Say what you mean and mean what you say
January 5, 2014 5:27 PM   Subscribe

The things that come out of my mouth sometimes baffle me. Why do I do this?

I have recently noticed that my words do not match up with my thoughts. I will often make comments about myself that intellectually I know to be false. For example, the other day I had an important work meeting, so I spent extra time on my morning routine and dressed nicely. Later on, when I saw my boyfriend, he complimented me and I responded, "Yeah, I prettied myself up today." He responded, "You're always pretty!" And I rolled my eyes and made a dismissive comment. Why did I do that? Objectively I know that I am not a hag. In fact, I look pretty good. But I can't stop myself from dismissing comments like that.

Another example is at work. I often joke with my colleagues about how "lazy" I am and how I "procrastinated" on grading or lesson planning. But I know that this is not the case - I actually work quite hard and am better prepared than most of my coworkers. I just seem to say things, with a completely straight face, that go against what I know to be true about myself.

This can also happen in reverse - when I do say things that are true but my affect contradicts reality. Last night I wanted to ask my boyfriend for something specific in bed. I knew that he would not only be happy to do it, he would be thrilled that I was asking him - being open and trusting in our relationship. But it took me, no joke, a good 10 minutes to get the words out and I stuttered the entire time. I think I even said, "if you don't mind", which has gotta be the least sexy phrase ever. Why was that so difficult for me? He reacted just like I thought he would, and a good time was had by all, although later he said he thought I was going to hyperventilate when I was asking him. But I didn't FEEL anxious or panicked at all!

I know I have self-esteem issues that I am working on, but I feel I have reached a point in my therapy where I recognize that what I'm saying or conveying with my affect is false, but I still keep saying it. Why do I still do it and how can I stop? Will the old rubber-band-aversion-snap help here?
posted by chainsofreedom to Human Relations (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
At the risk of sounding sarcastic, it sounds like you have self-esteem issues that you are working on, and have reached a point in your therapy where you recognize what you're saying...

You also have to deal with a change in the way you've been used to dealing with people, which is an added difficulty To use the old cliche, old habits die hard, and you also have to learn a different way of talking to people that seems genuine. Give yourself a break- it's going to take some time.

If you catch yourself saying something like this, there's nothing wrong with stopping and saying something else. Interrupt yourself.

"Well, I just got the papers graded because I'm la--. No, actually, I'm not: students kept dropping in."
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:43 PM on January 5

Counseling is probably indicated here. There may be something in your past, perhaps someone who repeatedly denigrated you, leading to that being internalized now. Your self-perception on this issue will be very helpful.
posted by yclipse at 5:49 PM on January 5

Old habits die hard. That you notice it means you can change it. Changing it will take time.
posted by heyjude at 5:50 PM on January 5

It might be old habit - you understand that these patterns go against what you really know, but the words are ingrained - or it might be that you're still being rewarded by something about the interaction. Acting shy when you didn't feel shy probably protected you further against the unlikely outcome that your partner would laugh at you or refuse your request unkindly. Dismissing a compliment you know to be true might make you feel modest as well as pretty, or it might be protective against the (again, remote) possibility your colleague or boyfriend retracts the compliment, or it might just give you the feeling of fitting in with everyone else.

I think if you keep being aware of it, you will eventually be able to head it off at the pass - you're recognize the cues for where you're about to put yourself down or act more reticent than you feel. Aversion training would be counterproductive, I think - you feel bad enough afterward as it is, and the data around aversion suggest it doesn't work consistently. Maybe just give yourself some more time, and keep trying. Especially with your boyfriend, who presumably knows you are working on this stuff, you should be able to contradict and correct your response, as randomkeystrike suggests, without coming off weird. Eventually, you'll probably get to the point where you respond appropriately the first time. (Rehearsing an appropriate answer couldn't hurt. Here's one: "Thank you for noticing! I did put in some effort and I'm glad to hear it paid off."
posted by gingerest at 5:51 PM on January 5 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you are just following socially expected scripts. We (women) all learn as young girls to dismiss compliments, and to put ourselves down. It sounds like your workplace has a convention of expecting people to find grading and lesson planning boring and difficult and so to procrastinate on it. Of course you want to sound like you fit in. Also in that circumstance, saying, "Actually I did all my grading well in advance" would sound like boasting. And then there's an expectation that women will be demure and coy in bed rather than asking straight out for what they want.

