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Backhanded Comments, Digs, and Subtle Put Downs

Toxic comments are a hallmark of a bully and narcissist.

Backhanded comments, digs, and subtle put-downs are a bully’s/narcissist’s covert attempt at making a person feel small while making himself or herself feel big. Although cleverly disguised as a joke or a compliment, these comments may qualify as “toxic” if they sting, cause confusion, and replay in a person’s mind for days, disrupting their peace.

Three elements qualify a comment as backhanded. First, the comment is sometimes spoken in the context of a casual conversation, so it blindsides a person. Second, it includes derogatory content, so it stings. Third, the comment is centered around a nugget of truth which is coated in a layer of mistruths. Because of the one truth, a person is vulnerable to believing the distortions that accompany it. This conflict continually repeats in a person’s mind, creating anxiety.

Examples include:

“You’d be such a great supervisor if you only knew how to be strong with people.”

“Why are you so quiet? You need to wake up.”

“If you had more heart, you’d be a great runner.”

“You’d be so pretty if you grew out your hair.”

“I’m so sorry to hear about your divorce. Your poor kids.”

All of these comments include the three qualifiers. They are spoken in a casual manner, are demeaning, and contain an element of truth which causes turmoil. For example, the person would actually make a great supervisor, is a talented runner, has short hair, is quiet, and is divorced. But what follows the truth is the distorted material, so it confusing. Unfortunately, when the truth is mixed with fiction, it seems to give the fiction more credibility, fueling the power of a toxic sentiment.

Often the best way to determine whether a comment is toxic is to ask, “Would I ever say anything like that to someone else?” If the answer is a resounding, “No” it may be an indication that the comment is venomous.

Yet, there are instances when negative assertions can seem toxic, but may not be. For example, a person may lose his or her temper during a conflict and say something they regret. If the person feels searing guilt and remorse regarding angry words they spoke during a debate and apologizes for those comments, it may not signify toxicity. Alternatively, one trademark of a narcissist or bully is they rarely feel sincere remorse or accountability for their noxious sentiments.

Good-natured teasing also escapes the criteria for being toxic. Joking and razzing is a fun way to get close to people, and it remains healthy if it does not have a degrading connotation. For example, a group of friends nicknamed their friend “Geo” because he is gifted at geometry. Yet, if they referred to him as “nerd-boy,” it may feel demeaning to him.

Although good-natured teasing may be intended to be harmless, if it crosses a line and the receiving person appears hurt or says it is not funny, the teaser should immediately stop, apologize, and refrain from joking in that fashion again. The situation may be toxic if the teaser has limited conscious awareness of how their words impact another person, deny they did anything wrong, or blame the person for being “too sensitive.”

In summary, a bully or a narcissist may be on the other end of a comment if it blindsides, stings, and swims in a person’s head. When a person shows minimal conscientiousness about how his or her words cause people to feel, they are also rarely accountable and minimally remorseful. Often this is indicated by their continued toxic comments. Keeping this in mind when dealing with him or her may help buffer the blow. Diplomatically gaining space from this person also helps.

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