The other night, we were watching the new Queer Eye on Netflix when the episode about the stand-up comic came on.
I think stand-up comedy is incredibly difficult, and I admire anyone who can do it. It takes a special kind of courage to get up in front of an audience of strangers and attempt to make them laugh. But I found myself a little uncomfortable with the Fab 5 helping this adult man who was still living in his childhood bedroom in his parents’ house pursue his dream of being a comic.
Not for the reasons you might think. Not because the goal was unrealistic or that I thought he should give up on his dreams and get a ‘real job’. But because his brand of humor was self-deprecation.
The episode ended with the comic getting a bachelor pad makeover of his parents’ basement as his own apartment and a well-received set at a comedy club. Even better, he wound up with a woman he was interested in and said all the right things. A very satisfying show.
Only I turned to my husband to voice my concerns. “His whole routine is about him being a loser. How will he ever be anything else if that’s what he keeps telling himself?”
I probably would have forgotten all about this except the next night we watched Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special, “Nanette.” I don’t want to steal her thunder, so I’m not going to say what it was about, but Variety describes the show as “Startlingly frank and personal, it blends stand-up with art history and incisive commentary on the very nature of what comedy is. It also features the Tasmania native declaring she is quitting comedy, something her legions of new fans are sure to take issue with.”
And one of the reasons she gave for quitting was that telling her story over and over again in comedic form over-wrote the true version of what happened to her. It trapped her in time and prevented her from being able to move on and to heal. It’s a powerful special. You should watch it if you can. Yes, it’s comedy, but it’s so much more than that. It’s angry and it’s painful. It’s raw.
And I completely understand why she feels she must give up comedy as a result.
See, I’m the queen of self-deprecation. I learned at an early age that if I cut myself down with wit and humor, beating anyone else to the punch, I would deflate and diminish the impact of whatever derogatory statement someone else might make. As a coping mechanism, this is highly effective. The problem is, after years of playing that same song over and over, the groove is dug so deep the needle skips if you try to play a different track.
I struggle with the concept of positive affirmation. I can write down my ‘wishful thinking’ affirmations, no problem. I just don’t believe them. The more outlandish I think the affirmation is, the more I roll my eyes and snort.
“I will be a USA Today Bestselling Author.”
Yeah, right. Okay, I’ve read the stories about people like Meryl Streep and Jim Carey who believed in themselves when no one else did, and became mega-successes as a result. I just don’t know how they did it. Because if I don’t believe something, I can’t tell myself it’s the truth.
Recently, I received an age positivity workbook. I have a hard time with aging. I grew up hearing how getting old was horrible and that I just shouldn’t do it. (Um, the alternative doesn’t sound so hot, either…) For years I thought my mother was simply vain–she’d had multiple cosmetic procedures and refused to tell anyone her age–but then I found out she kept her age a secret to avoid mandatory retirement which was age-based. That added another whole level of fear and distrust to the mix, which only worsened when I became a caretaker to my parents during their final years.
So yeah, time to work on my negativity toward aging, hence the workbook. Only on the second page, I was faced with the first exercise: list three positive things about your belly.
WHAT THE HELL? No, seriously, this was my reaction. It felt as though I’d been sucker-punched. You’re just going to throw me off the deep end like that, workbook? No swimming lessons? No life jacket? Sink or swim?
I literally could only come up with one positive thing to say about the roll of fat overhanging my belt: At least I won’t be the first to die in the coming apocalypse.
I’m pretty sure that’s not the chipper response the workbook designers were hoping for.
More and more I hear people advising that we need to stop self-deprecation, that the danger is we’ll believe that part of the story and sabotage anything that doesn’t fit that narrative. Especially we as authors, should understand the power of words, and telling ourselves that our stories suck and we’ll never make it as a writer is one of the worst things we can do. I’ve written about this before. I know this to be true. I find it less easy to resolve.
I say terrible things to myself all the time. I avoid looking in mirrors because I see a fat, frumpy, middle-aged woman who has nothing to show for her time on this planet. See, that part of this paragraph rolled out without any thought whatsoever. It’s the song I know by heart.
When I attempt to say nice things to myself, they usually come out with as, “Huh, not bad for an old broad.” I mean, I can’t even tell myself something positive without adding the negative qualifier.
But if I want to change the playback, I have to learn new songs. Part of me wants to suggest that I not start with something too big to accept–that instead of telling myself I’m going to hit the bestseller list, I should remind myself that everything I’ve ever envisioned about myself has come true–and that I should start with smaller goals. The negative soundtrack is too loud. I can’t drown it out with songs I don’t believe.
But the funny thing about the subconscious is it doesn’t know the difference between lies and the truth. I’ve been lying to myself for years–that I’m not smart, or pretty, or intelligent, or worthy. That song plays 24/7 without my even being aware of it.
Maybe it’s time to belt out a new song. I don’t have to believe it–not completely. I just have to sing it over and over again.