Everything Else Training

Self-deprecation or modesty?

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“If self-deprecation was an Olympic sport, I probably wouldn’t even be good enough to get a medal” 

We’re British. It’s wired into our DNA. Self-deprecation is endearing. Self-deprecation is funny. Self-deprecation reminds us that we all have flaws. Most of all it prevents us from committing that most frowned-upon of British faux pas – blowing one’s own trumpet. Bigging oneself up? It’s simply not done, darling.

But could your endearing little habit actually be causing you harm? How often has someone said to you “that was a lovely round” to which you reply “well we left them all up, just, but I rode dreadfully”; or “26 dressage? Gosh, your test must have been amazing” “well I wish I had ridden the halts better”; or even “you have a lovely horse” “thank you, but the numpty on top rather lets him down”. The problem becomes that if you constantly put yourself down, even just out of politeness, you will eventually begin to believe your own publicity. Imagine if it were your best friend or partner making the disparaging remarks. You’d be furious, and annoyed by their constant negativity. You’d want to avoid them at crucial times and find someone more positive to be with. If your trainer constantly put you down – they’re allowed to be critical, but praise must be given where it’s due – you’d walk, and find a new trainer. So why do it to yourself?

The first step is to allow yourself to accept compliments without replying with a self-deprecating quip. So from the examples above: “that was a lovely round” or “26 dressage? Gosh, your test must have been amazing” could be followed by a simple “thanks, I was really pleased”. When someone picks out something you’ve done well, acknowledge the fact, rather than coming straight back with an example of something you do badly. You’re not blowing your own trumpet, but equally you’re not putting yourself down, even in jest.

The next step is to allow yourself to accept that the compliment-giver might have a point. If the round looked good to an observer, even if you thought there were places you could have done better, then you’ve probably done a pretty OK job. And pretty OK is often perfectly good enough! You may feel a little like the legs of the swan, frantically paddling away underwater, but if the observer saw the body serenely gliding along the surface then you’ve done a good job. So when they tell you that, take a minute to think “actually, yes. I did!”. I had a phonecall the other day from someone, and he mentioned at the end of it that he’d been meaning to tell me for ages how well my horse had gone at a certain event. In fact he said it looked the best in the class. Did I mumble “well, thanks for saying it, but I’m sure there were loads there better than me”? Nope, not a chance. I thanked him very much and told him how much his opinion meant. I have been thinking about it on and off ever since and although my natural instinct would have been to think “well, we did OK that day”, the fact that I’ve been able to both accept and believe in the compliment has changed my self-belief in a positive way.

I read a lot of blogs, particularly those of amateur eventers, and I believe they really stand out, especially in comparison to other sports, for the amount that people put themselves down. Sometimes I wonder what they’re trying to achieve from the blog. Whether it’s for the benefit of current or potential owners and sponsors, an update for friends or simply a record of the day for the blogger to reflect on at the end of the season, there is nothing to be gained by adopting the all-too-common self-deprecating tone. It’s so pervasive now that it very rarely even appears endearing, unless it is done very, very well. I am crying out to read an honest blog where accomplishments are celebrated and the writer only puts themselves down where it is truly justified. Modesty is absolutely fine, having so little self-belief that even a win can be written about in the tone of a failure is not.

Next time you watch an interview with a top professional sportsman in any sphere take a note of their attitude. It is rare that anything other than positivity is the over-riding tone. No Olympic medal winner ever said “well, I got the gold, but really, I’m not all that good at running. It’s all come as a bit of a surprise”.

Let’s make 2015 the year when we drop this annoying, slightly pretentious and potentially damaging habit. If you’ve done well, say so. If you’re given a compliment, accept it. Be modest by all means, but leave the self-deprecation to Hugh Grant in Four Weddings. No-one’s going to give you a BAFTA for it, after all.

About the author

The Eventing Vet

4 Comments

  • This is so true, I think it’s a habit which can become toxic. I do it all the time and make a joke of it, while wondering what is coming out of my mouth. I am trying to force myself to stop doing it professionally too, I wonder how much of it is a female thing?

  • Mea culpa, I fear…! But I think there is a difference between gratuitous self-deprecation on the one hand, and taking a good-humoured poke at oneself and one’s shortcomings, on the other. If taken to task on any points in my blogs, I hope I could back them all up!