Autistic people sometimes live a life where they are never good enough in the eyes of people important to them. Perhaps not “good enough” in the eyes of a parent, friends, classmates, or someone else’s eyes.
One response is to internalize this feeling of inadequacy. You believe yourself to be inadequate. So you express that. I understand that, I lived through it.
This is horrible for a person to feel. And sometimes there aren’t a lot of good ways to deal with this miserable life. You may discover self-deprecation. If you’re going to fail in other people’s eyes, you might as well be the person to say you’re inadequate – and beat anyone else to, getting a little bit of control. You can’t succeed, but you can take the words from others.
Of course this is not a positive thing. But understandable.
Where it becomes a problem is when it continues when the person can succeed. It then becomes not an expression of depression but rather of manipulation.
Once someone can succeed, the self-deprecation is now a manipulation. It can be used to get people to look at the person, give them attention, and even get others to give compliments.
It sometimes gets seen as humility (sometimes by the person acting in the self-deprecating way, sometimes by others). But it’s not humility. Humility doesn’t seek to gain control, while self-deprecation does. Humility allows someone to succeed and recognize their own success – self-deprecation actually draws attention to the success, by drawing other people into acknowledging the success. Humility doesn’t seek recognition, but self-deprecation attempts to pull out recognition from others. Humility is good. Self-deprecation is not (although sometimes it’s an understandable symptom of depression).
Self-deprecation attempts to control criticism. It seeks to get others to either sympathize with him (and tell him his being, attributes, or work are actually even better than they really are) or to see that he knows what is wrong and really is smart and able, just didn’t quite pull it off this time. Most people, being polite, will appear to sympathize outwardly.
Humility doesn’t control criticism. If someone says your work or attribute or being sucks, you analyze the truth of the statement and move past that. It allows for someone to point out a flaw you don’t know about. It also allows you to dismiss their opinion, if it isn’t well founded. Not all criticism is accurate, after all.
Simultaneously, self-deprecation not only controls criticism, but removes the need to act in it’s presence. You’ve already said it or you suck. So, what does the other person expect? You suck. You know that. You told them! If you suck, how can anyone expect you to do better? You don’t have to act, if you employ this strategy of manipulation.
Again, I think most people that practice this manipulation are doing it because of pain and hurt. They’ve probably had a horrible past. But, at the same time, it’s not always a good way of interacting with others and can become manipulative and ugly.
For myself, it took me quite some time before I could accept that a compliment was not just setting me up for abuse or humiliation. So I’d question a compliment, rather than accept it. Even when I was able to succeed, I’d deprecate. It was a bit of a habit and a bit of coping. But it wasn’t humble. It was still manipulative, even if it was developed as a strategy to cope with depression and horrible life circumstances. I needed to learn what was wrong with the self-deprecation, learn why I did it, and learn that, no, I don’t need to live in that way. I could be good at something. And someone else could tell me so – without me needing to set the stage about how horrible I was first. I could also be non-perfect, without the need to avoid all criticism by getting out in front of someone else’s criticism. I could just accept myself as I am (and recognize legitimate areas of improvement). And I could be wrong. That’s okay too.
When I continued that behavior past the places where I was being abused, and into places where I had plenty of positive feedback from others, it became manipulative. It could easily become ugly – a way to get people to do what I want them to do, while freeing myself from potential criticism. Not good. And it’s okay to not want someone to manipulate you in this way – that’s not abuse, it’s not wrong, and it’s okay to call out this behavior when you see it. It is bad behavior, even if it had a good reason. Just accepting it doesn’t help – it doesn’t help if it truly is a result of ongoing abuse (it instead facilitates the abuse – better to find the cause and get it taken care of!). Nor does it help if those things are long past and this is now just plain manipulation.
I’m definitely learning to live – and that a compliment may be just that. I may have done good! That part of my personality really might be good! And, yes, that criticism may even be valid (or not!). That’s all good. As I learn this, I learn that people’s opinions of me, while worth evaluating, are not what is important. Being as decent of a person as you can is important. Yes, you do need some positive input from other people. And too many autistics don’t get that. But at the same time, once that’s there, it’s freeing to recognize it and then let go of the need that is now met and to give up that manipulation of others.