I don't know how to avoid it, but I do think this is the root of your problem.
posted by lollusc at 5:51 PM on January 5 [21 favorites]

It took me a long time to break this habit. I think one reason I used to make self-deprecating it was to lower people's expectations.

When someone compliments me, I remind myself that people feel good when they give compliments, so dismissing a compliment is actually kind of selfish.

When someone gives you a compliment, pause for a moment so you don't blurt out anything. Then smile and say "Thank you." In your head, you can repeat over and over, "Justsaythankyou. Justsaythankyou."
posted by Room 641-A at 5:54 PM on January 5

If you're female in America, you also could be internalizing the misogynistic cultural baggage that women shouldn't ever be caught owning their success, especially not at work or when it comes to their looks. We're just expected to be "modest" as part of being respectable - and that often means never take a compliment as a given, or you'll be seen to be unfeminine or conceited.

It's a hard habit to break, but recognizing it is definitely a good first step.
posted by Mchelly at 5:55 PM on January 5 [3 favorites]

Man, you could be describing me back a couple of decades ago.

Bite your tongue and say, "thank you." No more, no less. It's hard but it gets easier with practice.


You see? You are just being polite. Polite, like your mother would tell you to be. Polite means not denigrating the other person's opinion and not over preening (which would make you uncomfortable). Just "thank you" -- fake it til you make it.
posted by janey47 at 6:01 PM on January 5 [4 favorites]

I couldn't get myself to read all the comments to see if this was already in there but...

I used to be like you until I read something about how it was, for example, not very kind not to accept a compliment at its face value, as if questioning it is an insult to the giver. I liked the sound of that. It suggested thanking the complimenter- so that's what I do now. Someone tells me I'm beautiful, and instead of telling them I'm not really, I give them a smile, and say thank you, that's so kind of you. It's accepting the compliment and giving one back! They're not a liar, they're a kind person! Note that it does not imply that you have accepted, or even denied, the content of the compliment.

Maybe you can start from here as well. Then work on actually feeling the compliment if you want to, as another issue altogether. I found that this way of accepting the compliment had the added benefit of making me feel it, ymmv.
posted by cacao at 7:54 PM on January 5 [1 favorite]

I've sometimes found myself slipping into behaviours and using words that I recognize are prompted by the situation. Yeah, it absolutely is about being polite in that uniquely feminine way, vigilant, attending to others' expectations (or more to the point, what you believe those expectations to be).

You can recognize that slip into the role. I think you can even feel it, physically. Your energy starts buzzing around the head, neck, arms, and there's tension there. Maybe stomach, if there's worry. When you talk, your voice comes out at a higher pitch. It feels different than when you're relaxed and grounded within yourself, acting and responding authentically (i.e., in consonance with spontaneous feelings, natural habits of thought, ideas you believe to be true). When that's so, your energy's not somewhere weird. It just feels 'normal'. Like 'sitting back', or 'settling in'.

You can decide to 'sit back' within yourself. E.g., with your boyfriend, you can 'sit back' into the playful, desiring feeling and let it lead your actions. Or, when someone's complimenting you -- think of yourself in private moments: how do you stand, move, feel at home when no one's around, and you've done a bang-up job putting a piece of furniture together? Let yourself settle into feeling/behaving like that when other people are around, too.

