“Punching up” is a term I first came across as comedy advice, and is the term that refers to the way that comedy can be uncomfortable without being offensive. Punching Up means that you are a person with a certain level of power in a hierarchical system. And as a person with that level of power in that hierarchy, you direct the discomfort of your witty observation upward, rather than downward.
The idea is that comedy, like all good creative movement, should be more upsetting the higher up you go. Punching up, at its most noble, can be another way of speaking truth to power (power never likes to be confronted with questions about its legitimacy). Punching down, however, is kicking the weak, and makes one less an irreverent iconoclast than a bully. You don’t make fun of the guy who just got hit in the face and expect to shake things up, you make fun of the guy who did the hitting, noting how his knuckles got so scraped up he couldn’t do the celebratory fist-pump into the air after the fight.
We do a lot of personal, self-punching in the course of living our lives with any sort of self-awareness. It’s not impossible to punch-down on yourself–attack your own weak spots, the soft places and tender feelings that form the core of your vulnerabilities.
But we’re also no strangers to punching-up on ourselves, either. Attacking our own strengths with doubt and minimization. And oh, lordy, are we women great at minimizing–we pay millions of dollars to industries that minimize our hips, waists, thighs, signs of aging, and all the while we minimize our accomplishments, our strengths, and our victories for free.
But let’s do something different going forward. Instead of punching down or punching up, why don’t we stop punching each other altogether? Why don’t we stop punching ourselves? Going forward, I would like for anyone who reads this to think twice the next time you catch yourself punching up on yourself. Even if you don’t do it in public, or out loud, I would like for you to stop yourself, and say, “Yeah–no. That thing I did? That thing I’m good at? That thing I can do? I’m really good at it. I did that. I can do that.”
And the next time you find yourself punching down on your weak points, I want you to remember what your teacher from preschool said. “We don’t hit people.” That includes ourselves.