am I being too self-deprecating at my new job?

A reader writes:

Over the summer, I landed a new job during the pandemic, thanks to your guidance on your website and your book. It was a significant increase in pay over my last position, I like my boss and coworkers, and I realize now I was previously in a more dysfunctional workspace than I thought. It was my first “corporate” job, so it was harder to realize how out of step it was.

And I wonder how that is affecting my new job. Everyone is saying great things and seems happy with my work. But I feel I should downplay my expertise, since I’m still relatively new. I do have some imposter syndrome and was worried if my skills would transfer to this new role.

I’ve made some self-deprecating comments, mostly about my work and being new. Like someone said they heard good things about my work, so I made a joke about paying people off to say good things. That one didn’t go well. Another time, someone was discussing organization and I said I need all the help I can get. Which is not true. I’m almost an obsessive planner. Another time, I was brought on to help with a new project and I said I have a lot of dumb questions since I’m new. I’ve gotten compliments about how I’m picking things up and I always try to defer them. And I didn’t speak up when someone was showing us a tool I used previously and he didn’t know the use of certain features.

I wonder if part of it is I need the assurance I’m doing the right thing and if part of it is I want people to like me (and not see me as acting like a know-it-all who doesn’t know it all only a few months). I’m aware I’m still learning a lot about the business. I ask a lot of questions and ask for help as needed (and sometimes just to learn their process vs. how I do things). I also don’t want people to think I’m crowding in on their space. It’s harder to judge reactions/relationships over Zoom calls.

Can you be too self-deprecating? Is there a better wording to use? How can you break that mindset? How do you know if people respect you / trust you in your new role if you never interact with them outside of meetings? I enjoy this job a lot more than I thought, and I want to be a success.

Ooooh, yes, you must stop making those comments!

It is indeed possible to be too self-deprecating, and you sound like you’ve passed that line.

There’s a difference between being humble and insulting yourself. Being humble — willing to acknowledge you don’t know everything, not thinking you have all the answers, being curious about and valuing others’ input, asking questions — is a good thing. Everyone should bring a certain amount of humility to their work. But what you’re doing is putting yourself down — and at a minimum that will make people uncomfortable, and it risks undermining their confidence in you.

I’m curious about what’s making your brain connect “people liking me” and “putting myself down.” Were know-it-alls a problem in your last workplace? Were people treated like know-it-alls just for being competent? Did you see new hires be too cocky right off the bat and so you’re over-compensating? Or is it possible it goes back even further than that — like family of origin stuff where maybe trying to excel was taken as not knowing your place or something like that? Whatever the source, I think you’ve got to re-wire yourself so you’re not associating “competent” with “know-it-all” … and not associating “likable” with “downplaying my own skills.”

Another way to approach this is to put more focus on making your coworkers comfortable. Your self-deprecating comments are rooted in your own discomfort — but when you don’t respond graciously to a compliment, you’re making other people uncomfortable. When someone says they heard good things about your work, you don’t want to make things awkward by responding “I paid people off to say those things.” Put them at ease by saying “thank you” or “thank you, that’s nice to hear!” or “I’m excited to be here.” Those responses are gracious, not know-it-all-ish.

The same thing is true about your hunch that what you’re doing might stem from wanting reassurance. That’s another form of transferring your own discomfort to your coworkers, even though you don’t intend it that way. You might get the in-the-moment gratification of hearing “no, you’re doing great!” … but you’re putting them on the receiving end of some strange comments.

As for how you can know if people trust you in your new job: When you start a new job, you can assume they hired you for a reason. Even if you have imposter syndrome, they figure you can do the job. Your manager is almost certainly not questioning that as much as you are (unless you give them a pattern of reasons to question it, but then you’re talking about a different situation than the one you’re in). And your coworkers will generally assume you’re capable of doing your job, with some allowance for being new. You earn additional respect by confirming over time that indeed you can.

As long as you don’t come in walking all over anyone or acting like you know their world better than they do, and as long as you listen and appreciate input, people aren’t going to think you’re a know-it-all.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 175 comments… read them below }

  1. Blisskrieg*

    Everything that Alison advised goes double if you are a woman. Please be careful from that perspective. :)

    1. YuliaC*

      Yes! I was thinking the same thing throughout. I don’t see men doing this pre-emptive self deprecation nearly as much as women doing it.

    2. Academically Inclined*

      Absolutely. I am a woman of color and had to consciously train myself out of refusing compliments on my work. I’d been so strongly socialized to believe that it was undeserved hubris to take credit for things I had done.

      1. Academically Inclined*

        Hit post too soon … it actually took an incident when I heard that reflected back at me (job candidate who kept saying “I’m really not that smart” during the interview) before I realized how awful it sounded.

    3. Diatryma*

      I’ve found it’s also easier for me to correct the behavior when I remember that it’s part of The Patriarchy. I might not be able to graciously accept a compliment for my own sake, but to model for other women, to strike back at said Patriarchy? I can do that.

    4. Keymaster of Gozer*

      Oh my word yes! I used to do this a lot (“I know I’m not that clever so can you explain…”) when first starting out in IT for example, I thought it would be less threatening to the guys in the department.

      Head of IT at the time was a woman, who took me to one side one day and told me to cut that out now. “Do your coworkers put themselves down all the time?” she asked. “No? Then you don’t either. I don’t give a fig for their egos”

    5. Ohlaurdy*

      AMEN! Reading this letter was like reading my whole childhood of subconscious learning that I needed to tone down my success as a high achieving little girl. You really do have to train yourself out of it.

  2. fposte*

    The ability to accept a compliment graciously without deflection can be tough to learn, and I highly recommend that everybody practice it until they’re good at it. It’s much better for the person receiving the compliment, and it’s waaay better for the person giving it, who really didn’t plan to sign on for a deprecation-fest. Sometimes it’s helpful to remember the latter–that you’re making it easier for the other person by accepting what they said as valid, rather than pushing back.

    1. aepyornis*

      This 1000%.
      I’m still not comfortable most of the time, but at least I’m now being able to simply say thank you and possibly that I appreciate it or that it means a lot to me, which makes more comfortable for everyone and less of A Thing. Deflecting compliments or responding with self-deprecating humour is an excellent way to appear unsure of yourself OR worse, to make is sound like you think so much of yourself that you need to play it down for the rest of the world (I was pretty horrified when I realised that’s how I sounded on one occasion, and that prompted me to change how I would react).
      The good news is that you can absolutely get the hang of this pretty quickly once you have identified the issue and prepared for the next time.

      1. A Person*

        Exactly, exactly this. I had to learn this skill and one of the things I concentrated on was just making it the habitual response, no matter how much I do or don’t agree.

        And then when I ended up in management I had to take it to another level although it’s almost easier. I say thank you and ALSO make sure I acknowledge the work other people have put into it. But making sure thank you is my first response is key.

      2. Marthooh*

        All of this. And you’ll probably feel more confidence in your job skills when your on-the-job social skills grow. Alison makes an excellent point about that here: “…put more focus on making your coworkers comfortable. Your self-deprecating comments are rooted in your own discomfort — but when you don’t respond graciously to a compliment, you’re making other people uncomfortable.”

    2. But There is a Me in Team*

      I have finally learned to just say “thank you.” I have been told throughout my life that I’m smart and it’s intimidating, (not as a criticism, but as a compliment by friends and co-workers.) I realize that I started using self-deprecation to put people at ease. I’m a woman who is closer to 50 than 40 and what a change! I realize that [mild] self-deprecation no longer works or breaks the ice. I’m becoming “invisible” and starting to feel that my age makes people judge me as less competent. And I’m in a supportive organization with some folks who are older than me. Just part of our society I think. Good luck breaking this habit OP- it gets easier the more you practice.

      1. aepyornis*

        Oh that’s very interesting to know and I’m duly noting this as I’m a few years behind you (and aiming to maintain a reputation as someone smart).

    3. Code Monkey, the SQL*

      Yes, this.

      A little self-deprecation is one thing – it can disarm people when there’s a power imbalance (in your favor). But putting yourself down repeatedly is entirely different, and can turn into a terrible habit. I had a roommate who could not take a compliment in any capacity, and anything nice said to her turned into a long spiral of downright insults directed towards herself.

      Trust that your coworkers are being nice and being honest when they say something kind to you, and if you can’t figure out how to respond, you’ll never go wrong with “thank you” and a smile.

      1. Threeve*

        And if responding to a compliment with “thank you” truly makes you uncomfortable you can always go with a cheerful “oh, what a nice thing to say” or “I’m so pleased you think so!”

        1. Elbereth*

          “That’s really nice to hear, thank you” works well for me – it doesn’t trigger anyone’s irony meters, and is totally not self-deprecating.

    4. Tau*

      I struggle with this a lot too but yeah, you are completely right and it’s absolutely important to learn!

      One way to potentially scratch the deflection itch without actually putting yourself down is to reciprocate in kind: toss back a compliment of your own at the other person. It often fits into the conversation fairly well and also serves to move the focus off you being great, but this time in a “fuzzy warm feelings for everyone” way instead of a “I reject your opinions” way.

      (But, you know, thank them first.)

      1. Shirley Keeldar*

        One way to toss back the compliment is to say some variant on, “Oh, that means a lot coming from you, because I so admire the way you are always so organized/are so polished when you give presentations/sing “Happy Birthday” on tune.” But don’t do that every time; just now and then. “Thanks, that’s so nice of you to say that!” is a great response!

      2. uncivil servant*

        Absolutely. One of the most professionally successful people I know is so good at this. She’s a shameless self-promoter, deep down, but she also believes that everyone else has so much to contribute. If you give her a compliment, she’ll enthusiastically accept it but also compliment the giver and all the people who helped her.

    5. Third or Nothing!*

      So true! It took a long time before I could accept compliments, *especially* if someone was complimenting something about my appearance (body hatred started at puberty for me), but now I can reply to “wow, your dress is so pretty on you!” with “thanks, it’s one of my favorites! Polka dots are so happy, right?” I will add that tacking something on to the “thank you” can help make it easier, or at least it does for me. To me it feels like it furthers the conversation more because you can build off the second part and talk about that and it feels less like you’re focusing on yourself, you know?

    6. TootsNYC*

      I often accomplish the “accept a compliment gracefully” by changing my mental perspective.

      When people compliment you, they are looking AT YOU, and you are the “target” of the gaze. I try to step over “beside” them and look at the thing that’s being complimented (that’s not me).

      So: “You look very nice today!”
      I say: “thank you. Isn’t this a pretty dress? I always feel good when I wear it/It’s such a pretty pink.”
      See? We are not talking about ME anymore; we are talking about the dress.

      Or: “You did a great job on that project.”
      I say: “Thank you–weren’t those some crazy hours?” or “didn’t that turn out nicely? I think people will find that helpful.”
      See? We are talking about the task, or the results, neither one of which are ME. I may have created the results, but the results =/= me.

      Or: “You’re picking this stuff up so quickly!:
      I say: “Thanks–everyone’s been so helpful in explaining; that sure makes it easier”
      See? We are not talking about me anymore; we are talking about the learning process, or about other people.

      1. knead me seymour*

        Another one that I find useful in a work context is to say something like “Thank you, I’m glad that my notes were helpful” or “I’m glad the project worked out so well” or whatever, which is more centred on the relationship and the work than it is on my own greatness.

    7. Infiniteschrutebucks*

      Definitely this. I used to brush off compliments, and I’m still tempted to do it now (as a manager with two degrees and more than a decade in my industry). A trick that really helped me is to start saying “I am so glad to hear that!” in a warm tone. When I say that I don’t feel like I am bragging or accepting undue credit, nor am I dumping denials on the other person. Alternatives include “That is so great to hear!” and “It’s really important to me that I form strong relationships/pick things up/contribute, so I’m so happy to hear you say that”.

    8. Hey Karma, Over Here*

      One of the hardest things, because 1) I felt awkward and 2) I felt like I needed to say more.
      I decided to work through both. So hard.
      Now I say Thanks, I appreciate it.
      and move on.
      Then it’s over. Like giving a presentation in school.

    9. yup yup*

      Yes! “when you don’t respond graciously to a compliment, you’re making other people uncomfortable” is absolutely spot on. I didn’t learn this for years and I’m glad I finally figured it out.

  3. Elenia35*

    I am actually super annoyed when someone is overly self-deprecating. It just seems to be another way of getting attention “No, really, I suck.” I compliment well and frequently if people have done a good job.

    fposte makes an excellent post about how good it is for the person giving the compliment. I want to tell you you did a good job because you really did. When you rush to undermine yourself it doesn’t look humble, it just looks uncomfortable and awkward.

    1. Bloopmaster*

      Good point. And when your brain gets trapped into imposter syndrome thinking, it’s useful to remember that you can accept a compliment gracefully without necessary agreeing with it: “Thanks for the feedback.” “I’m glad to hear this was what you are looking for.” and “Thanks, X and Y have been very helpful in getting me up to speed with this task.” are all valid and honest responses even if you personally think your work was garbage. Or, if compliments make you self-conscious, they all graciously turn the focus back onto other people :)

    2. Alianora*

      Honestly, I agree. It either makes me feel like you can’t be relied upon or you’re fishing for compliments. Either way, I wouldn’t be excited to work with you or praise your work again.

    3. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      YES omg. I do not have a history of, nor an interest in, telling you how amazing you are unless it is by-god true, so smile and nod and stop arguing with me.

    4. Salsa Verde*

      I believe Miss Manners always said it was rude not to accept a compliment, because you are insulting the other person’s judgment. And honestly, it feels rude. If someone rejects my compliment, it turns the situation into a bigger deal than if they just said thank you and moved on.

    5. Probably Taking This Too Seriously*

      Same. It burdens me with the need to worry that what I’ve said in kindness is troubling someone.

  4. Deliliah*

    I can kind of see where OP is coming from. It’s like that scene in “Mean Girls”.

    Regina (to Cady): You’re, like, really pretty.
    Cady: Thank you.
    Regina: So you agree? You think you’re really pretty?

    Accepting a compliment can sometimes feel like you’re too confident or think too highly of yourself. I agree that OP needs to work on this because doing it too much sends you in the other direction – that you don’t know what you’re doing.

    1. lazuli*

      That scene’s specifically about how toxic Regina is, though! If people are going to think ill of you for accepting compliments (especially their own compliments!), that’s really on them, not on you.

      1. sacados*

        It absolutely is! But I think that is a really good analogy here because it’s likely OP experienced that kind of toxicity — as Alison said, either the last job was that way, family of origin was that way– and that ‘s what has caused OP to feel like simply accepting the compliment is wrong.
        So maybe recognizing the similarity with that Mean Girls scene can help reframe/recognize how it’s not a typical workplace reaction.

    2. DashDash*

      I found it was helpful to mentally re-frame complements as someone relaying their opinion, and my response is a response to their judgment instead of their words. “You did great on Project X!” [I disagree but you don’t need to know that] “Thanks!” [for sharing your opinion even though I don’t agree]

      It’s like a post that was popular recently – re-framing “Impostor Syndrome” as “Improbably Lucky Con Artist, guess I’ll roll with it”

        1. DashDash*

          It’s from a Tumblr that doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Rather than a URL to the image that’ll get stuck in the filter, this was the text:
          “My life has been so much better ever since I traded my impostor syndrome to brilliant conman-syndrome. Do I deserve anything in life? F— no! Will I grasp it anyway? F— yes!
          My art has never been worth s—, but watch me bulls— my way into art school! I’m a horrid goblin, but watch me make these people like me! Am I qualified to do this task? Well I sure have the certificates that say that I am! And how did I get those? Who knows! Not me! I am so good at cheating, I don’t have to break a single rule to do it!
          I am brilliant, fast, and absolutely drunk with power!”

          1. Warm Weighty Wrists*

            This reminds me of the feeling I have every time I get a background or security check. The rest of the world–and me–are about to find out I’m actually an international criminal!

      1. AnonEMoose*

        Yes! For me, internalizing that the person is complimenting me because they believe it was a big help. And that I didn’t want to insult them by seeming to reject what they said. So now I just try to say “thank you,” or “I’m glad X was helpful!” or “happy to help – let me know if you need anything else!”

        One thing I learned after temping for awhile, years ago, was that when I started a new assignment, people tended to assume one of two things: Either they assumed that because I knew how to use Microsoft Office, I would also intuitively know their specific company’s processes, OR they assumed that because I didn’t know the specific company stuff, I didn’t know anything at all.

        It was simultaneously interesting and frustrating, but it did start teaching me to separate the two things (that is, I know this software and how to use it, but I don’t know how your company has set up where to save stuff or how to name documents or why it is that way).

        Maybe instead of saying self-deprecating stuff, try saying something like “Thanks! Still learning how Company Name does things, but I’m glad I could help with X or Y!” Or (if appropriate): “Thanks! Your pointing me to Y resource or Z person was really helpful – so good to have people helping me learn the ropes around here!” Saying you’re still learning about your new company is a statement of fact and not a value judgment on you or your skills, but acknowledges that you’re new without implying that you don’t know anything. You DO know things, that’s why they hired you, but you are also still learning about your new company.

      2. Tomato Frog*

        Yes, this has been a useful framing for me. If I say you did something great, and you tell me, no, you didn’t, you’re not just insulting yourself, you’re insulting my judgment! (I usually don’t feel insulted, because I know it’s really more about people being up their own ass than anything to do with me, but still!)

    3. Danika*

      I think this is the opposite of what we’re trying to convey to OP, since that scene is specifically meant to show how big of a jerk Regina is.

      1. Deliliah*

        I’m just saying I can understand where the impetus to self-deprecate comes from. It’s one of those weird thinks some of us have that if we accept a compliment without tearing ourselves down a little, the other person is going to think we’re stuck up or think very highly of ourselves. I’m not saying that’s true, it’s just a pretty common thought/fear that some folks have.

        1. mlem*

          Yes, there are so many Cadys in the world who have been trained by the Reginas, to the point that saying “thank you” can feel not just arrogant but dangerous to them.

