Being belittled is not a fun experience, but it’s all too common.
Whether it’s a coworker, family member, friend, romantic partner or random stranger, being told you’re not good enough hurts.
Here’s how to respond when somebody puts you down.
7 no bullsh*t ways to respond when someone belittles you
The first instinct when somebody belittles you is to say something angry back to them or come up with a good “comeback”.
There is a place for disarming comebacks (which I’ll get to later on), but I want to suggest a different approach to start with.
1) Turn it into a joke
Nothing defuses bitterness and resentment more adroitly than humor and laughter.
If someone is belittling you, use this opportunity to laugh it off instead of wade into the hate and negative emotions.
This won’t always be possible, and sometimes the belittling goes far past the point of casual ribbing into real bullying and abuse.
But when it is possible, try using humor to deflect the meanness.
For example, if a friend makes a belittling joke about how you always seem to be single, turn around with something like:
“I guess I didn’t feel the need to try out every gross flavor to know what I don’t like the way you did.”
True, this is a comeback. But it’s important that it’s a humorous comeback as well. If delivered with a smile and the right tone you can also make it clear that you aren’t trying to be malicious and mean this in a semi-playful way.
2) Tell it like it is
What kind of person belittles someone? It’s basically two kinds of people.
The first are those who are insecure and are looking to increase their power in the social hierarchy by establishing themselves over you. They are often easily identified because they put you down in front of others to gain “street cred” in the eyes of those who see you belittled by them.
The second kind is those who are genuine chauvinists that simply think it’s funny and enjoyable to crap on others with their words and actions.
No matter what the kind of belittling bully you’re dealing with and their motivations, sometimes the best course of action is just to tell it like it is.
“I don’t appreciate what you said. There’s no reason to say that,” you can say.
Don’t make this a complaint or a plea, however. Make it a simple statement of fact. Then get back to the business at hand, making it clear that it was unacceptable to you but also that you’ve left it in the past and are not dwelling on their belittling comments.
3) The importance of having focus
What is acceptable and unacceptable varies by culture. The recent film Hustle, starring Adam Sandler, for example, tells the story of a washed-up NBA scout who ends up trying to draft an upstart nobody from Spain into the big leagues.
This new talented player, Bo Cruz, comes from a different culture than the United States and is initially thrown off his game by the trash-talking of his slick and aggressive opponent Kermit Wilks.
The insults and belittling comments that Wilks makes about Spain and about Cruz’s daughter drive Cruz mad with rage and confusion to such an extent that they interrupt his ability to play ball and score baskets.
Later, Sandler’s character Stanley Sugarman trains Cruz to become bulletproof to trash-talking.
In Spain, it is more common to take such insults personally and defend others, especially female relatives, from slander.
But Cruz needs to shield himself against this because in America he’ll be rapidly kicked out if he punches everyone who insults his family during the heat of a game.
During subsequent training, Sugarman says awful things about Cruz’s mom and about his body odor and whatever he can think of, until he sees that Cruz is 100% focused on the game and can’t be thrown off by any insult, no matter how personal or disgusting.
Other players, scouts, and fans may have bad things to say about him, but Cruz has now refocused completely on the game and redirected his energy away from the energy-sapping commentary of the outside world.
He doesn’t care anymore about what trash talkers have to say: he cares about winning.
4) Know what’s belittling and what isn’t
As I previously noted, what’s acceptable or normal or not varies a lot by culture.
In America you might joke about a friend’s mom as a way of good-natured poking fun at them; in a more traditional culture such as Uzbekistan, such a joke might see you thrown in jail or at least never invited around as a friend again.
But when it comes to the natural and purpose of belittling comments that aren’t meant as a joke, there’s usually an easy way to identify them:
- They’re not actually funny
- They poke fun at your identity, appearance, beliefs or family background
- They invalidate you as a person or a professional
- They seek to actively make you look incompetent, stupid, malicious or reckless
- They seek to manipulate or guilt you into pursuing a certain course of action
5) Should you belittle them back?
I generally advise against trying to belittle someone back. The reason is simple: it makes you look weak and desperate.
When somebody makes a joke or comment at your expense in a mean-spirited way, any observant person there can see that they are trying to take a shot at you.
A few may buy into the trash-talking, but the majority of rational people know right away when somebody is shooting their mouth off without justification.
If someone belittles you, you are better off using humor to deflect it, telling them upfront you don’t appreciate it, or deflecting it right back on them.
An example of deflecting it back on them is just to use the try-hard aspect of their put-down against them.
For example, say your husband tells you that you’re annoying for asking him several times if he can help with clean-up in the kitchen. He tells you that your nagging makes you super unattractive and tiring, unlike other women who know when to chill.
Instead of doubling down or getting angry and comparing yourself to “other women,” you can simply use his put-down against him.
“Yeah, true. I’m so annoying that I made dinner for both of us. My mistake!”
This has a sarcastic bite to it, but it gets the point across, and later he’s likely to feel more than a little bad about his rudeness.
6) Show them up
If someone you work with, live with or love with is belittling you relentlessly, the above tips might not be potent enough.
In that case, you’ll need a stronger tool out of the old toolbox.
That tool is action.
When someone belittles you for being weak, let your actions speak louder than their words.
When someone belittles you for looking ugly, prove to them that you have more important goals in life than winning their approval for your appearance.
The key here is that you’re not really doing it for the person criticizing you in the first place.
You’re doing it because you can, and because you’re a winner who’s focused on action, not a loser who’s focused on gossipy, bitchy talk.
7) Make it count
Someone who’s belittling you could be acting more out of habit or reflexive insecurity than conscious malice.
But it really doesn’t matter.
It’s up to this person or these people to realize that what they are doing is not OK. You are not here to instruct them on the basics of how to be a decent human being.
If their parents didn’t already teach them, they’d better find other ways to learn.
For as long as people belittle you, just remember that you have no obligation to work with them, cooperate with them or “forgive” them.
Move on and let them change their behavior and come to you.
You are never to change your frame, fold or plead for their approval or validation.
If you do, that just folds directly into the narrative web they are trying to trap you in with their belittling put-downs.
Be the bigger man or woman
If someone belittles you, your choice is fairly binary. You can lock horns with them and get in the dirt, or you can rise above it.
Growing up I remember fighting back against bullies and chasing them down while another older student held me back.
“Be the bigger man,” he said.
Those words have stuck with me. I still think that moral superiority is cheap compared to real-world results, especially when you’re being physically harassed as I was.
But I also think there’s a lot to be said for the ability to keep your cool when others push you too far verbally.
When someone belittles you, give them nothing to work with.
You don’t want to be in a position to drown it out or ignore them. You want to be in a position where you genuinely feel sorry for someone who’s that insecure to even bother with belittling.
You want to be next level, so far above that kind of spiteful name-calling and criticism that it slides right off your back.