The trouble with self-deprecation

Faith & Inspiration

Self-deprecation is an old family trait in my clan, one of those “futile ways inherited from your forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18).

I just looked up “self-deprecation,” and one definition is “consciousness of one’s shortcomings,” but that is not what I am talking about. It is a good thing to know one’s shortcomings, at least to the purpose of confessing them if they are sins.

The second definition I found is more in keeping with my assertion that self-deprecation is a “futile way” that must be renounced: “tending to belittle or devalue oneself and one’s abilities.”

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So steeped was I in the art of self-deprecation from my upbringing that in adulthood I missed many an opportunity to praise my children when they should have been praised. (For you see, a world-class self-deprecator will not only put down himself but also his family.) When one of my children was a newborn, and a friend came to see, I momentarily forgot my carefully honed self-deprecation and exclaimed unselfconsciously, “Isn’t she beautiful!” which evoked a raised eyebrow from the visitor and caused me to double down henceforth in my inveterate self-deprecation.

But in that aforementioned incident, far from being caught in the act of pride, I had been caught in an extremely rare act of self-forgetfulness. Actually, self-deprecation is intensely self-centered, just the opposite of what it appears.

The devilishness of self-deprecation came to light again more recently when I quipped to someone that I am an idiot at technology. Over time, I came to see that the person I had made that remark to was also bad at technology. And so, in devaluing myself I had unwittingly managed to devalue the other person. If that woman was already struggling with feelings of worthlessness on the geek meter, I only succeeded in doing further injury to her. Furthermore, I introduced an invidious comparison scheme in which she and I would both now be conscious of our respective abilities in this area, even if a word were never uttered.

The Bible, as usual, speaks to the issue: “… when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding.” True understanding is to admit what you have done well and to admit what you do not. All our actions are done before God, not man. God is the only “audience” who really counts. Paul the apostle did not shrink back from admitting he was a hard worker:

“… I worked harder than any of them …”

Then he hastened to give the glory to God:

“… though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

The Scripture’s teaching on the variety of gifts of the Spirit (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12) is true sanity and a wonderful corrective to both boasting and self-deprecation. For all of us are good at something and lousy at something. And if we could only get that through our skulls, we would be freed once and for all to speak comfortably of our strengths and faults, and those of our brothers.

Andrée Seu Peterson
Andrée Seu Peterson

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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