How to Handle Backhanded Compliments

As someone who has struggled with depression, I know how challenging it can be to navigate through life while dealing with mental health issues. One of the difficulties I have encountered is addressing backhanded compliments. Backhanded compliments are disguised insults that can be difficult to detect. They are often wrapped in a layer of supposed kindness or praise, making them especially hurtful.

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This week’s musing aims to help you recognize backhanded compliments whether you give them or receive them. I hope that instead of giving backhanded compliments, people will offer genuine support and validation, which would be more beneficial. By showing empathy and understanding, we can reduce mental health stigma and create a supportive environment for everyone.

What is a Backhanded Compliment?

A backhanded compliment is a type of insincere statement that is sometimes used to mask criticism, sarcasm, or insensitivity. It is a form of passive-aggressive behavior that can be hurtful and damaging to those on the receiving end. Often appearing as a compliment, there can occasionally be a hidden insult or negative message. The recipient of the compliment may feel confused or misled, as the compliment seems to contain a mixture of positive and negative feelings. Here are just a few examples of a backhanded compliment:

  1. “You’re so much better than you were before, keep it up.”
  2. “You are just looking for attention.”
  3. “You are not trying hard enough to get better.”
  4. “You’re just being dramatic, it’s not that bad.”

These compliments may be well-intentioned, but they dismiss or invalidate the feelings and experiences of the person to whom they are directed towards. They can also add to feelings of guilt, shame, or frustration, making it even more difficult for them to seek help and support.

Being on the Receiving End of a Backhanded Compliment

It is important to remember that the person giving the compliment may not have intended for the comment to be construed as insincere. With this in mind, here are two examples of backhanded compliments that I received recently:

“Just think positive, you’ll feel better.” — Anonymous

This compliment came from someone who likely has no frame of reference regarding depression. There is no magic pill to snap out of a depressive episode. Comments such as these can be harmful to the recipient’s self-esteem and can create feelings of insecurity or inadequacy. If only I could think my way out of feeling bad.

“You have so much to be grateful for, why are you still feeling down?” — Anonymous

While I am sure that my friend had good intentions, the words still ring loudly in my ear. Of course, I am grateful — God has blessed me and my wife immensely. However, being grateful and feeling down are mutually exclusive.

Impact of Backhanded Compliments on Mental Wellbeing

When communicating with someone who is dealing with depression or any other mental health issue, be mindful of your words. Your words can have a substantial impact, affecting their mental state and overall well-being. You have the power to uplift or bring someone down. So, be conscious of the language you use when speaking to someone.

It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.
Matthew 15:11 (HCSB)

Being aware of the language we use is a fundamental step in supporting someone who is going through a difficult time.

Examples of Potential Impact Words can have on Someone

Young lady covering her face with her hands
Photo by Dev Asangbam on Unsplash
  • Decreased self-esteem and confidence: Backhanded compliments can make a person feel criticized, belittled, or not good enough, which can lead to decreased self-esteem and confidence.
  • Difficulty accepting compliments: A person who has been the recipient of backhanded compliments may start to question the sincerity of any compliments they receive, making it difficult for them to accept genuine ones in the future.
  • Decreased motivation: Backhanded compliments can make a person feel discouraged or demotivated, leading to a lack of motivation to continue working towards their goals.
  • Feelings of shame: Receiving a backhanded compliment can make a person feel ashamed or embarrassed, which can lead to feelings of low self-worth and low self-esteem.
  • Difficulty trusting others: When a person receives backhanded compliments regularly, they may start to question the intentions of those around them, making it difficult for them to trust others.

Identifying and Responding to Backhanded Compliments

Backhanded compliments are often disguised as positive comments, making them hard to detect. People may use them to manipulate or control the recipient, making it difficult to know how to respond. When someone receives a backhanded compliment, they may feel uncertain about how to react because they don’t want to seem ungrateful for the supposed compliment. This uncertainty can cause confusion, frustration, or anger.

To identify a backhanded compliment, it’s important to pay close attention to both the words being used and the tone in which they are being said.

Common Characteristics of a Backhanded Compliment

  • Insinuation or Sarcasm: This type of backhanded compliment often involves a hint of sarcasm or irony in the speaker’s tone. For example, “You seem so much better today, have you finally started taking your medication?”
  • Hidden Insult: In this type of backhanded compliment, a seemingly positive statement contains an insult hidden within. For example, “You’re doing a great job of pretending everything is okay.”
  • False Praise: With false praise, the speaker says something positive, but it is not genuine. For example, “I admire your strength for trying to manage your depression on your own.”
  • Feigned Interest: When a speaker pretends to be interested in something to make the person feel better, but their words show that they are not truly interested, it’s a form of a backhanded compliment. For example, “I’m so interested in learning more about depression. Can you tell me more about what you’re going through?”

Taking Back Control

It is important that you respond in a way that empowers you and protects your self-esteem when you identify a backhanded compliment. Here are a few tips on how to respond:

  • Ignore it: If the backhanded compliment does not bother you too much, the easiest thing to do is to simply ignore it. Don’t engage with the speaker and try to focus on other things that make you feel good about yourself.
  • Address it: If you feel that the backhanded compliment has hurt your feelings, it’s important to address it directly. You can say something like, “I’m sorry, but I feel like your words were meant to be hurtful.” This lets the speaker know that their words have affected you, and they may choose to rephrase their statement or apologize.
  • Turn it into a positive: Instead of getting upset, you can choose to focus on the positive aspects of the backhanded compliment. For example, if someone says, “You look good today, have you lost weight?” You can respond with, “Thank you, I have been working hard to maintain a healthy lifestyle.” This response takes the focus away from the negative aspects of the statement and puts it on the positive.


In conclusion, backhanded compliments pose a threat to your mental health and self-esteem. You must be able to identify them and respond in a way that empowers you. Keep in mind that you deserve respect and kindness, and it’s perfectly fine not to be okay.


If you made it this far, please consider commenting below, subscribing, and also sharing on your social media sites. Most importantly, I ask for your prayers. I write this weekly blog as an outlet in my fight against depression. However, my hope is that something I write here may help others who may be struggling. If you would like to help with my battle against depression, check out my online Etsy store. Most proceeds are donated to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or by dialing 988. You may also text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.

Scripture quotations marked HCSB are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Used by Permission HCSB ©1999,2000,2002,2003,2009 Holman Bible Publishers. Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Holman CSB®, and HCSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.

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