          1. nonegiven*

            What is the cure? What is Cady supposed to say if not “Thank You.’ Maybe, “I appreciate you saying that.” “So, you think you’re pretty?” “No, I never thought so but I do appreciate people saying it, anyway.”

            1. StrikingFalcon*

              Well they are supposed to say thank you. But it can help them get to the point where they can say thank you if they recognize that the Regina-sort of response is what they are worried about, and that actually that kind of response is so bizarrely out of the norm that someone made a movie called “Mean Girls” about someone who did it.

    4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      If anyone reacts in a Regina George way, then you have a lot of information that’s valuable to you. Most people are not Mean Girls level nonsensical. It’s important to flush out the bullies instead of trying to assume everyone around you could be one!

      If someone says “Oh really, you agree?” you just say “That’s a strange way to react when someone accepts a compliment.” then you remind yourself that person is obnoxious.

    5. Loosey Goosey*

      I’m also not super comfortable with compliments, so it helps me to follow up a genuine “thank you” with something else, like Alison suggested. “Thank you, I’m really enjoying working on Project X!” or “Thank you, I’m so glad I could help!” Then it feels less like, “Yes, you are correct, I am amazing,” and more of a mutual expression of appreciation.

    6. Grapey*

      I’ve never seen that movie but I can make underhanded remarks too.

      “Why wouldn’t I agree? Is your opinion not worth listening to?”

  5. Olive Hornby*

    Oh man–I feel this so hard, OP, especially on the connection between imposter syndrome and self-deprecating comments: “If I insult myself first, your insults can’t hurt me, and I assume that once you find out what I fraud I am, you’ll of course want to insult me…” which becomes circular and really unhelpful! In my case, breaking that circle has meant taking a beat after someone compliments me to avoid reflexively responding in a self-deprecating way and responding with something similar to the gracious scripts Alison provided. I’ve found that doing this actually helps with the imposter syndrome, too–nobody has ever come back to me saying “Just kidding, actually you do suck after all!”

  6. anon attorney*

    I have worked with people who adopted this behavior and I actually find it draining to interact with them and certainly do not find it made them more likable. It feels like I am being asked to engage in a form of emotional labor to make them feel more comfortable and I resent it. It may be that you are unintentionally making it more difficult for people to work with you while having the exact opposite desire, so I agree with Alison that some fundamental reframing is needed here. It’s easiest to get alone with co-workers who are assertive and neither under- nor over-confident. Try to get yourself back into a neutral space. You won’t suddenly become That A**hole if you admit to knowing how to do something. It’ll be fine!

    1. Esmeralda*

      OMG, yes. We had a friend in grad school like this. I’m sure they would have been horrified to know that their circle of friends spent a LOT of time complaining about it and how exhausting and irritating it was. Eventually we almost all stopped responding to their self-deprecating statements. Changed the subject, said “that’s too bad!” and changed the subject, excused self and walked away, spent less time with them, tried not to sit near them in class or in social situations…. It was sad.

      1. lazuli*

        My mother at some point had a friend who did the same thing, and my mom just started agreeing with her. “Oh, wow, I never noticed before you mentioned it, but yeah, your nose really is too big for your face.” “Huh, now that you mention it, yep, you are really aren’t a great cook.” Etc.

    2. Observer*

      Yes – to both the fact that this kind of behavior can be exhausting and that it’s FINE to admit knowing how to do stuff. That’s why they hired you!

    3. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

      The flip side of this is that you don’t want to become the kind of person who’s uncomfortable with others knowing how to do stuff, which is a risk if you project too much. If you get to the point where your own struggles with assertiveness lead you to treat normal, healthy levels of assertiveness as lacking in humility, then you’re possibly creating problems for others.

    4. Salsa Verde*

      Agreed – I had a former coworker like that and I knew no conversation could be quick because she had to take time to put herself down and I would have to contradict her, and it felt so exhausting.

    5. ThePear8*

      This behavior is ABSOLUTELY exhausting. It’s a big reason that led to my breaking up with my now-Ex. We are still very good friends, but it was impossible to just give him a compliment, and if I actually had a legitimate problem with him, I didn’t feel comfortable bringing it up because I knew he would take it as “there is a horrible problem with me, I must be so terrible, I’m an awful person” rather than “I’m sorry you felt my behaviors of xyz were bothering you, of course I feel bad you felt that way, what can I do to change it”. It was extremely draining. I started to dread hanging out with him because I felt like the whole time I’d be managing his emotions and have to constantly be figuring out ways to keep him happy or focused on something other than his own self-worth. He’d even manage to hijack unrelated conversations – for example, I remember a conversation where I said I really like this one puzzle game, and his response was along the lines of “I don’t like puzzle games, I’m too stupid for them”. Uhh, he regularly gets better grades than me in our advanced STEM classes, he’s plenty smart, and all I wanted was to talk about my favorite game, so that just instantly made me feel like doo-doo. I’m sure he didn’t mean to make me feel like that in the moment and maybe just felt that was his way of being able to contribute to the conversation, but it seemed really selfish and made me feel like a villain for innocently bringing up a topic that seemed to depress him.
      I hope this didn’t seem too ranty! I don’t mean to go off-topic, but basically OP, I would really encourage you to consider it from the other person’s perspective. If you told someone “Wow, your work on that project was brilliant!” and they responded “Oh, no, it’s not that great. I’m really pretty terrible at this sort of thing.” You’d feel the need to assure them that wasn’t the case, right? And then if they kept doing that every time you tried to compliment them…well, reassuring them constantly would get pretty exhausting, right? Sometimes, someone just wants to tell you what a great job you did! What if you told someone you really admire that you loved their work, and they said “oh no, I’m really just lucky, I actually am just a total buffoon and don’t know what I’m doing hahaha”, even if they said it jokingly, you might feel kind of bad. All you wanted was to pay them a compliment and let them know how much you like and respect their work, not inadvertently remind them of their own seemingly low opinion of their self-worth!
      Imposter syndrome is absolutely a thing, and it’s definitely hard. It’s okay if at first you don’t feel you’re deserving of those compliments…but remember that your coworkers do. You can think “I’m not that good at xyz”, but your coworker who just told you “Hey you’re picking this up really fast! You’re knocking it out of the park” definitely thinks you deserve the compliment, or they wouldn’t have given it! So let them. Sometimes if a direct “Thank you” feels too uncomfortable, you can try something like “Thanks, you really think so?” which sort of gives you an opportunity to get a little reassurance before accepting the compliment with complete confidence and comes off a little more graciously than just insulting yourself.
      Maybe just remind yourself, others see value in you, even if you don’t see it in yourself just yet.

      1. Jan*

        Oh yeah, I had a boyfriend who did that. He’d randomly gasp and look all horrified mid-conversation and go “SORRY, I didn’t mean to offend you!” The first couple of times, I said “You haven’t, don’t worry, I’d tell you if you had”. Then stopped doing that. Our first row was how I “always made him feel he had to apologise”. The funny thing was, he was always accusing ME of playing “mind games”, not based on anything I’d said or done, but because “That’s what women are like”. In the end, I told him that if women were so evil, he’d be pleased to know I wasn’t his girlfriend any longer.

  7. AnotherSarah*

    For some reason, I find it SO HARD just to say thank you to a compliment. It takes practice, because it doesn’t feel like a full sentence–I want to say, “thank you, it was nothing,” or “thank you, I’m happy it worked for you” or something. Try using “thank you” as a complete sentence and see where it gets you–now I notice all the time when others (at work, at home, wherever) have a hard time taking something nice at face value.

    1. Seven If You Count Bad John*

      Want an incredibly useful script for when you’re not comfortable accepting compliments or feel fake?
      Your line is, “Oh thank you, it’s very kind of you to say so!”
      Say this in a warm, genuine tone, no aw-shucksing.

      Even if you feel inadequate, it lets the complimenter know you received and understood the message, even if you might privately disagree with their assessment. It also turns praise back onto the person (you’re accusing them, at worst, of kindness.)
      Eventually, you’ll get comfortable enough to shorten this to just “Thank you!” but I have found it enormously helpful.

      In fact, “you’re very kind” is a super useful tool for a lot of situations.

    2. Smithy*

      I’ve found saying thank you followed by a big smile to be helpful in giving my face/body something else to do if more words aren’t coming or phrases like “glad to help” don’t work for the specific compliment. It’s certainly part of a larger “fake it till you make it” process of mine, but I find it helpful.

      I recently left a job where after being there for years with no opportunity for growth….I left for a growth opportunity. It was a particularly peak period of getting a lot of compliments where deep in my bones I wanted to scream ‘if you liked me so much why did you spend so much time denying new opportunities for me.” Anyways, lots of chances to say “thank you”, put on a big smile, and leave with full and happy professional network.

      1. virago*

        Along the lines of “fake it ’til you make it”: I’ve been encouraged to smile, even when my mood wasn’t one that would lead to an unprompted smile. The theory is that smiling will stimulate happy feelings. Annoyingly, it seems to work for me. (Though scientists are still trying to pin down the truth on this, according to a Sept. 5, 2019, article on

    3. NotAnotherManager!*

      There’s nothing wrong with tagging something simple on if just “thank you!” doesn’t work for you, as long as that something is not going to make the complimenter feel uncomfortable or like they have to keep layering on praise so you believe it. Either of the things you mention would work great!

