Why Do I Put Myself Down?

By Greg Baer M.D.

April 2, 2014

I received the following email:

“It comes all too naturally to me to put myself down and demonstrate to people all my undesirable qualities. Why do I do that?”

Many people condemn themselves a lot. You’re not alone. They say things like:
“Oh, I just can’t do that.”
“I’m just not very good at that.”
“I’m just lazy.”
“I’m just a terrible mother, that’s all.”
“I don’t know how to do anything.”
“I’m just irresponsible.”
“I never was good at that.”
“I've always been afraid. It’s just part of who I am.”

Why do they do that? Lots of reasons. It’s important to remember that people put themselves down because they GET something from it. We all engage in behaviors that somehow WORK for us. What do these people get? To be more direct, what do YOU get from putting yourself down?

1. You avoid attacks. If you criticize yourself first, it tends to rob others of their chance to criticize you. You achieve a measure of safety.

2. You avoid responsibility. Once you’ve labeled yourself as utterly unable to do a thing, people tend to actually believe you. They believe you can’t do that thing, so often they quit expecting you to be responsible for that ability or task. What a relief.

3. You can create opportunities to receive instant sympathy and support. Look at how many of the examples of self put downs above include the word “just.” This word so often used as an excuse and a pitiable plea for sympathy. Other examples might include:

“I was just trying to help.” Translation: Poor little me, I was JUST trying to help—that’s ALL I was trying to do—so how could you possible be so heartless and cruel as to judge that I made a mistake.

“I’m just a bad mother.” The word “just” instantly turns this into a plea for sympathy. It means, Poor me, I’m a bad mother, and there’s JUST nothing I can do about it. Condemning me would be so unkind and unsupportive. And with that implied meaning, people almost always jump to your defense, don’t they? “Oh no, honey, you’re not a bad mother,” people say with a sympathetic tone and furrowed brow. People feel obligated to sympathize with a victim in pain.

4. You MIGHT be perceived as telling the truth and therefore as open and humble. If you condemn yourself, especially in the Real Love community, people might congratulate you on your honesty. But then you can stop right there, having manipulated them for the praise and understanding you wanted. You can “just” keep condemning yourself without really doing anything about your relative inadequacies.

5. You MIGHT actually BE telling the truth and creating opportunities to be unconditionally accepted and loved. It’s possible, but the overwhelming likelihood is that you’re getting the unproductive benefits above. How can you know the difference between putting yourself down in a victim way vs. actually telling the truth about yourself? Not difficult. If you’re doing the latter, you will then take real steps toward correcting the flaw you’re describing.

To be fair, there are some situations where you could tell the truth about a flaw without being a victim, and still not take steps toward correcting it. I could, for example, say, “I just have no talent for sculpting,” or downhill racing on skis, or whatever. And I’m just stating a fact, with no interest in sympathy or in doing anything about that “disability.”

The bottom line is that we can APPEAR to be telling the truth about our mistakes, when often we’re really manipulating people in the ways just described.

Don't know where to start?

Start here:

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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