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Handling Put-Downs With Your Self-Esteem In Tow

Put-Downs, remarks that have the intention of criticising or humiliating a person, are a subtle form of personal attack. They’re covert and so indeed, passive-aggressive remarks, that are delivered with a smile, humour, or even a deadpan. It is this body language and tone that is confusing to you as the recipient. You’ll know a put-down if you’re around someone who gives you backhanded compliments – insults coupled with supposed praise.

“You’re so sweet. Thank goodness I don’t have to worry about competing with you.”

“Wow! That’s really good. OK, who really did it?” or “That’s gorgeous! Come on now, tell the truth – there’s no way you made it yourself. You got that made for you, didn’t you?”

“You’re really good at that considering that you’re a woman.”

“You just stick to what you’re good at and let me get on with the important stuff.”

“You look great! Such a transformation from that wimpy/fat/whatever girl/boy you were when I knew you.”

“Wow, you’ve done really well for yourself. Congratulations. I remember when you used to work in [highlights some divey job from when you were 15]” or adds, “I remember when you had nothing/couldn’t get a date/were a loser with no friends.”

“That’s really good that you lost all of that weight. I bet that’s given you the confidence to think you can go after hotter men/women.”

These put-downs often come from passive-aggressive people who know they are but won’t admit it or are so entrenched in their behaviour and lack awareness about alternatives, that they don’t recognise how blummin’ well offensive their comments are. It’s important to note this because your average passive-aggressive is not going to own up straight away (if at all) to this, which is why you have to nail ‘em with facts and call them out on their comment in as calm a manner as possible. The angrier you respond even if you are more than justified, the more that they will claim that you have it wrong or that you're "too sensitive". This is all while ticking their beliefs boxes that, Of course, I can't be honest with people because look at this reaction to my sneaky comment that I won't even admit to…

By responding to a put-down in an assertive manner (not owning their feelings and behaviour), that person will reveal themselves and confirm your suspicion, or be mortified by the comment and clarify the intention. Note that sometimes you will get the latter reaction because the person did intend to be rude but are shocked at being called out on it. Either way, they know your line, and you will feel better about you instead of taking their comment as a chop at your self-esteem.

1. Recognise a put-down when you hear it.

It also helps if you are already aware of the typical source of this type of carry-on (people on your Hot List - your People Pleasing Entourage) but also if you’re aware of what a put-down is (see above) and what your feelings are in that moment.

If you have a ‘What the….’ moment and are wondering if they just had a dig at you with a smile, it’s probably because they did.

2. Either at the time or as soon as possible afterwards, let them know how you feel.

With repeat offenders, it’s in your best interests to call it out when it happens because they will do their best to dodge accountability if it’s further down the line and will change the story.

‘I feel really hurt by that remark', or even better, 'I feel really hurt that you said {repeat verbatim or as close to it}', or 'I’m very offended by what you said'.

A guy at university said to me, “You’re really good looking for a black girl” (I know, I know) and I replied, “I’m deeply offended by what you just said". He claimed that he was only joking and I said, “Just because you’re smiling at me when you say it, it doesn’t mean that what you said isn’t offensive and inappropriate.” He repeated that I should lighten up while now looking quite nervous. “Lighten up? What, to white?” That shut him up.

3. Ask one of the most useful questions that will spare you ruminating, obsessing, and taking the blame for other people’s behaviour: “What did you mean by that?” Or, “What did you mean when you said _______________________?”

You can also say, “I’m confused by what you said. Can you explain please?” or “I don’t understand your comment. What do you mean?”

4. If appropriate, although don’t do it from a position of wanting to justify yourself or get validation, say something positive about you.

Try to do it in as least defensive a way as possible. 'Yes thanks, I am looking and feeling great. I can’t say that I felt that I couldn’t date good looking people before…'

'Yes, I have done well, thank you! Thankfully I didn’t let the idea that some people might regard me as a loser with no friends get in the way of that…' or even, 'Well I’m glad I didn’t know I was a loser with no friends as I might not have had the confidence to do what I’ve done'.

5. Recognise that a put-down may be a device to attempt to mute you but may actually end up positively firing you up.

A close friend went on maternity leave, and was offered a higher position while on leave. She wasn’t ready to go back yet, so she remained on leave. The company went through a restructure, and she ended up with a director who was basically giving positions to her friends, namely the person who was covering my friend’s leave. She promoted her friend into my friend’s role at that time, and then asked my friend to apply for different roles due to the position no longer existing, while also telling her that she would now have to spend at least 18 months getting additional experience to get the higher position that she was offered only months before. My friend was furious, but she is a pleaser, and at first she was almost taking it lying down and questioning her abilities. At the time, the company would not admit that they had promoted the girl into the role that she’d been on leave from, and they were trying to get her to take a lesser role. Then one day the director said, “I’m so impressed with you. I’m really glad that you’ve decided to be professional about this and aren’t making a fuss.”

She called me later that day with her anger and self-respect ignited and finally acknowledged that they were very much in the wrong and that this woman used that put-down in the hopes that my friend might think twice about making a fuss in the name of looking “professional”. My friend turned down their shady offers, then she turned down the first and second settlement offer and ended up with a huge payoff. High five! That woman learned that she was wrong about my friend and that being sneaky and unprofessional doesn’t always pay.

6. Sometimes silence and a smile says a lot.

I've dealt with a fair amount of sly digs in my time, and something that makes the other person realise that you just don't give two figs about their opinion is to give them a big smile... and walk away. Some people realise that they cannot matter to you in a positive way, so they try to make themselves front and centre by trying to be remembered negatively. Exes who realise that the old moves don't work sometimes do this.

7. Don't agree with the insult.

You will handle put-downs from a place of self-esteem if your first thought isn't to agree with it. Even if you have an initial wobble. My favourite affirmation, That's not mine, it's theirs, and I'm sending it right back, works wonders here. Once you agree with an insult, you're insulting you too. You don't deserve that.

8. Remember that no person has the right to an audience with you.

We live in a time where people feel as if it's their right to make you a party to their negativity. You can't control what people think, but they don't need to insult you on your time. A friend of mine was abused by a drunk man on a train one evening for being "fat and disgusting". Yes he was insulting her, and of course, she was upset by his awful behaviour but what he said was uncalled for, and she let him know it. Sometimes people are really bothered by how OK you are with you, especially when they are not so OK with themselves and feel that they're 'better' than you. Breathe out and turn in the other direction.

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