What Is a Double-Edged Compliment, and How Do We Respond to Them?

3 min
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How do you feel when someone says you’re looking…healthy? Do you think, “Great! I feel it! All that sleep hygiene and self-care I’ve been focusing on lately is paying off!” Or do you suspect they’re just leaving out the bit that they really mean, which is, “because you usually look terrible”? 

The double-edged compliment is a tricky thing to navigate. Some compliments are made with the best of intentions, yet are not happily received. There are also “compliments” said with the intention to provoke, but go unnoticed. And some comments simply leave us wondering, “What on earth did they mean by that?!”

Give it to me straight

If you know someone with a passive-aggressive streak, you’ve likely been hit with a few barbed “compliments”. Perhaps it was a friend who said in a deadpan voice, “Wow, I love how brave you are to wear that.” The subtext – what is unsaid yet inferred – might be that what you are wearing doesn’t meet their standards. Or perhaps you have a parent who frequently says things like, “Well done on that exam/work project, but I know you can do better”. At surface level, this seems positive – a congratulations on your achievement, and an expression of belief in your capabilities – but the inference is that where you’re at is not good enough. These comments can be incredibly hurtful and confusing, especially when they come from the people we love. But they are actually not really about you. They are a projection of that person’s own insecurities.

What do you really mean?

These kinds of backhanded compliments can be a sign of somebody who is deeply ashamed of who they are. It’s possible that they might be intentionally trying to bring you down in an attempt to feel better about themselves. This can be a very toxic situation and it’s important to examine your boundaries around someone you suspect of doing this. But it’s also likely that they are unconsciously and unintentionally letting their own low self-esteem cloud their perception of you. A friend who feels threatened by your sense of style is probably not comfortable in their own skin. A parent who can’t be happy for or accept their child as they are is likely seeing their child’s achievements as a reflection of their own worth (which is a sign of narcissism). Some backhanded compliments are a result of wider systemic biases that we can end up internalizing from a shame-based society. For example, a woman being called “feisty” is double-edged because it’s rarely used to describe a man. We need to call into question why the commenter (whatever their gender) is unnerved by an assertive woman.

Whose insecurity is it anyway?

When you receive a compliment, notice what goes on in your own body. Does it make you feel warm and peaceful? Then great, all is well. Does it make you feel a bit icky? In this case, examine whether the unease is coming from your own insecurity first. Are you hung up on your looks or capabilities? If so, that’s ok, and recognizing this gives you more self-knowledge. But try not to take on board any criticism from the comment (whether it was intended or not). Take it instead as an opportunity for self-inquiry. Explore what you feel insecure about and why. You can then work to build up your self-esteem so that double-edged compliments begin to carry less weight. 

If you feel like the nature of the compliment is unclear, then you might want to give them the benefit of the doubt. But even then, you have every right to stand up for yourself. You can still explain to the commenter that what they said made you feel a certain way, perhaps around a certain issue, and that you would appreciate it if they could be more sensitive in future.  

But if you’re certain that what you’re receiving is a thinly-disguised insult, you get to draw your own boundaries. You can call this person up on their toxicity, or you can walk away and save your energy. With family, that can mean limiting time spent together. With friends, it can mean examining whether this person is deserving of your precious time and energy. Ultimately it’s up to you what you take on board, but know that you deserve to be around people who wholeheartedly support you. That’s not just a compliment, that’s a fact.

Stuck for what to say to a backhanded or double-edged compliment? Here are some comebacks to have in the bank:

  • I know you are trying to be kind, but I’m feeling insecure about _____ and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t comment on it in future.
  • I’m afraid I don’t accept your compliment. It made me feel _____. I understand that you might not be aware of this issue, and I can tell you more if you’d like. Please just respect my feelings.  
  • That was a hurtful thing to say, because it felt like you were actually saying _____. If you truly believe that, then I can’t be around you right now.

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All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals that influenced this article: Backhand Compliments: How Negative Comparisons Undermine Flattery; Development and Validation of a Measure of Passive Aggression Traits: The Passive Aggression Scale.

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