Or, observe role models and mimic them (along faking-it lines). Maybe you've seen a confident mentor handle a compliment graciously. What was their body doing? How did they stand, talk, move?
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:21 PM on January 5 [3 favorites]

I have to add (in relation to lollusc and Mchelly's answers) that this behavior is independent of gender. I'm following this question with great interest because I do the same things, and I'm an early-30's male.

Maybe it's true that more women exhibit this behavior than men -- I don't know -- but I don't believe that you're exhibiting this behavior because you're a woman.
posted by Dilligas at 10:09 PM on January 5

Years ago I trained my mouth to stop speaking for me, meaning I developed a habit of saying nothing at all until I'd given it a mental review and a thumbs up. This severely curtailed a bad habit of mine of saying glib offensive things that I thought were funny but were really just gross and juvenile.

I still think such things, I just don't say them.

The experience of speaking more deliberately has had a secondary effect that I'm more willing to say things that I know I should say, but would hesitate to for social reasons--like accepting a compliment gracefully, or telling a server that my meal actually isn't enjoyable for some fixable reason, so would they mind fixing it, thank you? As Janey47 said, the best response to a compliment is simply a smiling "thank you", and while that can go against long-held reflexes, it can be done deliberately. And "deliberately" starts with not saying anything until you give your brain a second to overrule the neurotic habits we all accumulate over time.

Don't worry if you find yourself pausing momentarily before saying something because you're doing this. It makes you look thoughtful, and goes away once you cultivate the stronger habit of speaking deliberately.
posted by fatbird at 10:13 PM on January 5 [1 favorite]

> I have to add (in relation to lollusc and Mchelly's answers) that this behavior is independent of gender.

No it's not; just because it also happens with men emphatically does not mean it's independent of gender. I know you don't mean to be dismissive of women's experience, but it comes off like saying "I've been harassed too, so harassment isn't a gendered problem." It is a very, very common problem among women (not only in America), it is clearly related to the way women are treated and expected to behave, and the fact that the asker is a woman is not in the least irrelevant.
posted by languagehat at 8:41 AM on January 6 [5 favorites]

When you gave the first example - when you made a dismissive reply to your boyfriend and rolled your eyes - I was going to interpret it like this:

I once had it pointed out to me that complimenting someone is a form of judgement, albeit a positive one. A number of things made sense to me in light of that. Since judgement flows down the social hierarchy and not up it, it explained why people tended to react so negatively to my attempts to compliment them - I don't mean putting themselves down, I mean things like snorting derisively or rolling their eyes, or otherwise sneering and making it clear that the compliment wasn't welcome.

Normally you would expect a compliment to be a nice thing to say and therefore well received, but on the other hand, differences in social standing mean that the same action, performed by two different people, will be received very differently. Earlier in my life, I was treated as very low on the social hierarchy. If things were passed around a class, it would be passed to everyone but me. If I was in a queue at a cafeteria, and it was my turn to be served, I would open my mouth to place my order and the person in front of me or behind me would get served instead - *repeatedly*. For example. I don't think I ever went a single day without having at least one person unequivocally insult me to my face. Etc, etc. If the examples I've given don't convince you, please just take it as read that I was treated as socially inferior to the people around me much of the time.

So that explains it - my compliments were being met with contempt because a compliment coming from a social inferior is worthless, and might even decrease the recipient's social value depending on who heard it.

I'm no longer treated as socially inferior... ever, really. But to this day I refrain from giving compliments because it's ingrained in me that it's not my place to do so.

Now maybe you do look down on your boyfriend, I wouldn't know. But then you went on to say that you pre-emptively tell coworkers that you're incompetent/lazy/a person who produces work of poor quality. Well, there's no mistaking the meaning of that. You're placing yourself lower in the pecking order so that you won't have to face the more painful experience of being put there by someone else. If you humble yourself first, you at least have a (perceived) chance of being exalted in response, whereas if the group humbles you that's difficult to recover from. Long term, of course, putting yourself down will reinforce your low social position.
posted by tel3path at 10:04 AM on January 6 [8 favorites]

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