Years ago, a friend introduced me to someone who asked what I did for a living. "I work on an online video series," I said. It was hard work, it required lots of planning, researching and interviewing, and it was how I paid the bills. My friend chimed in, "She's a vlogger," then giggled. I didn't quite understand what she meant, but I felt diminished.
Illustration: Tara Jacoby
It was the first of what turned out to be a series of confusing, passive-aggressive incidents. You've probably been there, too. Maybe it's your career. Maybe you want to eat healthier. Or maybe you're making more frugal choices to get your finances in order. Whatever the impetus, most of us have dealt with a friend or family member who seems to enjoy knocking you down a peg.
It's called social undermining, and it may seem harmless enough, but it can take an emotional toll. You start to doubt yourself, you feel a lack of support, and you become resentful. It's not fun to deal with, especially if you hate confrontation. But it's best to nip an undermining friend in the bud before you reach a boiling point. Here's how to go about it.
Look for the Signs
Before anything, make sure you're actually dealing with social undermining. We all put our foot in our mouths occasionally. What seems like social undermining might just be someone saying something stupid. For example, when a frugal friend once told me how much she saved on her wedding, I agreed that "cheap" weddings could be great. I felt horrible immediately after saying it, because it sounded like a criticism rather than something I admired.
That was an honest mistake; there was no motive. With social undermining, the motive is to well, undermine. Here's how a study published in the Journal of Organizational Behaviour defines it:
Behaviour intended to hinder, over time, the ability to establish and maintain positive interpersonal relationships, work-related success, and favourable reputation.
Basically, social undermining uses negativity to weaken a person's goals or successes. You'll probably notice a few distinctive traits in someone who does this:
- They do it to others: You're not the only one to take notice.
- You feel defensive around them: You feel defensive, like you have to prove something to them, and you're not quite sure why.
- They're judgmental: They like to gossip about the lifestyle choices of other friends or family members. They might disguise gossip and judgment as concern.
- They're great at backhanded compliments: Their compliments seem oddly insulting.
- They overcompensate: They oversell themselves as supportive, nurturing, or caring.
- They tempt you: They steer you away from your goals by offering tempting alternatives. When you're trying to stick to a diet, they urge you to eat unhealthy food. When you're trying to save money, they tempt you to splurge.
Of course, you want to make sure you're not being sensitive. I was born with thin skin, so I tend to brush off most comments I think are undermining, chalking them up to my sensitivity. But if I'm really unsure about something, I'll ask an outsider. My mum, for example, knows better than anyone just how sensitive I can be.
Identify the Motive
Once you're sure you're dealing with an underminer, it helps to understand why they're doing it. Common assumption is that people undermine your decisions, goals, or success because they're jealous. Many times, that's true. But not always. Here are a few other causes:
- Competition: A study published at DePaul University pointed to abusive supervision, and it's common in the workplace. You might have a colleague, boss or supervisor that just acts hostile because they feel powerless. Another study in the Journal of Applied Psychology looked at bottom line mentality: when a colleague is willing to do whatever it takes to succeed, including getting any competition out of the way.
- Projection: People might also undermine your choices if it reminds them of their own. Before I moved to Los Angeles, a random, old coworker got wind of it and emailed me, saying it was the stupidest decision I'd ever make. "You'll come back next year with your tail between your legs," he wrote, which was a drastic thing to read from someone I didn't know very well. But in a follow-up, he added something like, everyone has crazy dreams, but most of us don't follow them, because we're smart enough to know they're crazy. I realised this was less about me and more about his own experiences.
- Concern: On the other hand, I also think social undermining happens when there's genuine concern. My parents were terrified of my move to California. And for a while, they took every chance they could to undermine my decision. But it didn't come from a place of projection, competition, or envy. They were worried and afraid to see me fail, because they wanted the best for me.
In figuring out how to address social undermining, it helps to first understand why it's happening. This way, you can pick the best option for dealing with it.
In most situations, communication should be your first line of defence. Your friend, coworker, or boss might not even be aware they're undermining you to begin with. In high school, a close friend of mine started dating someone and spending most of her time with him. I'd occasionally tease her about the relationship, and I didn't really think about it. One day, she point-blank asked, "Why don't you ever have anything nice to say about him?" I realised I was belittling what she had because I was jealous of both of them, and I wasn't even aware I was doing it.
Once I realised my parents were scared about my well-being in new city, I knew how to communicate with them about their social undermining. I explained my plans to them and showed them I'd considered all of the things they worried about. Plus, I told them I needed their support. From then on, the undermining stopped and they have been hugely supportive instead.
Explaining to a friend or family member what your goals are, why those goals are important to you, and how their remarks affect you, can help them be more aware of the situation. As selfish as it sounds, when my friend called me out, I realised her relationship had nothing to do with me. It was her happiness, and I was able to separate from it my own feelings of jealousy. Her being upfront made me more aware of the situation and what I was doing.
Communication is also important when you're being undermined at work. Career site Dice.com explains:
Early on, you might be able to address the situation with a simple conversation. If you weren't invited to a meeting, for example, you can approach the person who left you off the invite, tell them you're sure it was an oversight, and ask them to include you in the future. Having that kind of conversation "puts the offender on notice," said Kathy Robinson, founder of the coaching firm TurningPoint in Arlington, Mass.
Plus, it keeps a record of the behaviour, in case you're ever thrown under the bus.
Being upfront works in some situations, but not all of them. If the undermining is passive-agressive, your friend might play dumb. Or, they might turn it around and ask why you're being confrontational. When a bit of honesty and communication don't work, here are some other options.
Stop Giving Them Information
Consider keeping your progress, milestones or successes to yourself if your friend only makes you feel bad about them. Momentum is important to staying on track with your goals. When someone knocks you down, that can kill your momentum.
It doesn't even have to be goal-related. Sometimes, underminers simply try to make you feel bad about the life you already have. Either way, it can help to avoid any topics that bring it out in them. Get Rich Slowly suggests refocusing the friendship:
Focus on the good. Is there an activity that brings the two of you together in a positive way? Maybe when you do things as a part of a group, your friend doesn't make negative comments. Or maybe when you go for a run together, he or she is too out-of-breath to make dismissive comments! Do more of those things and drop the kinds of social activities where your friend is more prone to undermine and criticise.
If aspects of your life inevitably bring out their jealous or competitive side, it might be best to avoid those topics, if you want to keep the friendship.
In that same Get Rich Slowly piece, one reader offers an interesting suggestion for avoiding underminers:
There's a technique, I think in judo...where you use your opponent's energy against them -- e.g., when they lunge at you, you don't try to block them but instead sidestep and then pull them in the direction they're already going so they can't do anything to you until they recover. That's kind of what I do with underminers.
Even when I totally disagree with their stance, I acknowledge it in a "wouldn't it be nice" way and change the subject...
For example: UMer: "Don't you know it's useless to try and save money? Life will just find a way to take it from you." Me: "Yeah, that could happen. Hey, did you catch last night's episode…" Or, UMer: "You should buy a new car, yours sucks." Me: "OMG, I'd love a new car! That would be great." and not bother doing anything to buy a new car.
In martial arts, it's called the soft technique, and as the reader mentions, it's both defensive and offensive. You don't want to hurt your undermining friend, but you do want to get out of the way of their jabs. Shrugging off the conflict can make their attempts more obvious, forcing them to deal with it on their own.
Change the Relationship
If your underminer is a casual acquaintance or a colleague, it's easy enough to just stop talking to them. But with a friend or family member, it's not so easy.
If nothing else works, try a couple of suggestions we've made before about dealing with a jerk friend. Specifically, we recommend spending less time together or giving the friendship a break.
Especially if there's competition, a little distance might do you some good. The cliche, absence makes the heart grow fonder may ring true. Distance could make you realise friendships should be supportive, not undermining.
Take What You Can From It
In some ways, undermining can be motivating. I don't want it in my life constantly, but I try to make it useful in a couple of ways.
Competition can be motivating. For years, I was in constant competition with a good friend of mine. We often undermined each other's successes, and that wasn't pleasant, but it fuelled our competitiveness. We worked harder to prove the other person wrong. Eventually, we grew up and learned to be supportive and encouraged by each others' accomplishments rather than threatened by them. But if you don't have a friend who's as cooperative, it can help to use their undermining to your advantage. Of course, it can easily have the opposite effect, so you have to know when to pull back.
Second, I started using undermining as a trigger. Many times, underminers will attack your weakest spots, and that can be a good thing, because it can make you aware weaknesses you didn't know you had. Many times, the undermining is senseless. But when someone does it now, I first ask myself if there's any truth to it before just throwing it away, however rude it may be.
Of course, it also helps to surround yourself with supportive people. In a study published in Social Science and Medicine, researchers found that positive support can make a difference, even when social undermining (or what they call "problematic support") exists:
Receipt of positive or helpful support from close friends and family was related to lower depression; receipt of problematic support was related to increased depression. A positive x problematic support interaction suggested that the costs of problematic support do not cancel out the benefits of positive support.
Social undermining is frustrating to deal with, whether it's with a friend, family or coworker. Even when you think it's no big deal and you can handle it, the effects of undermining can gradually creep up on you and take over. You feel insecure, powerless and angry. Taking a little action can help nip it in the bud. At the least, it helps you manage it and feel more in control.