      I also take that opportunity to recognize others who helped (Thank you – Jane was a huge help on the graphics, too, it really pulls the piece together!”) or, in a a situation like OP describes, express appreciation for those on the team who invested time in bringing me up to speed.

    4. hbc*

      The “I’m happy it worked for you” tag is a great one because it doesn’t deflect or negate the compliment.

      As much as people generally advocate for “thank you” being enough, it feels a bit like a conversation ender, which is probably why it feels so awkward. There should be something following it, unless you’re literally walking out the door. “Thanks, I took a risk on that color choice, glad to know it worked out.” “Thank you, you explained it very well which made it easy to deliver.” “Thanks, I really like these kinds of projects. Is this pretty typical of the work this customer wants?”

    5. Third or Nothing!*

      Oh hey, I said that in a comment earlier! I’m glad other people do this. It seems like a really useful tactic. To me it feels like you’re moving the conversation along and not focusing so much on yourself, and that makes it a lot easier to do.

    6. knead me seymour*

      On the other hand, I don’t think “thank you, I’m happy it worked for you” is an imposition on the other person in the way that “thanks for the compliment but actually you are incorrect and I am terrible” is. For someone who is trying to learn not to deflect compliments, it can be a useful way to bridge the awkwardness gap.

  8. Fed up with this*

    Writer, they hired you for a reason and you seem like you know how to do the job. So….knock it off. Stop with this “I have imposter syndrome” routine. Allison, I’m sorry but some of these people you post need to grow up, grow a spine and stop with this social trend of thinking it’s ok to be this weird about daily life in the workplace. Its just encouraging this completely unnecessary new way of thinking that being constantly introverted with coworkers, or unconfident about your ability to function at a job is acceptable and its not!

    1. Deliliah*

      This isn’t a new way of thinking, I assure you. People have always felt like this. The internet just gives people a place to look for advice outside a small circle of colleagues/friends/family.

    2. PollyQ*

      Writing in to someone to ask for help with an issue is the opposite of thinking it’s “OK” or “acceptable.”

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This isn’t terribly new. You might be hearing about it more because Internet, and because there’s more comfort talking about mental health, but there have always been people who feel this way. It’s not a new trend.

      1. Tuesday*

        I’m glad this and other mental health concerns are getting more attention, but sometimes I think it can be hard for people to know that not having imposter syndrome doesn’t mean that you always feel absolutely confident and competent in your job, especially a new job. I think it’s useful for people to know that having some uncertainty about your performance at a new job is normal. Having some doubts is okay since new jobs usually involve stretching your skills. If those doubts aren’t debilitating, and you can respond by sharpening some skills, going through the AAM archives, getting some feedback from someone more experienced and the like, you’re fine.

    4. Observer*

      I’d also like to point out that being introverted has nothing to do with the issue at hand.

      By the way, introversion even with coworkers is perfectly fine as long as one is polite, reasonably and appropriately collegial, and sufficiently communicative.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        All of this. I find a lot of the above comment to be very unkind, but this comment does reveal a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of what introversion is. I’m an introvert; I need a certain amount of time alone to recharge. That doesn’t mean I’m not friendly with my coworkers. I’m not big on workplace “mandatory fun,” either – but that’s only partly because I’m introverted…it’s more because I prefer different boundaries between my work life and my “not at work” life.

      2. NotAnotherManager!*

        Thank you. I’m an Introvert On 11, but I also manage a large/diverse team, interact with the like a functional human being, do not eschew basic human contact, and can make eye contact and everything! I find public speaking very uncomfortable, and people are surprised to learn this because, shocker, I can perform job functions that are not my favorite without curling up into a ball. I do not consider my coworkers my friends, but I still have enough base social skills to remember peoples’ kids, pets, and hobbies and politely inquire about them periodically.

        I just like, after a long day of people, people, and more people, to cozy up with a book, a podcast, or a mindless game to recharge my batteries and have some me time. I don’t care for mandatory fun events because they eat my me time (or my reserve of people time that I need to devote to my family), but I will do them and smile the whole time, if that’s what’s required.

    5. ThatGirl*

      “knock it off” isn’t terribly helpful, people fall into habits for a reason, and OP is looking for advice on how to break that pattern.

    6. Danika*

      This comment is unkind towards OP.

      1. This issue isn’t new at all. Telling someone to “grow a spine” is useless advice. Do you think ordering someone to “be happy!” suddenly cures depression?

      2. OP knows this is an issue, which is why they wrote in to Alisom about it. I think you should give them more credit for recognizing the problem and wanting to fix it.

      3. Your claim about being “introverted” around coworkers not being okay is insulting. I’m introverted and am polite and respectful at work. Introversion doesn’t automatically mean rude.

    7. Acronyms Are Life (AAL)*

      You’ve never had a moment where you’re the most senior or most experienced person in the room, and realized that it feels strange that you are that person? Maybe its because I’ve taken on major leadership roles at a much younger age than most of those in my career field, but sometimes I feel like ‘holy crap, I can’t believe there are so many people in and outside of this room trusting that I will make the best decision’ especially when its on something outside of my comfort zone. I do my job well, but I am allowed to feel not confident at times. Overconfidence is also an issue, and if you’re 100% confident about everything you do, you’re likely a liability and not an asset to the organization or in an job with absolutely no risks.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        Hell, I felt like that when they sent my first kid home from the hospital with no adult supervision!

      2. Mary Richards*

        A few years back, I had my first management-type role. “I’ve got this! I’m going to be great!” I thought. And I was. But the first time someone showed me my budget, I was like, “Excuse me, where’s the person in charge of me to handle this budget?!”

        Point is, yes, it’s scary when you realize that *you* are the authority.

    8. Jellyfish*

      We’re trying to “grow up” and “grow a spine.” That’s why people like the OP and myself are writing in to ask for help and advice; we know there’s a problem, and we’re looking for solutions. Unfortunately for everyone involved, your irritation doesn’t magically fix my problem and make it go away. In fact, it makes things worse. Either suggest something constructive and actionable, or consider skipping posts on topics that you’re fed up with.

    9. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Your first three sentences are fine — brusk but fine.
      After that, your phrasing is completely uncalled for.

    10. Cmon man*

      I assure you, imposter syndrome is not an “internet trend”, and it’s incredibly insulting to dismiss OPs concerns as being spineless. Imposter syndrome is in fact, very very real. It’s incredibly common in women in male dominated fields, and WOC. When you do not see people who look like you and represent you in similar roles, it certainly is NOT a stretch to understand how that could make someone feel like they do not belong/ do no deserve to be there. I highly suggest you read up on imposter syndrome, and reframe your mindset.

      I experienced imposter syndrome in grad school, as I was one of the only women in most of my classes. It was isolating and had some serious negative impacts on my self esteem, so much so that I’m still working on building it back up years later.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        Yep, the phrase “imposter syndrome” was introduced in the 70s (and I can assure you we did not have internet then, unless you had access to ARPANET) and was further researched and defined in the mid-80s.

        It’s not a new fad, and research seems to indicate it’s pretty common (more than 60% experience it at some time or another).

        And, surprise, surprise, telling someone to “grow a spine” and just get over it doesn’t do a damn thing to prevent it or make it go away!

        1. londonedit*

          And the thing is, the fact that we now have the internet, and people are more open about communicating about things like mental health, impostor syndrome, etc, is actually really helpful. Before it became more mainstream and more acceptable to admit to your struggles, people (and when I say people, I mean me) thought they were the only ones experiencing those feelings. I certainly went through most of school and university and the first few years of my career feeling like at any moment someone was going to tap me on the shoulder and tell me they’d made a terrible mistake letting me in, I was incompetent, and I’d be thrown out of my degree/my job/whatever. But then in my mid-twenties I discovered that it’s normal to feel that way sometimes! I discovered it’s normal to feel like ‘everyone else’ has their life sorted and you’re the only one flailing about trying to work out how to be an adult.

          I agree that impostor syndrome is not an excuse for poor behaviour, and I agree that the OP needs to stop being so self-deprecating at work, but I completely disagree with the whole ‘people nowadays need to grow a spine and get on with it’ attitude.

    11. Threeve*

      Look quick, I think there might be kids on your lawn.

      Question: “Should I change this behavior?”

      Helpful answer: “You should indeed change this behavior. Here’s where it might be coming from, and here are some suggestions for how to adapt how you think about it that will help you break the habit.”

      Unhelpful answer: “Be less pathetic. You should change your personality and the context that you exist in, including your vocabulary and possibly your generation.”

    12. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

      Nthing everyone saying this isn’t a new concept, but I’ve got a theory as to why we talk about it more than in years past: flatter organizations. The trend of doing away with multiple layers of middle management creates more potential for exposure to situations where people perceive a mismatch between their abilities and formal authority.

