Ruthless Self-Scrutiny: The Girl Who Put Herself Down

On a number of recent occasions, a well-meaning friend has pointed out that I often put myself down. Apparently that bothers her. It bothers me, too, because I try pretty hard to be positive. People who constantly put themselves down are annoying. I don’t want to be that girl.

The thing is, I don’t really think that I am that girl. But I also want to be open to criticism, especially from a well-intentioned friend. Time for RUTHLESS SELF-SCRUTINY.

Do I put myself down too much? I don’t think so, but it’s possible.

Could I be doing it without realizing it? Highly unlikely.

I pride myself on being self-aware. My four older siblings made sure of that. They found comedy in my every move, whether I intended to be funny or not. And they reminded me of my unintentionally hilarious behavior for years afterwards, especially on those rare occasions when I had a boy around.

My mother also contributed to my exceptional level of self-awareness by promptly squelching what she perceived as attention-seeking behavior. Any time I put myself down, I was “fishing for compliments.” Any time I said something positive about myself, I was being conceited. Any big outbursts would get me labelled “Sarah Heartburn” and were regarded as disingenuous or manipulative. There really was no safe way to express feelings about myself.

I learned to watch every word I said. I still tend to think very hard about everything I say about myself, anticipate how it might be perceived. For instance, if I’m feeling fat and ugly, I’m sure as hell not going to say, “I feel fat and ugly,” because STOP FISHING FOR COMPLIMENTS. I will just feel fat and ugly quietly to myself. Never mind that everyone feels fat and ugly sometimes. DON’T SAY THAT OUT LOUD.

So, I’m going to rule out the possibility that I put myself down without realizing it. If I do it, I’m definitely aware that I’m doing it. But if I know it’s annoying, why would I do it?

Here are some situations in which I, knowingly, might say something negative about myself:

  1. For comedy. Self-deprecating humor, in small doses, is funny because it’s highly relatable. You’ve got to laugh at yourself sometimes. People get it and they laugh with you. Read the Mattress Adventures post about how I have no idea how to pick up a man. It’s true. And it’s kind of funny, don’t you think?
  2. For relatability in general. Admitting a weakness, like a lack of self-confidence in a particular area, helps people trust you. They see your vulnerability and feel safe to expose their own. Revealing vulnerability could be perceived as putting myself down, but I’m not going to stop doing it because I want other people to trust that they can be vulnerable with me, too.
  3. Because I actually need to talk about it. (This one only applies when I’m with my very closest friends. I don’t unload this stuff on strangers.) There are things I don’t like about myself. There are things I wish I could change. When I’m with my very close friends, I want to be able to talk about everything. I don’t want to pretend that everything is fine and I feel invincible. Sometimes I feel like a fucked-up mess. Sometimes I want to talk about that. Sometimes I want to hear that I am not a fucked-up mess, but usually I just want to hear someone else say, “Yeah, I feel like that sometimes, too.”

Those all sound like good reasons to me. I’m a big believer in transparency. When we hide the things we don’t like about ourselves and we pretend everything is great, we do ourselves and others a disservice. Insecurity feeds on shame and isolation. We’re so afraid people will find out what’s wrong with us…talking about insecurities discharges that fear and helps us feel connected.

But there’s another reason I talk about insecurities. Take this conversation I had with a guy on Tinder, for example.

During our very first exchange, we played The Question Game. He asked, “What are you most insecure about, specifically?”

I said, “My body.”

He said, “That’s too vague. Be specific.”

I said, “Man, you’re ruthless! Fine…I’m insecure about my weight and my skin.”

He said, “Great. Aren’t you glad we got that out of the way?”

And I was glad. I was relieved. When I eventually met this guy, I felt like I’d already pointed out the ugliest parts of myself, and since he hadn’t objected to them, he wouldn’t reject me based on those factors.

Telling this story now, I realize that I do that even when I’m not directly asked: I point out my shortcomings, the things I’m insecure about, before anyone can judge me for them. It’s like a preemptive strike– a self-inflicted preemptive strike. Under the guise of transparency or humor, I’ll tell you what’s wrong with me before you can point it out. You can’t hurt me; I’ll do it first.

Yikes. When I start to write about touchy-feely stuff like this, I figure things out. Obviously I have to knock that preemptive shit off.

But I’m not giving up my transparency or my ability to laugh at myself.

Owning your flaws for the sake of connection is fine. Pointing them out in a twisted self-defense maneuver is not.

In general, I feel pretty good about who I am. I don’t always feel beautiful or confident or like I have my act together. (Sometimes I do! Sometimes all three at once!) But I’m smart and funny and loving, traits that are way more important and permanent anyway. I don’t think I put myself down too often; I think I’m a vulnerable, open, self-aware human who is honest about her shortcomings and occasionally needs reassurance.

