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How back-handed compliments can affect your mental health

Women are more likely to be victims of negging, a sort of emotional abuse that undermines their confidence and self-worth

Back-handed compliments often occur in toxic relationships(Unsplash)

By Debarati Chakraborty

LAST PUBLISHED 14.06.2022  |  01:00 PM IST

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“That’s a beautiful dress you have on, but are you sure the colour suits you?" Although Saloni’s first reaction was to smile and thank her husband-to-be, his ‘compliment’ left her confused. She wondered if it was merely a flippant remark or he was being mean. As comments like this became frequent, she realised how unkind her fiancé was.

For the 24-year-old, this, however, was not a valid reason to call her wedding off. Growing up in a family that constantly commented on her appearance and monitored her choice of clothes, she had already internalised discrimination from so-called loved ones.

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Like other Indian women, who have experienced these back-handed compliments, referred to as negging, from family members and friends from a young age, Saloni, too, had normalised emotional abuse. Ruchi Ruuh, a counselling psychologist from Delhi, points out that those with a history of negging often remain victims of manipulation throughout their adult lives. “In an Indian family, most children are expected to accept devaluing and harsh comments as ‘constructive criticism’. This often blurs a child’s understanding of compliments and negging, leading to confusion in intimate relationships as adults," Ruchi says. 

Recognising the pattern

Rajani (now 36) recalls how her long-term relationship with her school friend began to feel toxic when she recognised this pattern of back-handed compliments. “He was never directly apprehensive of my capabilities, but his remarks were unkind, especially in front of our friends," she says.

Elated with her first promotion, when Rajani shared the news with her boyfriend, he congratulated her, adding that her manager had always liked her. “As if my promotion was not based on my performance! This was when I noticed how his remarks had always made me feel bad about myself," she adds.

It took her many years to realise that she had been a victim of negging, a reason why compliments from her boyfriend had never felt genuine. “This is because, in reality, these were not praises, but derogatory comments," Purvi Shah, a psychologist from Mumbai, explains.


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While a sensitive and confident man is ready to pay wholesome compliments, those with lower self-esteem or emotional baggage often try to belittle their partner. The aim is to dominate the situation and gain control through negging. This lowers a woman’s self-esteem and forces her to seek the abuser’s approval. “It’s no surprise that negging has slowly become a pick-up tactic in young men these days. Although not all may do it knowingly, this sort of power play has become ingrained in most," says Tanvi Malick, a Delhi-based RCI-licensed clinical psychologist and the founder of The Bare Talk. And while men can be subject to this form of manipulation, women experience it frequently as our society is more judgmental towards women and their appearance, skills or temperament. 

Breaking free of childhood trauma

As the younger sibling of an over-achiever, Nadia was subject to harsh criticism and unkind remarks from a young age. “Since we went to the same school, there was no respite from the constant comparison even when we were not at home. That made matters worse for me," says the 38-year-old.

Mansi Poddar, a psychotherapist from Kolkata, points out that adults often use negging to discipline a child. “In so many of my cases, I have seen parents or teachers shaming and insulting children in the hopes of bringing the best out of them. However, psychological insults don’t make successful children or adults," she says.

When impressionable children are subject to long-term, devaluing behaviour from loved ones, they get accustomed to it, allowing abusers to continue their cycle of negging. “Such children are clueless about boundaries and fail to develop a sense of self-esteem, which they often carry into their adult lives and relationships," Shah says.

For someone like Nadia, who has memories of being a victim of negging since she was eight, it took her decades of self-work and self-love to be her own person. She had to distance herself from hurtful friends and family to realise she didn’t deserve to be criticised for anyone else’s achievements. “By the time I was a teenager, I had been stripped of all my self-confidence. As a result, I was overenthusiastic when given the slightest of attention, especially by young boys. Later, I allowed toxic people into my life because I didn’t know I deserved better," she says.

Malick agrees that continuous negging can be internalised and normalised by victims. If someone has experienced emotional manipulation while growing up, it is harder for them to recognise and heal from it as adults. 

Working on your mental health

When 20-year-old Riya started therapy, her counsellor noticed she had body image issues resulting from her toxic family situation. As a child, she had been the victim of constant negging, mostly by male family members, and she grew up to date men who would manipulate or ghost her. 

Like Riya, most victims of negging find it difficult to explain what they have been experiencing. And even if they are ready to have an honest discussion, their abusive partners accuse them of being jealous or needy, while friends or family call them too emotional. “So, basically, the victim is painted as the bad person, which further depletes their sense of self-worth," Shah says.

Having spent all her adolescence feeling unworthy of appreciation or respect, it took Riya a long time to work on her confidence. As therapy provided her with the tools to identify abusive patterns and create healthy boundaries, she began breaking free of past and current toxic relationships.

The healing process, however, is never the same for everyone. “It depends on how long they have endured the abuse, their resilience and their support system. Often, therapy acts as a necessary intervention," Malick says.

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Ruchi shares how it helps when she sensitises her clients about abuse and manipulation through psychoeducation, which involves a lot of work around regaining confidence and working on body image issues.

Poddar suggests seeking help if negging becomes a regular affair, also keeping in mind that not everyone intends to insult. “Sometimes we may react to innocuous remarks due to our own insecurities, which also need deep-diving," she says.

Watching out for red flags

A form of psychological abuse, negging can gradually deplete a person’s self-confidence while keeping them in a state of constant confusion. However, most women, who have been subject to negging by partners, say they failed to recognise the early signs of manipulation.

“If they make you feel bad for voicing your concerns or always play the victim, please treat these as red flags," Malick says. She advises women to check if their partner invalidates them or is always critical of them.

Ruchi suggests observing how these partners interact with outsiders, if they have other healthy and secure relationships and if they can deal with rejection or criticism without being defensive or bitter. She, however, doesn’t advise clients to engage with their abusers, as that can often make things worse. “Instead, create boundaries and speak to someone trustworthy or seek therapy first," she says.

Another way to identify negging is to take note of how someone’s words or actions make you feel. “If someone’s comments make you squirm or their ‘funny’ remarks make you feel bad about yourself, please don’t question your emotions," Shah says. An abuser will never want to collaborate or communicate, explains Poddar. “Do they gaslight or ghost you? Do they lack empathy, or are they aggressive? If the responses are yes, then treat them as huge red flags," she says.