9 phrases passive-aggressive people use to undermine your confidence

Sure, you’ve heard them—the little comments, the subtle jabs. They’re the kind of remarks that make you second-guess yourself, even when you’re confident you’ve done a good job.

It’s like a slow drip of doubt, courtesy of those passive-aggressive coworkers or even friends who seem to have a knack for wrapping criticism with a bow of fake concern.

You know what I’m talking about, right? 

And before you start wondering if it’s all in your head, let me stop you right there. It’s not just you. These sly digs are a common tactic used by some to assert dominance while pretending to be polite.

So get ready, because we’re about to reveal some classic phrases used by the masters of passive-aggression to subtly undermine your confidence. And once you know what to look for, you’ll never be caught off guard again.

1) “Just playing devil’s advocate here…”

Picture this: you’re in a meeting, pitching an idea you’ve been working on for weeks. You’ve done the research, crunched the numbers, and you’re feeling good about it. Then, out of nowhere, someone chimes in with, “Just playing devil’s advocate here, but have you considered that it might not work?” And just like that, the air goes out of your sails.

I’ve been there, trust me. On the surface, it seems like they’re just trying to help—after all, considering all angles is crucial, right? But when “playing devil’s advocate” becomes a regular response to your ideas, it starts to feel less like helpful advice and more like a tactic to sow seeds of doubt.

The truth is, this phrase can be a passive-aggressive masterpiece. It allows the speaker to challenge you without taking responsibility for the criticism. They’re not the ones questioning your idea; oh no, it’s just their inner devil’s advocate. Sneaky, right?

2) “No offense, but…”

Ah, the classic intro to something that is almost certainly going to be offensive. Whenever I hear these words, I brace myself for the impact. Because let’s be real, what follows is rarely a compliment.

It’s a tricky phrase because if you react negatively, you might seem too sensitive—it was prefaced with “no offense,” after all. But let’s call it what it is: a passive-aggressive way to deliver criticism without appearing blunt or rude. It implies that you should accept the comment without getting upset because they’ve given you a heads-up that their words might sting. 

But here’s the kicker: it doesn’t make the words any less hurtful.

3) “I’m not saying you’re wrong, but…”

This phrase is the master of mixed messages. It sounds like you’re being given the benefit of the doubt. But it’s really a soft launch for a counter-argument that’s about to undercut your position. The person using this is often treading a fine line between keeping social harmony and voicing their disagreement.

In linguistics, this is known as ‘hedging‘. It’s used to avoid directness or to lessen the impact of an assertion. When someone says, “I’m not saying you’re wrong,” they often are, in fact, saying just that—but in a way that’s supposed to soften the blow.

The use of hedging can make the speaker appear less authoritative and even deferential, which might explain why it’s such a popular tool in the passive-aggressive arsenal. It allows individuals to express dissent while still appearing agreeable or non-confrontational. 

But make no mistake—underneath that hedged phrase is usually a clear message that they believe there’s a flaw in what you’ve said or done.

4) “I thought you knew better…”

There’s something deeply cutting about this phrase. It’s as if the speaker is not only questioning your decision but also expressing disappointment in your capacity to make choices. It hits harder than outright criticism because it implies a breach of trust or a lapse in judgment that they believed you were above.

It’s difficult not to take such a comment to heart, as it suggests a previous level of respect or esteem that has seemingly been diminished by your actions. This kind of statement has the power to make you question not just the specific choice at hand, but your overall sense of judgment. Hearing these words can be especially disheartening when coming from someone whose opinion you value highly.

In truth, we’re all human and prone to make mistakes. The hope is that these moments become opportunities for growth and understanding rather than anchors that drag down our confidence or sense of self-worth.

5) “If I were you, I would have…”

You know, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard this one. There’s a certain presumption behind it that always gets under my skin. It’s as if someone is not just criticizing my actions but also subtly suggesting they could have done it better.

I remember this one time when I had to make a quick decision at work—nothing too major, but it had its consequences. Later on, a colleague came up to me and said, “If I were you, I would have waited for more information before jumping the gun.” It stung because it wasn’t just a comment on my decision-making process; it felt like my colleague was implying they had a superior approach to problem-solving.

That phrase can make you feel like your personal judgment is being undervalued or overlooked. It’s a reminder that everyone has their way of handling situations, but when it’s framed like this, it feels less like sharing alternative methods and more like an indirect criticism of your choices. 

It’s hard not to replay these moments in your head and wonder if you should indeed have done things differently, even when you know that you did what felt right at the moment.

6) “You’re taking this too personally.”

When offering feedback or criticism, it’s natural for emotions to run high sometimes. But hearing this can make you feel like your emotional response is not only unwarranted but also unprofessional. This can be a stealthy way to invalidate your feelings and make you question your emotional intelligence.

In reality, it’s okay to be invested in your work and to care about the outcomes of your efforts. Passion is what drives excellence, after all. 

By suggesting that your personal investment is a negative trait, this phrase can chip away at your confidence, making you feel as though you should detach yourself and numb your emotional response.

7) “Sorry, but I’m just being honest.”

Honesty is a virtue—there’s no doubt about that. But when someone prefaces their opinion with this, they’re often using honesty as a shield to deliver harsh criticism without seeming rude. It’s as if the word ‘honest’ magically absolves them of any responsibility for the impact their words might have.

The underlying message seems to be that if you can’t handle their ‘honesty,’ then perhaps you’re not strong enough to face reality. This can make you doubt your own perceptions and whether you’re truly cut out for the challenges at hand.

Yet, true honesty is coupled with tact and consideration—it doesn’t seek to tear down but to constructively build up. 

Remember that the next time someone uses their ‘honesty’ as a battering ram against your confidence.

8) “It’s just a joke, don’t be so sensitive.”

Laughter is supposed to be the best medicine, but when it comes at your expense, it doesn’t feel very healing. 

This phrase can immediately put you on the defensive. It’s used to brush off insensitive or hurtful remarks under the guise of humor, suggesting that any offense taken is a sign of your fragility rather than their inconsideration.

The truth is, humor should never be an excuse for belittling others or making light of their efforts. 

If a ‘joke’ makes you feel disrespected or undervalued, it’s not a reflection of your sensitivity—it’s a reflection of the speaker’s lack of empathy and understanding.

9) “Well, at least I…”

Comparison is the thief of joy. This phrase is a backhanded way of highlighting someone else’s perceived shortcomings that can really sting. It suggests that no matter what you’ve accomplished, it pales in comparison to what they have done—or would have done—in your shoes.

Such comparisons are not only unhelpful but also create an atmosphere of competition rather than collaboration. They remind us that some people are more interested in elevating themselves than in lifting up the team as a whole.

Ultimately, recognizing these phrases for what they are—a means for others to project their insecurities or control situations through passive-aggressive behavior—we can choose not to internalize their negativity. 

Instead, we can focus on our strengths, continue to pursue our goals with determination, and seek out environments where open and constructive communication is valued over underhanded criticism.

Eliza Hartley

Eliza Hartley, a London-based writer, is passionate about helping others discover the power of self-improvement. Her approach combines everyday wisdom with practical strategies, shaped by her own journey overcoming personal challenges. Eliza's articles resonate with those seeking to navigate life's complexities with grace and strength.

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