It’s easy to undermine yourself without realizing it until it’s too late. You’re probably doing it now in some part of your life, whether that’s at work, at home or with friends.

Here are some examples I’ve come across. See if you recognize yourself doing something similar, and whether you think it’s a habit worth breaking.

How you receive a compliment

Years ago, a friend of mine had just competed in her first big sporting competition and beat out a lot more experienced competitors. I was thrilled for her and inspired by her awesome performance, and told her so.

She surprised me by saying, “Oh, it’s nothing. I don’t work so I have more time to train.”

Well, the last time I looked, looking after three small children and a full-on professional spouse is a 24/7 role. Plus, I knew how hard she had trained to become an elite athlete.

Here was my aspirational role model sounding like Clark Kent rather than Superman! I felt deflated.

Now, I know my friend’s modesty was genuine. But if I hadn’t known better, this would have gotten me thinking some or all of the following thoughts. And none of them are good for your career or relationships overall. And this is why.

  • A compliment is a gift, and it’s an art to receive that gift graciously. Imagine someone gave you a gift that they had specially chosen for you, and then you toss it in the trash right in front of them. Would you ever be that rude?
  • Receiving a compliment this way can also come across as false modesty, which is a type of arrogance. There’s the implication that you’re so much better than me that you need to say something to make me feel better about myself. Since most people are somewhat insecure, receiving a compliment this way can make others feel inferior.
  • Alternatively, this kind of overdone modesty can make you seem insecure and unconfident. Just when people want and expect you to own your abilities and performance, it’s vital not to do the opposite. Imagine giving that impression to your boss, team members, or colleagues at work. It could be a career-limiting move.

I have personally been guilty of this bad habit, and I’ve committed to make a change. In fact, some of my friends and I had gotten into a pattern of downplaying our capabilities. It was a little like a Saturday Night Live or Monty Python skit, only we were doing it for real, not laughs.

It went like this. I would compliment my friend on ABC. She would say, “Oh, that’s nothing, but you’re so much better than me at DEF”. On we would go, trading self-denigrating comments until we’ve reached all the way down to XYZ. We had made it into an art form. An annoying one, but still an art form.

So what to do instead?

When you put yourself down

A separate but related way I’ve undermined myself just happened today at my gym during a WOD, which stands for “workout of the day”.

First a little background. In my Cross Fit gym, there are three versions of the WOD and you choose the one that’s the right degree of difficulty for you: the RX (prescribed) which is the hardest, the Scaled version which scales back the degree of difficulty, and the Fit version which is scaled back even further.

Most of the time I’m on the Fit version, and occasionally I can do the Scaled version. And the RX version is for the elite athletes and super strong folks.

At the end of today’s WOD, a fellow Fit version person said, “this was really hard today”. I agreed with her. And it would have been okay if I had left it at that.

Instead, I added, “and I wasn’t even doing the real version!” Mistake.

Our trainer, Chris, said, “WHAT?! I never want to hear you say that again! You did the real workout. Everyone does it according to their ability. But the Fit version is the real thing.”

He then went on to give the example of his not being able to lift as much weight as his workout partner who’s 8 inches taller and weighs a lot more. Yet, Chris is pound-for-pound every bit as elite an athlete.

This was a great wakeup call for me. And I realized I’ve been doing this for years. Maybe even decades. At work, at play, and definitely in the gym.

Why it’s a problem

When I said those words, I intended to honor the people who did the RX for their huge accomplishment. What I didn’t realize then, but certainly understand now, was that I was way off the mark.

Here are the three ways this was “bad form”.

1. I undermined myself. That little addition showed my insecurity about my physical abilities. Not only that, it could look like I was “fishing” for a compliment – inviting someone to say, “no, no, the Fit version is challenging too and you finished before I did”.

And it was a put down to myself when I need to be my own best friend. It’s the flip side of “do unto others as you would have others do unto you”. If I don’t want to put down other people, I mustn’t do that to myself.

2. I insulted others. As it turns out, 80% of the people in our session were doing the Fit version. So when I said what I said, I not only undermined myself, I put them down as well.

Not only that, I undermined my compliment to the RX’ers. That added statement made it feel to them like I felt I needed to put myself down to lift them up. As if their accomplishment wasn’t sufficient on its own.

3. I disparaged the system. Cross Fit is an inclusive system that’s meant to encourage everyone to get fit and keep improving. By putting down the Scaled and Fit versions, I was clearly violating that positive ethos. And I love Cross Fit, so the last thing I’d want is to put it down.

I won’t do that again. Instead, my takeaways are:

  • Cheer for others without comparing myself to them. We each start from where we are, not where we wish to be.
  • Keep learning and improving according to my ability. Life is about progress, not perfection.
  • Honor myself and my accomplishments, just as I honor the accomplishments of others. Their gain is not my loss, and putting myself down to lift them up harms us all.

The work version

Undermining yourself in the giving and receiving of compliments is so easy to do in other contexts as well. I’ve seen it happen regularly in the office. For example,

“Your group really had a great year. My team and I never could have pulled that off.”

“Thanks, but what we did wasn’t much in comparison to what your team did on that XYZ project.”

The home version

At home, this looks like putting down your family members in comparison to someone else’s.  For example,

“Why can’t you behave like Auntie Anna’s children?”

“My son could never do that. He’s terrible at math. And lazy too.”

“Congratulations on Junior getting into Oxford. My kids could never get into a school like that.”

This happens so often in the Chinese culture of my parents’ generation. Fortunately, my parents were not of this mold, but I know many others whose parents were.

And of course, everyone is embarrassed: both sets of offspring, and probably the parents too. No one wins.

It’s a starker example of the harm that’s done when we undermine ourselves and others in the process.

How will you keep from undermining yourself?

So now, it’s over to you. To what extent are you undermining yourself in the way you give and receive compliments? Which habits have you fallen into that you commit to change?

Leave a comment to share your experiences, and what you're going to do differently.