      When you have more rigid roles and hierarchies, there’s more of a shared understanding of where the line between “just right” and “too big for your britches” is. I suspect that the less defined and more cross-functional people’s roles at work become, the more impostor syndrome becomes a factor in how people view their work relationships.

  9. WantonSeedStitch*

    Oh yeah, definitely too self-deprecating! And while it can be hard to take compliments graciously, I find it can help if you find something nice to say about the complimenter in return. “Jane said you do really good work!” “Oh, thanks, that’s so nice to hear. Jane really knows her stuff, so that means a lot to me.”

    Another thing I do sometimes is to accept a compliment but acknowledge that the thing for which I’m being praised is something I’ve worked hard for, rather than just being naturally awesome. “Wow, you’re really organized!” “Thanks! It took me a while to figure a system that would help me keep track of everything, but I feel like I’ve finally gotten there.” I feel like this is not downplaying your skills and achievements, but acknowledging that they’re the result of effort.

    1. Seven If You Count Bad John*

      I just posted something similar up above! Totally agree. What’re they gonna do, tell you “no I’m actually a big meanie”?

  10. Dust Bunny*

    Yeah, don’t do this. I occasionally make self-deprecating comments but they’re not this vicious. I noted today that our new stats tracking system would really help me keep track of things since I tend to think I’m going to write stuff down later but then forget . . . unlike my organized coworker. But Organized Coworker is the only one who is really good about doing this so a) I was only mildly self-deprecating and b) the rest of the department knows they’re as guilty as I am. And I don’t do it a lot. I’m not disorganized, I just am weaker at this in particular. But your self-deprecation shouldn’t go beyond something like that.

  11. Pascall*

    Accepting compliments is definitely a skill that I think everyone should learn, both socially and professionally. I started off like a lot of young people in the professional world as being self-deprecating, but honestly, people tend to respect you a lot more when you are knowledgeable and know it, but don’t brag about it!

    The best way I’ve found of hitting that nice middle ground is tacking on “Please let me know if you need any help/support, I’m happy to provide what I can!” onto things like emails or even verbally. It reassures someone that you’re not claiming to be the textbook expert, but you know enough to be a good reliable resource and people can turn to you for additional help.

    Definitely practice accepting compliments in general though! I know it makes me feel better as a person when I’m able to say ‘thank you!’ to someone praising me for work I did or being impressed with something I know how to do.

    1. RecentAAMfan*

      I think it’s also helpful to remember that deflecting or talking down a compliment turns that quick compliment into a larger discussion. It can start to look a lot like someone is fishing for more!
      Just say “thanks so much” and move on

    2. JJ*

      Yes! If you DO know more than everyone in the room, don’t knock yourself down to make them comfortable, bring them up with you! Do a little teaching, a little background info, show them you want them to be part of this with you. I find my most difficult client interactions are usually just plain ol’ “they just don’t have the info or language to talk about this with me and are frustrated.” So I just show them how it works. It really works great most of the time.

  12. MsClaw*

    Learn to say ‘thank you’!!

    ‘Thank you, I’m glad it was helpful.’
    ‘Thank you, please let me know if there’s anything else I can do.’
    ‘Thank you, that’s nice to hear.’
    ‘Thanks, I enjoyed getting to learn/work with/be involved in/on whatever’
    and even just plain old ‘Thank you’
    If someone else was involved, then by all means you can say things like ‘Thank you, Jane was also a huge help on this.’

    But what you’re doing now isn’t self-deprecating, it’s self-torpedoing. Stop it. Stop saying things that cast you as an idiot. Stop calling your questions dumb. Stop pretending to be incompetent at things you do well.

    1. Anonymous1*

      Yes! I love all of these. I have learned that for me it really is more comfortable and natural to say “Thank you, (additional words).” than just “Thank you.” You can move the conversation along, give background, etc. There have been occasions where I’m so frozen by a compliment that I say, “Thank you.” and then an awkward silence hangs in the air. So “Thank you, I’m glad it was helpful,” or whatever can put the focus back on whatever “it” is.

    2. Joy*

      These are all such great thank you scripts! While there’s nothing wrong with “thank you”, depending on the work and general culture it can feel somewhat abrupt, so these are fabulous examples of how to graciously accept a compliment.

    3. ThePear8*

      I posted above “Thanks, you really think so?” But I like all of these a lot better because it’s a little less like fishing for more praise haha. I find though that the “you really think so?” is a little easier to say in the moment when you’re especially feeling unconfident, and gives you a chance to get some reassurance to then just say “Thank you, I’m glad you think so!”

      1. MsClaw*

        Thanks all, I’m glad you found these suggestions helpful ;)

        Yeah, I agree that for a lot of us it can feel really odd or blunt to just say ‘thank you’ with nothing else there. But learning to take a compliment is something everyone should learn. You definitely don’t want to get too good and convincing people you don’t deserve the accolades.

  13. Marple*

    If multiple people volunteer that you’re doing great work or that they’ve heard others say good things, you can absolutely trust them. Nobody goes out of their way to compliment coworkers who are mediocre. Really! You must be doing a fabulous job!

  14. Heidi*

    You can practice saying things like, “That’s so nice. I really appreciate you saying that.” “I’m so glad to hear that.” “That is so encouraging to hear – thank you.” “At first I was worried about X, but I’m pleased with how it’s turned out.”

    I also would caution against putting your skills down. Some people will reassure you that you’re fine, but some will actually believe you’re the hot mess you say you are.

  15. Respectfully, Pumat Sol*

    I actually had to coach one of our employees on this. She was being sooooo self deprecating about herself in meetings with the team, meetings with execs, in the lunchroom where the c-suite could overhear and I finally had to pull her aside and say “Yo, you need to cut it out. When you say stuff like that about yourself you start to build THAT image of yourself in people’s minds. They stop seeing how competent you are because you crowd that out with reinforcing that you’re not with your comments. You’re gonna end up hurting your career here if you build the image of incompetence in people’s minds.” She was surprised by this, but ultimately cut waaaay down on the negativity.

    1. Daffy Duck*

      This! People will believe just about anything if they hear it often enough. No only you believing it about yourself, but others will start to think you are right that you mess up all the time. Pretty soon that will be the company image of you and growth opprotunities will stop coming your way. Say thank you to compliments, or something like “Glad you enjoyed it!” instead of tearing yourself down.

      1. Elspeth Mcgillicuddy*

        And really, why shouldn’t they believe you? You presumably know yourself better than they do. It’s not reasonable for everybody to assume that you are misrepresenting yourself on a regular basis.

  16. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    Don’t undermine yourself; there are plenty of people who may do that for you at any point in your career and they don’t need your help. People will like you if they can trust you…to do your job on the project…to have good judgement when they need your opinion or assistance…to take appropriate responsibility for your mistakes and learn from them so as not to keep repeating them…and to know that you won’t undermine them — someone who has a reputation for bad-mouthing, even themselves, isn’t one people are going to trust.

  17. Persephone Mongoose*

    Oooooh, OP I’ve 100% been in your shoes. Allison’s 100% right; definitely reign in the self-deprecating comments post-haste. You’re in this job because your company believes you are capable. Accept compliments with grace and when someone tells you you’re doing well, believe them! You’ll certainly make plenty of mistakes as you navigate this new role, but you won’t be new at it forever. Give yourself the room you need to grow and eventually excel.

    From my own experience, this stuff is almost always rooted in poor self-esteem and it’s important to get to the root of it before you end up unintentionally sabotaging yourself. Therapy is helpful for that sort of thing if you’re open to it.

  18. Observer*

    Another time, someone was discussing organization and I said I need all the help I can get. Which is not true

    Alison gave you some good advice. Making untrue statements about yourself is always a bad idea in a functional workplace – and underselling yourself is as bad as overselling yourself.

    And I didn’t speak up when someone was showing us a tool I used previously and he didn’t know the use of certain features.

    This goes well beyond self deprecating. And it is not going to make you “likable”. In fact, if people realize that you are doing this, you could develop a reputation as someone who doesn’t want to help out / share knowledge. Also, hiding relevant competencies is just a losing game. It’s going to keep your colleagues and supervisors from seeing you as someone who can do really good work. And it is CERTAINLY going to keep people from assuring you that you’re doing well.

    I ask a lot of questions and ask for help as needed (and sometimes just to learn their process vs. how I do things)

    See, that’s the thing – THIS Is how you keep people from thinking you are a know it all. You’re asking questions. You recognize that you should learn how the company does stuff. You understand that just because you do something a certain way, it’s not necessarily THE way to do things, just ONE way of doing things. In a functional workplace that’s what makes people realize that you are willing to learn and give people the respect and space they deserve.

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      I didn’t speak up when someone was showing us a tool I used previously and he didn’t know the use of certain features.

      I want to comment on this too. You should definitely speak up when someone is trying to figure out how to do something and you know how to do it. They will be eternally grateful for your help (unless they’re a jerk) and some people might be impressed with your know-how. It’ll do you a world of good to be seen as a helpful, knowledgeable person.

      1. not really a professor*

        I interpreted this as not speaking up to correct or add on to someone who was training or presenting on a new tool, which strikes me as somewhat different — that would come off as know-it-all-ish in some scenarios.

  19. Georgina Fredrika*

    not accepting the compliment is like when no one accepts the other person paying and the fact that you draw it out makes it feel way more awkward than it needs to be. The person essentially needs to compliment you twice you’re not saying “haha, I suck” and they just go “… :) “

    1. Danika*

      Slightly unrelated, but that “no one accepts the other one paying” thing is annoying AF when you’re a server in a restaurant.

      “Here’s my card, I’ll be covering the whole bill.”
      “No, ignore him, take my card instead!”

      Ugh, I’m about to clock both of y’all.

      1. Salsa Verde*

        I used to tell them they could both leave the amount of the bill and I would just take one of their payments as a tip. That usually shut them up. It was so annoying.

        1. KoiFeeder*

          Unfortunately, my family member who is Like That usually calls the bluff and agrees to do that. Someday someone’s not gonna back down when they say they’re fine with that and a server is going to get a 100% tip.

  20. Richard Hershberger*

    When I was younger I tended to swing between extreme self-deprecation and megalomania. The key to breaking this was the realization that rote formulas often are just fine. Indeed, they often are better than improvising. “I am sorry for your loss” is better at a funeral than trying to think of something original to say. For accepting a compliment, “Thank you” serves admirably. If you feel moved to expand on this, go with “Thank you. You are very kind.”

  21. rural academic*

    LW, it sounds as though you might say these self-damaging things partly because in the moment you’re feeling insecure and unsure how to respond. All the other comments are right that this could have a negative impact on how people perceive you, though, so I want to suggest some scripts to say instead. These could re-frame your thinking and are things you can actually practice saying / thinking to yourself until they feel more natural.

    Someone: I’ve heard good things about your work!
    Previous you: I paid someone to say that, haha.
    Future you: Thank you, it’s so nice of you to say so! or Thanks, I’m trying hard to learn!

    Someone: [goes on about organization tools / skills]
    Previous you: I need all the help I can get.
    Future you: That sounds like an interesting tool to try, let me share a technique that works for me.

    Previous you: I’m new so I have a lot of dumb questions.
    Future you: Since I’m new on this project, I might be missing some background, so I have quite a few questions.

    Someone else: [offers demo of a tool]
    Future you: Hi, it happens I’ve used this tool before, can I make a suggestion?

    In general: avoid calling yourself dumb, incompetent, or anything else negative. That’s not generally a great way to win people’s respect. When you get the impulse to put yourself down, instead try to take a moment and re-frame the comment in a more neutral way.

    1. Person from the Resume*

      Another time, I was brought on to help with a new project and I said I have a lot of dumb questions since I’m new.

      Hearing someone else call themselves or their questions DUMB of makes me really uncomfortable. You’re insulting yourself! But it annoying because it’s also like you’re begging me to reassure you that your questions are not dumb. I’m not a work to prop up other people’s self-esteem.

      I have in the past said that I might have a lot of questions because I’m new to a project or topic, but i’d never say that they were dumb questions – maybe simple questions.

    2. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Another “Future You” phrase to try on, especially useful when you’re getting complimented by someone who has corrected you in the past: “Thanks. It’s been a steep learning curve, and it helps to know I’ve made progress.”

    3. nnn*

      Someone else: [offers demo of a tool]
      Future you: Hi, it happens I’ve used this tool before, can I make a suggestion?

      Just wanted to add a strategy I’ve found useful in situations like this. In cases where it might be impolitic to outright state “I know this” to someone who doesn’t know it, I’ve found it useful to suggest that I’ve just learned what I’m about to share.

      In this scenario, the script would be to let them play out their demo, and then add “Can I add something that I just recently learned about this tool?”

      That mitigates any implication of stigma about not knowing the thing (It’s brand new knowledge that people are just learning!), and puts you more on an equal footing with someone who didn’t know the thing (You yourself didn’t know it a minute ago!)

      Should you have to mitigate the fact that you know stuff? Of course not. But sometimes it can be helpful interpersonally, and this is a way to do it.

  22. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    It’s taken time to remove the self deprecation from my own behavior but in the end, I’ve seen people actively reacting better to me since I’ve cut it out.

    You want to grow these relationships with your colleagues, not push them away. You are actively pushing someone away when you deflect their attempts to be kind to you! Rarely is someone punking you with their compliments. [I say this as someone who once reacted to every romantic advance from any other person by actively saying “Why are you teasing me, stop being mean.”. You have to break the habit, people are indeed just being nice!]

    1. Daffy Duck*

      Exactly! It is rude to disagree when someone is being nice or genuinely helping you. A “Thank you” lets everyone go away happy. Do not make them do the heavy lifting of convincing you that you really do produce good work.

    2. Khlovia*

      I hear ya. [Speaking as someone who reacted to any compliment to my appearance by thinking, “Why are you insulting my intelligence? I do own a mirror, you know; do you really believe I’m so stupid I don’t know how ugly I am?” Didn’t say it aloud though.]

  23. feather*

    Ouch. I did some of this when I started on my current job. I’d been on the same team for 12 years, so I wasn’t used to being in a position of having to prove myself. I also wasn’t used to being around people who didn’t know my sense of humor, which is part of where the self-deprecation comes from. I didn’t realize at first how those quips and comments would come across. I eventually managed to stop myself from making them, but it was a difficult transition. Hopefully LW can train themselves out of it quickly!

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I would encourage everyone to remember that their humor may not always transfer between people, especially when they’re barely acquaintances!

      I know it’s hard, I had to learn some of it the hard way. I wish I had heard years ago that humor and delivery is very different depending on the audience. I’ve insulted a lot of people I never meant to because of my humor because I needed to retrain myself as well. I’ve started a habit of including “I’m joking. I have to stop doing that [and I do stop doing it to that person if necessary!]” when I can feel the vibe shift after saying something that started to go over too heavily.

      1. Alianora*

        Yes, this was something I had problems with too when I started working. I have a very dry sense of humor; I’ve learned that it’s best for me just to not make jokes at all at work. If I give a dry delivery, people often think I’m being serious. If I try to ham it up a little, it comes out pretty awkward. Better to come across as a little overly earnest and let my coworkers think I never make jokes.

  24. Emilia Bedelia*

    This is exactly where you should be expressing gratitude instead of apologizing.
    Instead of making a self deprecating comment, try saying a sincere thank you for what they have done for you – eg, “You’re really picking things up quickly.” “Thank you for all your help in getting me up to speed with the process”.

    For a long time it was difficult for me to accept compliments in things like annual reviews, etc where the whole point was positive feedback. The script that I settled on is something like, “Thank you. I’m glad to know that I was able to contribute positively – I will do my best to keep it up!”

    This comes off much more friendly and collaborative than self deprecating jokes. Consider it from their point of view – your coworkers are making an effort to be kind and welcoming to a new person. Making a self deprecating joke is basically shooting down that effort and totally ignoring their goodwill – imagine someone saying “Wow, the weather is nice today!” and you saying “Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s going to rain”. It’s especially difficult to hear from people who are legitimately going above and beyond and doing an amazing job. For people like this, who I know will not accept any compliments and will just be self deprecating, I thank them in a very factual way, eg “thank you for taking the time” “thanks for letting me interrupt you”. Please, make an effort to accept compliments gracefully.

    1. Nesprin*

      I was coming here to say this- if you cannot tolerate someone saying nice things about you, swing it back to them & around to other helpers. “You did great on thing X”, “I’m so glad thing X worked for you, but some credit definitely goes to person Y, who did Z.”

  25. bleh*

    Please stop doing this to yourself. If you tell them you’re horrible too many times, they might begin to believe you. I had a Dean question my tenure readiness based upon my own insecure comments about the coherency of my research agenda. He never would have noticed the dual research streams had I not worried aloud about it. I had to start talking *up* my work to counteract the damage I had done.

  26. Jennifer Juniper*

    OP, you can be too self-deprecating. I ended up on disability because of that, along with other issues.

    If you’re not seeing a therapist, please see one. Now.

  27. Fiona*

    I think the most important thing in all this advice is remembering how it makes the compliment-giver feel to have their compliment rejected. That’s what I’ve had to work on and believe me, it’s WORK. I’ve focused really hard at my current job not to be self-deprecrating, even though sometimes I’m dying to say, “No! You’re wrong! I’m actually awful!”

    If you want to flip it, imagine you are complimenting someone on their shirt. “Wow, I love the pattern on your shirt!” They respond, “Oh, this old thing? It’s so hideous and outdated, I should probably just get rid of it.” How do you feel? Probably sort of awkward and embarrassed, right? I mean…you liked the shirt. You wanted to convey that to your friend. It feels good to give compliments, let people enjoy it when they praise your work and your skills.

    If you work hard at this, your work and personal relationships will improve, I guarantee. Good luck!!

  28. Kiki*

    This can be a really tough habit to break, especially since it’s often developed as a coping mechanism in a less-than-supportive environment. I believe in you, though LW!
    I’m in the process of working through something similar myself. As a woman of color, a lot of people throughout my early life would unconsciously (or maybe consciously, I don’t actually know their mind) respond negatively to me when I was assertive, confident, and knew more than them. Being self-deprecating made those types of people more comfortable around me, but it didn’t make them trust me or want to promote me. What has been helping me most has been starting each day by saying aloud in the mirror, “Everyone here wants me to succeed.”

