Hugo Schwyzer’s latest post on Jezebel, ‘I Suck’: How Guys Use Self-Deprecation Against You, makes a strong case that a lot of men use self-deprecation to avoid stepping up and manipulate women into soothing their shame and anxiety. I think he’s partly right that it’s often a defense mechanism that many men use to dodge difficult or unpleasant tasks like housework. I know a few guys who did some household chores badly, got self-shamey about it, and never had to do them again since their girlfriends took over. So I know there’s some truth to what he’s saying. And there are also nuances that are worth unpacking.
Some men use self-shame as a way to defuse a situation and avoid being attacked. It’s important to be clear that this is hardly limited to men’s interactions with women. In his book Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self, Donald Nathanson describes two common ways that people respond to experiences of shame. (These aren’t the only patterns he discusses, but they’re the ones that are relevant here.)
Sometimes, we attack the other. It’s a really common way to avoid taking responsibility, distract the other person, and keep them off balance. It’s pretty familiar to a lot of people, I know.
But less well-recognized is attacking the self. One way that we sometimes try to keep other people from shaming us is to shame ourselves. We might say something like, “you know I’ve never been able to manage this” because if we jump to the self-blame, the other person has much less reason to express their anger. It’s a really effective way to dodge it.
That’s not the only way that shows up, of course. It’s common, for example, for women to talk about how they’re fat or how they’re bad for eating junk food. There are lots of reasons for that, but one of them is that if someone says it first, it makes it less likely that her friend will comment. Self-deprecation and self-shaming make us smaller, and therefore (so the logic says), less worth attacking.
At the same time, lots of people learn to use this tool to manipulate other folks and get what they want. It might be deliberate, but it can also be a habit that we develop because it works so often. You don’t need to know how it does, just that it does. And as Hugo said in a twitter conversation we had about it, discerning the difference between deliberate manipulation and an unconscious defense mechanism is tricky.
I find that instead of worrying about the other person’s motivations, it’s much more useful to avoid coddling them. Coddling them can take many forms, though the scenario that Hugo described is a common one:
a lot of women, torn between exasperation and compassion, give in at this point in the argument (whether it was about housework or porn or whatever) and say, “Oh Roger, you’re not a bad person. I really do love and admire you.” They break off the attempt to push through to the man and resolve the problem, instead moving on to comforting him. The conflict is only temporarily smoothed over, and invariably erupts again. This cycle can go on indefinitely.
One way to avoid it is to change what you say to something like this (if it happens to be something you’re willing to commit to):
“Oh Roger, you’re not a bad person. I really do love and admire you. I think you have the capacity to do this and I’m 100% willing to support you and help you figure it out.”
By adding that extra piece, you invite him to step up and out of his shame (if it’s real) and you set an expectation (which is useful if his shame is an act). If he’s willing to lean into his discomfort and if you’re willing to bring some fierce compassion to the process, the two of you can discover new ways of dealing with these situations. And if he doesn’t step up, then perhaps his self-deprecation is an act, in which case, you can set whatever boundaries you need.
You might also find that as you help your partner change their habits around self-deprecation and self-shaming, you see ways in which you do the same thing. Our patterns around shame and getting other people to do what we want can run quite deep, which makes them hard to recognize. But once you get the ball rolling, you might see how these dynamics are holding you back, too. And even though it’s not easy to change them, it’s definitely worth it in the long run.