self-deprecating, from Phyllis Diller to Amy Schumer

amy-schumer-will-not-clean-your-apartment-photo-u1Self-deprecation is belittling or undervaluing oneself, and I’ve been seeing it a lot lately. I think it’s time to stop it.  

You know who often models self-deprecation? Female comedians: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham, and Amy Schumer. Before them, women like Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers made self-deprecation a high art. I love them all but maybe we need to take a look at this: “I’m so unorganized that…, I’m not saying I’m a slut, but…, Let me tell you how screwed up I am.”  

Some people believe that female comedians have to do the self-deprecation bit. Here’s the logic. They are fundamentally so smart and therefore so intimidating, to both men and women, that if they were to “play it straight” without the self-deprecation, their jokes would not be accepted, and they would be considered intellectual bitches. In a misogynous environment do you really want to show how smart you are? 

Those who belittle themselves are often seen as simply not having self-esteem, but it’s more complicated than that. Self-deprecation takes place among women of different ages and in many different contexts. For example, there have been lots of studies about how women in the workplace downplay and belittle their own skills and accomplishments. I’ve seen this, and probably done it myself. 

If you work in a sexist environment, where men believe they are entitled to recognition, raises, and promotions, it’s just not good to “stick out” and look good, or you’ll definitely be passed over, so you soften your competence with self-deprecation. In order to save your skin, you belittle yourself, maybe even ingratiate yourself with the powers that be.

Young women still talk about themselves, and especially their looks, in derogatory and self-deprecating ways. In school, or the social environment, for many reasons, they can’t draw too much attention to themselves. Sadly, it seems these days a young woman who looks self-confident can be the target of bullying or worse. 


Self-deprecation for survival? This is a crazy phenomenon. While women are getting stronger in many areas of their lives, they’re still hiding, obfuscating, and fending off notice in other areas.


Not being able to take a compliment, is the thin edge of the wedge when it comes to self-deprecation. You don’t have to actually do anything, you simply negate what’s being said. Up until a few years ago, I was not able to take a compliment. I would squirm this way and that to wriggle out of a compliment.

One day I had to take a good look at what I was doing. I realized that it was just disingenuous of me not to accept the compliment. I had to admit that sometimes I believed the compliment, it was true. Finally, I understood that I had simply acquired a bad habit. The questions was, where had I learned it?  

Self-deprecation can often result in nurturing and a protective attitude towards the one who does it by those witnessing it, but it can also backfire. After awhile, the self-deprecation seems to take on a whiny aspect, and no one likes whiny. If taken a step further, it’s just plain depressing. We get tired of hearing about how fat you are, how you’re not that smart, and how that thing you accomplished was not such a big deal.




  • Carla says:

    yes. You are so right. Being able to be self-deprecating can be a fabulous skill for putting others at ease – – but when done not well or too often it really does become whiny and depressing. The “skill” is something which so few possess.

    • Anita Irlen says:


      Yes, it is good for putting people at ease. But I think you’d agree that it’s become part of the way women do things to “get along.” It just brings us all down I think. Thanks

  • Jennifer says:

    It’s a vicious cycle. When I hear a woman begin a sentence with a pre-apology it makes me cringe!

  • Definitely not my humor. As for people who can’t take a compliment I want to say to them: Please. Just. Say. Thank. You.

    I thought this post captured much of what I find frustrating about self-deprecating routines. I’d much rather hear them complain about commonly annoying others.

  • I love to give and receive compliments! I will go out of my way to tell strangers what I think of their look or what they are wearing or to tell friends how well they’re doing, etc. and I think that when you compliment regularly, it gets easier to receive them yourself.

    I love your shop BTW! Great work, Anita! xx

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *