‘lol I’m a mess’ Marco Verch/ Flickr

If you’re reading this, take a second to pull out your phone and have a quick scroll down your Facebook feed (let’s be real, you were probably procrastinating by doing just that). Amongst the stream of memes, how many of the posts you see have comedic value entirely because they point out someone’s flaws or difficulties?

From those endless posts matching someone’s initials or names to how terrible they are at driving, cooking or self-control, to the equally common ‘relatable’ memes based on drinking too much, working too little and generally being a mess, it seems that a lot of internet humour is concerned with laughing at and relating to the various ways in which people’s lives could be falling apart.

This isn’t an issue, right? After all, laughing at our problems is a good coping mechanism – better than wallowing in them at any rate. It makes sense not to interpret a few memes about stress as conclusive proof that human beings are fundamentally pessimistic and miserable. But, after one of these long scrolls through Facebook, you might decide you need a break from all your hard work and meet up with some friends for food. When you ask them how their days have been, it is fairly likely you’ll hear about the terrible piece of supervision work they just handed in, or the exam they’re going to fail tomorrow morning.

“Any amount of positive thinking will be useless if we are constantly and casually reinforcing the message that we are ‘a mess’.”

Of course, you might hear good things too, but when people mention how stressed they are or how much they’re struggling with their courses, the stress and negativity whip themselves up; everyone else feels the need to chime in with how stressed they are, almost to the extent of competing. So you’ve escaped everyone’s ‘lol I’m a mess’ posts on the internet, and immediately entered a real-world environment where the same culture exists: where people egg each other on as they fight to show just how chaotic their life is.

What’s more, if some of your friends are engaging in this fight, you’re almost obliged to join in. It’s impossible to seem calm and in control while everyone is talking about how stressed they are; you definitely don’t want to rub it in their face. Fairly early on, we are socialised into believing that how likeable you are is inversely proportional to how able you make yourself seem. This means we don’t tend to like arrogant people, for good reason – but it also makes self-deprecation the easiest form of humour.

We make and hear self-deprecatory jokes so often that while it is easy not to notice them, their ubiquity leads to a self-deprecatory outlook becoming embedded in how we think. One of the clearest examples of this is our attitude towards compliments. Somehow, emphatically denying any involvement in the crime of being good at something has become a socially acceptable way to respond to compliments: something along the lines of “oh, I’m really not that good.” Our brains calculate that playing up our weaknesses and playing down our strengths is the best way to seem as likeable – and non-threatening – as possible. And so, we spend many of our social interactions applying the rule that how well we are perceived depends on how much we put ourselves down.

In a competitive environment where many of us are already questioning our abilities and dealing with insecurities, associating likeability with self-deprecation is problematic. It is difficult to combat the feelings of inadequacy we all face as we stare blankly at our example sheets or essay questions on a cold Week Five evening, but it is even harder when there is a social obligation to stress that we don’t know how to approach the questions or that we have way too many and it’s all so stressful.


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As paradoxical as it seems, we do still live in a climate where opening up about serious personal or academic difficulties is hard. This is partly because fear of burdening others and having to lower your own standards eventually start to outweigh the likeability factor, but also partly because the ubiquity of self-deprecation trivialises these difficulties. Stage-stress for the sake of seeming likeable and relatable is common, yet discussion of anything more severe is met with stigma.

This combination of being surrounded by self-deprecatory culture and being discouraged from openly discussing the problems we’re facing traps us in an environment where stress and insecurity are highly visible, but inescapable. To overcome this, we need to stop conflating confidence with pride.

This is a pretty fundamental cultural change, and it is a natural reaction to perceive someone as less of a threat – hence view them more positively – if they downplay their ability. However, any amount of positive thinking will be useless if we are constantly and casually reinforcing the message that we are ‘a mess’ to ourselves and others. The more we suggest this message in our conversations, texts, even our memes, the harder it will be to escape.

So many people in Cambridge are incredible at what they do – if we started accepting compliments and breaking this endless cycle of self-deprecation, we could realise this fact, and end the epidemic of low self-worth that we’re experiencing.