    1. Cat on a Keyboard*

      This, absolutely. It’s not that you have a confidence problem… it’s that other people have a problem with your confidence.

  29. Cat on a Keyboard*

    OOOH I have this problem too. I have good self esteem and I know I’m capable, but as a woman raised in the Southeastern US, it’s been so ingrained into my psyche that I must never be too intimidating, direct, or presumptuous that it’s really hard to deprogram. I don’t even realize I’m doing it until someone responds as if I’m serious.

    Me: “This is probably a dumb question, but, ____”
    Colleague: “Oh, that’s not dumb, it’s important to ask questions to continue growing and learning.”
    Me, confused, thinking: “Uh, yeah, obviously.”

    For the record I am usually really funny and clever and my humor has worked great in social situations (until it doesn’t), but it definitely was a culture shift to realize that way of ingratiating myself didn’t work in a professional setting.

    For those who are annoyed by this tic, my advice is to respond taking the person’s comment very seriously. “Are you concerned you can’t handle this project?” “Is this responsibility something you’re uncomfortable with?” Chances are it will snap the person out of the habit once they realize what they’re conveying.

    But also be compassionate because this is definitely connected to the way our culture treats women.

    1. Clisby*

      Oh, please don’t put this on being from the southeastern US. I am, too, and never had it ” ingrained into my psyche that I must never be too intimidating, direct, or presumptuous.” If it was ever ingrained into my mother’s psyche, she was way over it by the time I was old enough to know anything – and she was born in 1928.

  30. notacompetition*


    “Thank you–I really appreciate that!”
    “Thank you–that means a lot to hear from you.”
    “I really appreciate that you took the time to say that.”

    When you deflect the person’s compliment, you are in some way also rejecting that person’s perspective. Thus you may end up making that person feel rejected, like you don’t care they complimented you, etc. People spend MOST of their time thinking about themselves, by design. At the least, just acknowledge that another human being took the time to notice and comment on something positive about you. Bonus to this, you don’t even need to believe them. But you should still hold space for them. Warmth should beget warmth.

  31. JJJJBBB*

    “The same thing is true about your hunch that what you’re doing might stem from wanting reassurance.”

    She wants reassurance but when someone does say something, she basically tells them that they are stupid and she’s not worth the compliment.

    1. Khatul Madame*

      And self-deprecation can also be viewed as wanting reassurance. I’ve met quite a few people who said things like “Gosh, I am so stupid” to cue up “Oh no, you are a genius” leading to a prolonged conversation about themselves.

  32. Sasha "Potato Girl" Blause*

    Ooh I’ve struggled with similar, partly because I was raised this way (“don’t toot your own horn” etc), and partly because of my know-it-all tendencies (look, I’m smart, I have value!). So I get it, but you’ve gotta knock it off before the wrong person hears and starts taking advantage.

    I’ve gotten compliments about how I’m picking things up and I always try to defer them.

    My go-to scripts/formulas: “Thanks, glad that [deliverable I gave them] is working out for you!” or sometimes “Flattery is always appreciated!”

    And I didn’t speak up when someone was showing us a tool I used previously and he didn’t know the use of certain features.

    This is still difficult for me because it’s easy for me to start sounding like a know-it-all.

    So far nobody’s shown annoyance if I phrase it like a suggestion:
    * “What if you [set the llama dial to 11]? ”
    * “Maybe try [pulling the dial out before turning it]?”

    Or for correcting errors:
    * “I think there might be an extra semicolon there.”
    * “Is it just me [and my noticeable vision disorder], or does ‘baboon’ have an extra ‘o’ at the end of that line?”

    I’m sure a lot of commenters would disagree with my use of softening words, but they work for me (and my excessively stern-looking face, ugh). Delivered in a matter-of-fact tone as I would for “Oh, your keys? I think they might be on the table.” I find they soften my (serious/intense/dark/severe, or so I’ve been told) presence enough that I can convey the information I need to, without seeming critical or arrogant, and without putting myself down.

    For me, this is the middle ground. YMMV. Depending on your own presence and tendencies, you may do better to skip straight to practicing authoritative speech with no softeners.

  33. Megs*

    I go for the, if you won’t say it about someone else you shouldn’t say it about yourself. So if they’re saying hey “I heard great things about your work” would you in turn tell someone that you know they paid people to say that? The answer is no so don’t say it about yourself. People will stop paying you compliments because it’s uncomfortable which then will also get into your head. Why don’t they think I’m good enough anymore etc. or I was right I’m not good enough. So nip it in the bud and if all else fails compliment them on something as well. At least keep it all positive.

  34. mourning mammoths*

    In terms of the origin story for your self depreciation, I throw into the mix another potential source. I previously had a boss who would compliment me as a form of manipulation … ahem … leadership skills. As in, she’d tell me that I’m so good at X, but what she didn’t say is that it’s a lie. She doesn’t really think that. Rather, she was was really tapping into my perfectionist tendencies and trying to motivate me to be more of X, or do more of X. Maybe you have experienced some similar things?

    FWIW, this experience for me has messed with how I hear complements these days. No matter what I always *say* a genuine thank you, that’s very kind of you to say, happy to help, etc. But for some kinds of praise I find myself wondering if they meant it and/or what they want from me.

    1. Threeve*

      I had a boss whose compliments sometimes functioned as warnings. If he told me “I’m always impressed with how well you handle stressful situations and unexpected projects,” I knew that something horrible was going to end up on my plate by the end of the week.

  35. whistle*

    OP, there’s some great advice and scripts here from Alison and others. I just wanted to chime in as another middle-aged person who has had to learn how to take a compliment, and I’m so glad I have! It is so much less stressful for me to just say “Thanks! That’s so nice of you to say!” and then move the conversation along.

    I remember times in the past where compliments would turn into arguments. “Whistle is the best person ever.” “No, I’m no good at all.” “Yes you are, here are some reasons.” And those reasons would make me even more uncomfortable! Later I realized how horrible those interactions must have been for the other person. They were just trying to give me a compliment, and we ended up arguing!

  36. Wintergreen*

    One of the hardest things for me to learn was to just say “Thank You” after receiving a compliment.

    “Nice shirt.” – “Thank You” not “Thank You, it’s a little tight in the shoulders but I like the color.”
    “Good job on that report.” – “Thank You” not “Thank you, I had a little trouble with that section about X.”

    I’ve noticed some people are almost taken aback by it. Like they are surprised I’m not adding the self deprecating comment and are waiting for me to continue. At times I worry I’m coming off a little arrogant but, now that it has become a habit, it feels better to just accept the compliment and move on.

  37. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

    So, OP, this is going to seem like a weird comment, but I want to dive into the parts of your question that aren’t about compliments:
    I used to work with someone who made a lot of comments about people lacking humility and having egos whenever anyone who wasn’t senior to them spoke up from a place of knowledge. Invariably these comments were about people who had good reputations within our organization. In wanting to keep the peace, I always felt like I needed to pretend not to know how to do things around this person, or that I needed to hide the years of experience and knowledge I’d accumulated.

    A manager can’t force people to think a certain way, but if I were my colleague’s manager, I’d tell them that being a team player means that you need to be able to respect your colleagues’ skills and expertise and not contribute to an atmosphere where putting those things to good use is discouraged. I’d guess that no one ever had that conversation with my colleague, or if they did she didn’t get the point. Hers is the kind of behaviour that contributes to an environment where people feel that self-deprecation is the only way forward.

    My point is, you’ve possibly worked with people like my former colleague, and it might have imprinted on the way that you think you need to express yourself to get by. I want to tell you that in general, this isn’t how most people see things in North American work culture. You’ve been hired to own your skills, and absent other behaviours that are red flags, most people aren’t going to assume that your confidence implies that you’re unwilling to learn. Don’t just use and share your knowledge freely and confidently, but also seek out others’ knowledge and show appreciation when they share it. That latter bit is what humility is all about.

    1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      I’ve worked with *managers* like that. Expertise outside of what The Manager allocated was considered insubordination. Such that I once got a compliance manual thrown at me.

  38. Germank106*

    Years ago I had an Assistant that would put herself down every time I paid her a compliment. “You did good with this client/I appreciated your input in the Meeting/Thanks for doing that” all received negative replies. It annoyed me down to my socks. Talking to her about the problem didn’t make much of a difference. I ended up solving the problem by calling her out on it every time it happened and telling to her to just say “thank you” when someone said anything positive to her about her work. Within a few weeks she slowly changed her behavior, within three months it was gone. When she left to take another job, I gave her a plaque that said “Just say thank you”. We recently met accidentally and had a good laugh about the whole situation. She mentioned that she still has the plaque and that it hangs on her office wall.

  39. staceyizme*

    It can be intimidating to navigate a new professional context, which comes with its own relational challenges: maybe you just aren’t comfortable in your own skin yet? I’m a veteran of the “I’m sorry” and self-deprecation campaigns and I’ve learned the hard way that it serves no useful purpose and can be off putting to people who genuinely want to connect. If it feels stressful to accept positive attention, that might be something to unpack with whatever support works for you. BUT- (meanwhile), have a few “go-to” phrases that let you acknowledge the other person’s compliment that you’re comfortable with. “Thank you” might be easiest with direct compliments, for a start. Also, practice NOT giving vent to that self-deprecating remark or whatever qualifier you’re planning on using to soften the positive input. Inadvertently, you’re passing the price of your own discomfort along to the person praising your work. That’s best avoided in most contexts.

  40. Garnet, Crystal Gem*

    Alison and other commenters mentioned this in their responses but OP, I’m wondering if this is a response to your previous work environment. I’ve been in roles where I’ve been given compliments that were perfunctory and not really a true reflection of my work. My last manager would regularly complain about the smallest things related to me and/or my work within earshot to my colleagues, but to my face? “Oh, thank you so much for doing x”. I tried to address this head on in 1:1s and the responses I recieved led me to believe that my manager felt like she was under attack, and the feedback she’d give would be some version of “You’re doing great, I don’t expect you to know x or be fully competent in y until…, right now I want you to focus on learning z.” Granted, my manager’s expectations were nitpicky and unrealistic at times, which maybe she was aware of? But I still felt it was unprofessional of her to vocalize those frustrations in settings where I could overhear them.

    Once I stopped raising the issue, I noticed a change in the feedback I recieved. I’d get lines like “Great work on project y” or ” I appreciate this detail you added to z”, or I’d get backhanded compliments like “x looks great, but I wouldn’t have done y like that” or “great job on this but I didn’t like this one small graphic element you used” and the indirect badmouthing still continued. Normally, I take compliments at face value—say my thanks and keep it moving regardless of how I feel. But after working under those circumstances, I’d ocassionaly slip up and start making self-depracating remarks as a defense mechanism, it was a weird way for me to “get ahead” of the negative feedback I’d inevitably overhear from my manager. I had no problem taking ownership over the work I did, good or otherwise, but I let this woman, someone who frankly wasn’t all that great at her job, get to me. I always second guessed comments from her and other folks on my team. It seemed more like she was saying it so that I’d show up for work the following day, not because she actually meant it.

    In another job, one that was more of an internship/learning opp, I never recieved feedback on tasks I worked on with a certain team member. I’d complete research, write drafts, hop on projects, prep work, with no further input, status updates or anything. I had no clue if what I was doing was helpful, and if anyone was even using or reviewing the work I completed. I raised this issue with my boss at the time (a man), and the conversation was productive and he told me he’d talk to the other team member (also a man) in question. After that I recieved feedback, but it was in the form of flippant responses like “Nice!”, “Thanks!”, “Good job” with no context for what was “good” or “nice” and no insight on how the projects turned out. I felt embarassed for even raising the issue, because it made me think that they thought I was needy and solely looking for validation. I grimaced anytime anyone said anything praiseworthy to me.

    OP, if it’s your former colleagues, bad friend(s), your family, or whoever making you feel like you have to cut yourself down to size to make your new colleagues feel at ease, remind yourself that these are new folks who want to work with you, and see the value in your work. I highly recommend seeking therapy to help you work through any prior experiences that might be haunting you.

  41. NeonFireworks*

    I have a colleague who does this! She is fantastically resourceful, supportive, friendly, funny, and absolutely flat out brilliant. And she denies these things so much it looks disingenuous. Breaks my heart.

  42. triplehiccup*

    Since I’m in a non- technical role that project manages technical folks, I often have to ask “dumb questions.” Like everyone is discussing the ins and outs of XYZ and my question is “what even is XYZ??” Anyway, a phrasing I’ve found works well in that case is “this might be a naive question” or “this might be a basic question.” It acknowledges their expertise and the transition from their higher level conversation, without insulting my own ability.

  43. nnn*

    As someone who is naturally self-deprecating, one thing that strikes me about the example that LW gives is they’re kind of . . . more self-deprecating than is necessary to be self-deprecating. For example, saying that you’re paying people off to say good things is going rather far with the self-deprecation thing – something like “You’re very kind” (as though it’s an excessive compliment) is more of a, for lack of a better word, “normal” level of deflection.

    It might be useful as an intellectual exercise to do a self-post-mortem on instances of self-deprecating statements, and see if there’s a way to make them less self-deprecating. For example, “I have a lot of dumb questions” could be adjusted to “I’m afraid I have a lot of questions since I’m new”, or prefacing your question with a bright and cheerful “Sorry, newbie question!”

    (Some people will say the self-deprecation shouldn’t be there at all, and I can’t tell through the internet whether it’s appropriate to your context or outright harmful, but sometimes adjusting a habit can be easier than breaking the habit.)

    It might also be useful to think about ways your self-deprecating statements could be adjusted to boost people up without tearing yourself down. For example, in the case of organizational tips, instead of responding with “I need all the help I can get”, you could say something like “We’re always in the market for more organizational tips!” or “Great tips! Thank you!” (You could also say nothing whatsoever if the tips end up being irrelevant.)

    1. MCMonkeyBean*

      I sort of felt the opposite, I thought the one about paying people off was the most reasonable one because it’s so obviously a joke. In my opinion a couple of self deprecating jokes are okay as an ice breaker thing, but a lot of the examples are just actively playing down their abilities for no reason–like saying you need all the help you can get on organization if that’s not true or saying you have a lot of dumb questions instead of just saying that you have a lot of questions.

  44. Gertie*

    I had to unlearn this and it was hard. Mine came from a micro-managing toxic work place where the boss hated anyone thinking they knew more than her or have an idea that would be better than hers. To get anything done you had to be insanely deferential and couch things in terms of being an idiot blessed to have her opinion. People would present obviously stupid options as ones they were leaning towards along with good ones just so the boss could choose the opposite. Lucky at one point my new boss told me directly that he hired me for my expertise and told me to make my own decisions.

  45. Hapax Legomenon*

    Until about five years ago I did this too, only worse: I would actually (jokingly) insult people when they complimented me and call myself the worst. When it was pointed out to me I had to make a concerted effort to accept compliments. It was difficult for me to just say thank you so sometimes I would make a more positive joke: “Yeah, I’m kind of a big deal.” “My nefarious plan to make you like working with me is going perfectly!” “You’re right, I’m totally the best at that ever.” I wouldn’t do that with people I’ve never met before, but if people are used to you rejecting compliments and putting yourself down, you can still make a joke that is friendlier to you. Your coworkers laugh because they know you’re not at all full of yourself, you say something nice about yourself that people respond to positively, AND you accept the compliment. I don’t do it a lot anymore, but in the transition to learning to accept compliments, it was a huge help.

  46. Helvetica*

    What helped me become better at accepting compliments was actually to give people compliments on a work well done. I felt that helped grow my mindset from “I couldn’t possibly have been as good as you say” to “That person who does a similar job to me is very good at it and if I receive similar comments, then we are probably equal at it.” So kind of like seeing other people be good and complimenting them on it helped me accept that I am good at things.

  47. amp2140*

    Being self depreciating can feel good because it puts our uncomfortablity with being in the spotlight on someone else. Ultimately, you’re forcing people to agree with you, comfort you, or ignore you. It’s the equivalent of someone asking if they look fat. There’s no good outcome.

  48. Clisby*

    Aaggghh, yes! If I had to put up with someone who was constantly acting like this, I’d be ready to choke him. Or her. For sure, if you aren’t willing to accept my compliments at face value, I’m happy to stop giving them.

  49. boop the first*

    Well, discomfort aside, when you tell people who you are over and over and over, they eventually have no choice left but to start believing you.

  50. Anon Sparrow*

    This advice is right on the money! I also struggled with this in my first job, after coming from a culture where the best you could hope for was “the absence of soul-destroying criticism,” never praise.

    It also helps if you practice by giving coworkers genuine compliments about their own work, like: “Thanks, I’ve also heard great things about you! I’m excited to finally get to collaborate on a project together.” Or, even if the other person doesn’t compliment you first, find ways to let people know that you’ve noticed their good work and you’re glad to have them on your team. Then you’re contributing to a collegial, supportive culture where it is the norm to express gratitude and appreciation to your coworkers, which makes it feel less weird when someone gives you a compliment!

  51. BlackCatOwner*

    “How can you break that mindset?”
    When someone pays you a compliment, say “Thank you.” It takes practice. It might be very hard! But it will help with changing the mindset. Practice it with friends if you need to.

    You can say things like “Thank you, I’ve had excellent training from my colleagues” or “Thank you, I really enjoy this work” but honestly if you can, just say “Thank you” and then move the conversation along on. You will find it gets easier with time.

  52. Chickaletta*

    Ugh, this is a habit I need to break too. It comes from my upbringing which emphasised humility and placing others before oneself (darn puritan ancestors).

    I read this post yesterday and already today got to practice responding to a compliment! It came from a coworker and instad of explaining it away, I told her thank you and that I had worked hard. It felt…weird? But, my hope is that with practice it will feel more natural and I will finally start accepting compliments with grace.

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