Self-deprecating humour: when does it help and when does it damage your mental health?


Self-defacing comedy is one of the most popular forms of comedy. We see lots of stand-up comedians do it, and the genre is ever-expanding. Most of us have heard people make fun of themselves, laughed at their jokes, and used self-deprecation ourselves. 


In moderation, self-deprecating humour isn’t necessarily harmful to our mental health, nor does it point to deeper issues such as self-loathing or lack of self-esteem. However, self-mockery can also be detrimental. When used to hide anger and insecurities, self-deprecating humour is no longer comforting. 

Here’s how you can strike a balance and use your humour in a healthy way:  

Self-deprecating humour can be a good thing: the benefits of laughing at yourself. 

First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that not all self-deprecating humour is bad. When used in moderation, self-deprecating humour actually signals high emotional intelligence, helps us diffuse awkward situations, and appeals to a sense of modesty and humility that many of us search for. 

Joking about our flaws and imperfections can be healthy. According to a 2018 study, people with self-deprecating humour exhibit greater levels of emotional well-being and sociability. It can help you build more positive relationships, develop an optimistic outlook on life, and boost emotional resilience; at an organisation level, leaders who occasionally use self-deprecating humour can be perceived as more likeable and approachable. 

But all studies that investigated the positive effects of self-deprecating humour mention one important keyword: moderation. When self-deprecating humour becomes a reflex and stems from feelings and inadequacy and self-loathing, it can be detrimental to your mental health. 

When does self-deprecating humour become detrimental?

When used in a healthy way and in moderation, self-deprecating humour has a purpose: to defuse an embarrassing situation, come to terms with your imperfections, or simply to make a light-hearted joke. However, when all your jokes are based on mocking yourself, and your instinct is to use self-deprecation at inappropriate times, you may need to do some self-reflection to understand why you react this way. 


Do you use self-deprecating humour so as not to come across as arrogant and lighten the mood, or do you use it when you’re alone and with no particular reason? If you constantly speak to yourself in a way that puts you down, even if it’s in a humorous tone, this can lower your self-esteem and even lead to self-loathing. 


Self-deprecating humour can put your imperfections in a lighter perspective, but when it validates your insecurities and stems from self-loathing, it isn’t healthy. 


One way to realise whether you use self-deprecating humour in a damaging way is to look at your ability to take a compliment. If you’re quick to make fun of yourself, but when someone makes you a compliment and you feel uncomfortable accepting it, you may have self-esteem issues, and you should try to use self-deprecating humour less. Otherwise, those jokes can slowly affect your mental health, making you look at yourself from a negative perspective. 


Quite often, the way others react to your self-deprecating jokes can be a good indicator of whether your habit is unhealthy. For example, if nobody laughs at your jokes and you get concerned looks and an awkward silence instead, you should take a note of that and reflect on why your joke made people uncomfortable. This also applies when friends tell you that your self-deprecating jokes have gone too far and that you should think better of yourself. 


Keep in mind that, in certain contexts, self-deprecating humour might also harm your reputation. For example, it’s never a good idea to make fun of your imperfections during a job interview or when you’re new in the company because people might actually believe you. While there’s a time and place for modesty, you should also be able to accept a compliment and celebrate your achievements. 

How to draw the line and use self-deprecating humour in a healthy way 

If you’re worried that your self-deprecating humour is affecting your mental health, here are some strategies on how to strike a balance: 

Use journaling 

Quite often, we perpetuate certain thought and behavioural patterns without being aware of where they come from and why they’re harmful. By writing your thoughts in a journal, you’ll be able to detect these patterns (in this case, self-loathing thoughts), which makes it easier to stop them. Don’t worry if you don’t have writing talent; you won’t be needing it. You’ll be the only one reading the journal, and the purpose of journaling is to recognise your own triggers, not necessarily to create a work of art. 

Practice self-love 

Self-deprecating humour becomes detrimental when you can only speak about yourself in a negative way and accepting a compliment feels uncomfortable. To prevent self-deprecating humour from affecting your self-esteem, practice self-love and positive self-thought. When someone compliments you, don’t answer back by making a self-deprecating joke. You will be remembered for making them feel awkward. Being able to accept a compliment and love yourself doesn’t mean you’re arrogant or gloating.  

Learn to analyse the context 

It’s difficult to tell precisely when self-deprecating jokes are effective and when they fall flat because there are a lot of subjective factors to take into account. However, one way to find out where to draw the line is to analyse people’s reactions to your jokes and read the situation. If no one seems to enjoy your humour or friends reply to self-deprecating jokes with concerned reassuring statements, that’s a good indicator that you should stop them because they’re eating away at your self-esteem. 

Talk to a therapist. 

If you believe that you have low self-esteem and use self-deprecating humour to hide your insecurities, a therapist can help you understand the root of the problem and stop negative thought patterns. Although this form of humour might seem harmless or perhaps even enjoyable at first, when you use it excessively, it becomes an unhealthy coping mechanism, and a therapist can help you break free of it. 

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