But just in case, I’ll pay attention to how often I speak negatively about myself. And more importantly, why.

Beginning, for Somewhat Ineffective People

If you’ve spent any time in corporate America, or in the self-help aisle of the bookstore, you know about Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  I have spent a great deal of time in both, so I’m pretty familiar with the Seven Habits.  I admire them, I respect them, and occasionally I even try to practice them.  Alas, I’m still not terribly effective.

Habit #2 is “Begin with the end in mind.”   The idea is to have a clear picture of what you’re trying to achieve—a detailed, crystal-clear vision of the result you want.  This applies not only to building mousetraps or what-have-you, but to your whole life—envision the life you want and the things that are important to you, and make your choices accordingly.

(You people who have your acts together—you Highly Effective People– can stop reading right here. Go make some choices and be effective.  Somewhat Ineffective People, please continue.  You might find this helpful.)

Here’s my problem: I can’t picture the end. I don’t know exactly what I want.  I’m almost 40, and my life vision is as clear as mud.  I put a lot of mental energy into it. I do workshops, take tests, see therapists…. I make some decisions, get my vision all squared away, and then change my mind. While all this thinking is going on, nothing gets done.

That’s highly ineffective.

But a couple months ago, my aimless wandering paid off in an unexpected lesson.   I took a painting class on right-brain painting at The Art Bar in Santa Ana. The instructor was Whitney Ferré.

The class wasn’t about creating fine art or learning techniques. It was about quieting your left brain—the logical, linear, rule-based side—and allowing your right brain to do its intuitive, free-form, creative thing.  For the sake of the lesson, we were going to paint owls. That’s all I knew.

Also, I could bring wine…wine and painting is a good combination.

Each person was given a big, blank canvas, a paper plate with some paint on it, and a fairly chunky paint brush.

The first instruction was to cover the canvas with paint. “Just cover it,” Whitney said, “It doesn’t matter what it looks like; you’re going to paint over this part anyway.  Don’t worry about the colors. This part is just to get you past your fear of the blank canvas.”

For the record, I’m a crafty girl. I like step-by-step tutorials, templates, and pre-coordinated collections of fashionable colors.  I like to see a completed example of what I’m about to make, so I can mimic it. I’m good at that.

So I wasn’t exactly comfortable with this “it doesn’t matter” approach. I didn’t even get to pick my colors. How was I supposed to know what I was going for, without an example?  In this case, I really, really wanted to have the end in mind.

But, I’m also a conflict-avoidant girl, so I just did as I was told and covered the canvas.  My plate had red, yellow and white paint on it, so my canvas turned all kinds of gorgeous shades of pink and orange.  It was lovely.

The next step was to paint an outline of an owl using basic shapes.  (For this step, she did give us some examples to copy. We were a bunch of beginners, so we needed some help.)

Reluctantly, I took my chunky paint brush and, with black paint, slopped an outline of an owl over my pretty sunset background. It didn’t look like Whitney’s; it was kind of lopsided and way too big, but whatever.  I was sipping my wine and happily covering my canvas, and the “it doesn’t matter” approach was growing on me.

Just then, Whitney said, “Now get some different colors, and fill in the shapes you’ve created.  Just paint right over your background.”

WAIT! Those are my favorite colors! I don’t want to paint over them!

“And you’ll paint over the next layer, too, so don’t worry about the end yet.  Don’t worry about how it’s going to turn out.”

ARGH!  What kind of stupid art lesson was this? Don’t worry about how it’s going to turn out? I heard my corporate-trained left-brain squawking all kinds of effectiveness at me; I could feel myself obsessing.

With eerie timing, Whitney advised the class, “Don’t obsess. You’re taking yourself too seriously. That’s ego.”

Well, far be it for me to have EGO. I painted over the orange. I tried to pick other colors I like just as well, like aqua. Maybe some purple.

Dang, it was turning out cool.

After a quick lesson in color strategy, a couple more layers and a little more wine, my painting was complete:  a big kooky owl with goofy eyes and ridiculously bright colors. He looks like he dropped some acid and flew through a rainbow and landed on my canvas. I love him.

I love that silly owl every time I look at it, and here’s why: because I tried something new, I didn’t know how it was going to turn out, I shut off my ego and my need to be CORRECT, and out came something colorful and fun.   It’s a product of my own fearless, intuitive right brain.

The moral of the story is this: if you can’t begin with the end in mind, begin anyway.  Just try.  Sometimes the vision takes shape after you pick up your brush, or start typing, or say hello.  Sometimes it evolves after some layering, some learning, or a glass of wine. The important thing is to be open to all kinds of beginnings. Don’t worry so much about being effective. Just begin.

Here I am in The Art Bar with Whitney Ferre and my owl painting.