative self-talk.

Also important to note is that solving the problem requires understanding the different nuances of each case. I might practice self-deprecation because I think it makes me look better, while you might do it because you truly believe you’re worthless. Those are two dramatically different problems that need attention, and there’s no one-size-fits-all fix.

Since every case is a little different (really a lot, since it starts with the day you realize your mommy is disappointed with you for picking flowers from her garden, gets worse when your date breaks up with you, and continues straight through your career full of critical bosses and angry customers)–I’ll just suggest just a few examples (real examples, fake names):

1. Childhood emotional abuse

Dan’s parents treated him like crap. They “loved” him, but it was a “tough love,” really a misguided attempt at giving him humility. His parents, in reacting to their own experiences with arrogant people, decided Dan was going to grow up self-aware–especially aware of his shortcomings.

They lovingly tried to help Dan examine each and every decision he made (even down to how he spent his free time), constantly questioning his choices and suggesting he could be doing better.

Dan heard one thing: You’re not good enough. You always do things wrong.

And it stuck with him.

2. A heavy-handed boss

Jessica had the greatest work ethic and a positive attitude. She was easy to get along with and was very dependable. This meant she quickly moved into a position of leadership at her first job.

As with any management position, she had lots of fires to put out. But every time there was a fire, no matter how much she’d take responsibility, ask for help, work overtime to make things better–no matter what, her boss yelled at her.

Of course her boss knew she was a good person, but he was insecure in his own position. He was afraid that if the numbers slid, he’d take the heat from his own crabby boss. So he laid the pressure on thick, the only way his experience had taught him how: Being heavy-handed.

Jessica worked for him humbly and patiently for three years before finally throwing in the towel. But by the time she left, the emotional scars were there. Her new set of glasses saw only one reality at work: I do a bad job.

3. Seeking positive attention

Sam had been in a relationship with the girl he loved for several years. As often happens, after the first several months, emotional attention wasn’t as automatic as it used to be. He started having to look for it.

At first he tried showering the love on his girlfriend, hoping she’d return it. She appreciated it immensely but didn’t get the hint. And sure she loved him, she just didn’t realize how much he needed to hear it.

So Sam started criticizing himself even when he didn’t really believe it. Every time he did, his girlfriend would come running to his defense. She cared deeply for him and didn’t want him to think badly about himself. So he learned that whenever he needed encouragement, he just had to say something depressing about himself, and he’d immediately get the support he needed. This relationship taught him how to function in the world: Belittle yourself so that others will praise you.

4. Why self-deprecation flourishes: The workplace bully

This isn’t an origin story–it’s a sad (and true) example of why self-deprecation flourishes on a team.

After learning that she always does things wrong from her first boss, Jessica moved on to another company with a nicer boss. Unfortunately, some of the team wasn’t so nice. Tanya quickly picked up on Jessica’s poor opinion of her work and she ran with it. Tanya had her own insecurities to deal with–she was afraid her own value to the team would be forgotten. So she protected herself by criticizing her teammates.

Jessica was the perfect victim. Tanya barely had to try. Tanya just affirmed to everyone Jessica’s own negativity about herself. Tanya didn’t really have it out for Jessica. Jessica was just collateral damage in Tanya’s war against her own insecurity. But every time Tanya picked on her a little more, Jessica’s self-esteem got weaker and weaker.

Bullying takes weak hearts and makes them weaker. Self-deprecation flourishes when there’s a bully on the team.

How to Help Break the Self-Deprecation Habit

Solving the problem of self-deprecation on your team is primarily a matter of identifying what the real root cause is in any given case. We looked at a few possible drivers, but the bottom line is that you have to do your homework. And the best way to find the root cause is to ask: Ask the one who needs to cut him or herself some slack. Ask a teammate who has been watching for a while. Ask yourself what patterns you’ve seen and stories you’ve heard. But especially: Ask the person him or herself. It’s amazing what you’ll learn just by starting an open conversation.

Once you understand what the real driver of the self-deprecation habit is in a particular case, the solution is as simple (not easy) as dealing with the lie at bottom of it:

You’re NOT worthless.

You DON’T do everything wrong.

You SHOULD be praised without having to manipulate for it.

I CANNOT allow bullying on my team.

I can’t emphasize enough that there is not one universal solution. Consider what would happen if you tried to help Sam (who learned self-deprecation as a way to manipulate more positive attention) by constantly responding with praise and affirmation. This would simply reinforce the underlying problem. It would solidify his belief that the best way to get respect and encouragement is by speaking poorly about himself. So it would only get worse. A smarter approach would be looking for times to frequently praise and encourage Sam when he isn’t seeking it. And when he does continue to berate himself, engage him in discussion–he might admit that he doesn’t actually believe what he’s saying. But don’t just reward the behavior. On the other hand, some immediate affirmation and praise might be needed desperately by Dan, who has lived his entire life genuinely believing that he’s a worthless basket case.

As a final reminder: Putting people down for putting themselves down is a bad idea. It’s the lazy answer, and it will just make matters worse.

So if you have team members who are bringing themselves down along with the team and even your entire brand, get to know their story. Why do they talk badly about themselves? And then–through honest coaching and daily reinforcing, prove to them that they’re better than that.

Your business will thank you. What’s more rewarding–your encouragement and coaching might just help people turn around their entire lives. You have a chance to help people learn to respect, love, and take care of themselves. That is awesome!


“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” – Henry Ford

Author: Peter Elbridge

I have a passion for helping others, and that is why I write. I believe that sharing our experiences and discoveries in life is the best way to make a difference. After all, we're all in this together. (My opinions and endorsements are my own and do not represent my employer.)

Thoughts, questions, tips, feedback? Please share!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: