The first person to stop putting down is yourself

James E. McGinley, PhD
3 min readFeb 1, 2022

When I was young my mother used to tell me, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Like most of her advice, I was not very good at following this simple rule. But I have found that it applies just as well to how we talk to ourselves as to how we talk to others.

Like most truisms in life, this advice is deceptively simple.

I have always found it amazing that to stop doing something is often harder than to start doing something. The reason is often that we want to change our behavior without taking the time to change how we think and change who we are. Our internal image of ourselves is too powerful to stop. So, we catch ourselves failing despite our best intentions.

— Putting ourselves down sends a message to others. —

When we talk about ourselves, we are either speaking to others or we are speaking to ourselves. So, if we don’t want to say bad things, we are going to have to shift both our internal and external perspectives.

We want to be watchful, but we don’t have to be overly serious. We often playfully put ourselves down to signal to others that we are not trying to make ourselves too important. We sometimes use light humor to put ourselves down a little bit to admit a flaw, let others now that we are not too sensitive, and to let others know that we are secure enough to be open to a little teasing.

Humor is an advanced coping mechanism. When we make a little bit of fun of ourselves in a friendly way with others, we help defuse tension in a conversation. The reason is simple. When we tease ourselves, we are disclosing a vulnerability and accepting the risk that comes with disclosure. Used in this way a bit of self-teasing expresses self-confidence and openness.

— Putting ourselves down sends a message to ourselves. —

But self-talk — public or private — can take a nasty turn when it loses its playful and positive nature. Self-talk is automatic. When it is automatically negative, we are not giving ourselves a chance to be better. We are just confirming feelings of low self-worth, loneliness, lack of control, or despair. We run the risk of making ourselves unlovable to ourselves and to others.

I read a spiritual story once where a monk was accused by another of being a sinner. His response? He simply said, “And you only see me from the outside, you should see me from the inside.” When we admit a flaw, we disarm the power of the accusation. Openly accepting a reality takes away its leverage. It sets the stage for a new beginning.

We have to remember this; we are changing every day. So, we are not the same person today that we were yesterday, and we will not be the same person tomorrow that we are today. Who we are today is not our destiny. Our problems, flaws, and mistakes are simply a part of our life journey. It is inevitable that there will be some bad along with the good in our lives, even in ourselves. But we can take the time to recognize and appreciate all of who we are and move on in a positive way.

James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life — whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.

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James E. McGinley, PhD

James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor.