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#342: The rare one-size-fits-all approach to when your friends run themselves down in front of you.

Dear Captain Awkward –

I have a happy life with awesome friends and partner and offspring. I use my words on all kinds of things, as recommended. This generally results in lots of good talk about everything. But I am halted when my friends launch into self-criticism. “I am fat” or I am so stupid” or “I will never understand…”

So when this friend says “I am fat” and she doesn’t look it to me, what should I say? How, in general, do I respond to any friend’s statements when those statements look like self-criticism? I hate trying to reassure them what they think is not the case – that way lies madness. I don’t want to cut off something that might be important for them to talk about. Can you help me find good words to use?

with great respect –

temporarily wordless

Dear Temporarily Wordless:

Here’s an answer you can apply in many, many situations:

When you tell me things like that, what would you like me to say or do?

(wait and listen to what they say)

(Respond accordingly, possibly with the following script)

Because I can listen and empathize, but I don’t like hearing you say unkind* things about yourself like you expect me to agree with them.”

The beauty of this is that if they’re fishing for compliments, it forces them to admit/stop it. If they’re cycling inside their own head and don’t even know that they’re doing it, it forces them to admit/stop it. If they actually want something specific from you, it gives them permission to ask for it. Bonus: Asking a kind, sincere question in response to something you don’t understand is rarely the unmannerly response.

*Though with “I’m so fat” the answer might be “Yup, you’re awesomely fat. Want to go roller-skating?”

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114 comments
  1. Fat is not a bad thing to be, so saying you’re fat is not running yourself down, dammit. But I love your suggested response to that, Captain!

    (Had to say it, it’s in my Fat Activist handbook. Done now.)

    • TO said:

      To me ‘I’m fat’ sounds totally different depending on the size of the person saying it. If the person saying it is actually unambiguously fat, then it can be just a description and IMO it feels wrong to say ‘no you’re not’ because then it just feels like me saying it’s a terrible thing we have to lie about. But I find it creepy when people who are clearly not fat or are actually rather skinny say it — then I don’t know what to say in response. Because they do mean it as a criticism, and also because it’s simply clearly inaccurate, so I don’t know if I should attempt to argue them out of it or challenge their belief (and they may actually believe it and not only be fishing for compliments), or just change the subject and try to change the focus of the conversation away from weight. Usually what I do is I get annoyed at them, but not sure that’s productive.

      Though actually, maybe this would be a good response in the second case too :). “Yup, you’re awesomely fat. Want to go roller-skating?”

      • millefolia said:

        To me it doesn’t depend on whether the statement is literally true, it depends on how the speaker seems to feel about it. Someone the BMI charts would label “morbidly obese” can say “I’m fat” in a matter-of-fact tone (or a cheerful one!); someone so thin you can see their ribs can say it in a voice of self-criticism. They’d get very different responses from me. (First case: either no reply is needed, or cheerfully agree, whichever the rest of the conversation seems to indicate. Second case: any of the “how to respond when a friend runs themself down” responses in this wonderful post and its comments.)

    • Elsajeni said:

      Very good point. LW, of course lots of people do talk about their (actual or perceived) fatness in a way that amounts to running themselves down, but even if you’re pretty sure that’s what you’re hearing from your friends, I’d encourage you to be careful about responding to your friends in a way that assumes “fat” is an insult.

    • There’s a big difference between statements that mean ‘I feel fat’ and statements that mean ‘it is a fact that I am fat’. Unfortunately the same words might be used in each instance.

      • Kaesa said:

        Fat isn’t a feeling, though. I am fat, and used to have a thin friend who would complain to me that she was fat/felt fat, when what she meant was that she felt UGLY. But I always had to reassure her that she was not fat (unlike me) and gosh darn it she was pretty. And I always felt really crappy about myself after I’d cheered her up, and then I’D go on my own self-loathingy ramble, which she usually just ignored. The whole thing made me feel very used, and .

        Is there ever really an instance where the negative feelings usually expressed as “I feel fat” couldn’t be better expressed as “I feel ugly” or “I feel [some other negative stereotype about fat people]”?

        (In contrast, I lave a lovely friend who, when I ranted at her about being fat and ugly and horrible and that was why no one liked me or would dance with me at the event we were at, she said “You are not ugly and horrible, and you’re here with lots of people who like you. I think if you look like you’re having fun on your own, people will dance with you.” She never denied that I was fat, and her advice totally worked.)

        • Kaesa said:

          Apologies for random dangling “, and” in there. I don’t remember where I was going with that.

        • BadDaughter said:

          I am fat, and I totally agree that even when the complainer really is wound up in her — usually her — own head when women of average or thin size complain about being fat in front of me, it completely feels like a sideways, nasty, passive-aggressive attack on me.

          This is partly because, well, sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s just other women running their scripts in public (and this particular script is fairly well rehearsed and received) but it’s never easy to deal with.

          “I’m so fat and ugly and unattractive and disgusting! Think about how much MORE so you must be, since you’re at least twice my size! Grovel and make me feel better!”

          Yes, I have feelings about this.

          • Clio said:

            I have a “friend” who has told me on multiple occasions that she can’t wait to go to her high school reunion so she can see who’s gotten fat. I assume she means “who, of the girls who mercilessly teased me for being fat myself back then,” because she says it to me, who has been consistently fatter than she she ever was, throughout the 15 years we’ve known each other. So it’s obvious to me that she’s suffering cognitive dissonance of the highest order because “fat” isn’t her real issue – internalized hate and self-loathing is.

            I have come to really dig my body, and am A-OK with “fat” as a non-negative descriptor that happens to fit me as accurately as “brunette” does, but I still get fired up over how damaging her comments would be if I hadn’t come this far – and how damaging they probably are to some of the other women I’m sure she says this garbage to.

          • Clio said:

            (sorry if that’s getting unduly off-topic, Cap’n – I have this and #345 open in different tabs, forgot which I’m commenting on [facepalm])

          • vorvayne said:

            I have feelings about this too.

            I have, for the most part, made peace with the size of my body. I’m short, and average sized I suppose. Next to my 6ft tall, size supermodel friend, I look, er…plump. This would not be too much of an issue except that my lovely friend regularly talks about how fat and horrible she is. Which makes me feel pretty crap.

            But my poor friend has an eating disorder. It’s so totally not her fault that her jerkbrain is on overdrive making her think that she is, in actual fact, fat. And yet…here I am, feeling like crap.

            I’m not sure what to do about this. I’m at the moment trying very hard to not say anything.

        • I saw Nye’s comments on my WP toolbar, and was coming back to say pretty much exactly what you said, only you said it, and now I don’t have to. Thanks.

        • Melly said:

          I do think that fat can be a feeling, even if the person feeling it is objectively thin. I also don’t think that feeling fat is always analogous to feeling ugly. It is very possible for someone who is not overweight or obese to have a very flawed, private relationship with food and/or their own body that connects their feelings on weight/overeating/undereating with their self-worth or mood. My nasty self-attacks always manisfest as “I feel fat”, never I feel ugly. I think that when two people are friends that the reality of physical size, appearance, career, education, whatever the case may be, really don’t matter that much when it comes to this issue. I know it seems insensitive for a person to say “I am so fat” to a friend who is more fat. But sometimes the mean self-talk runs so deep that the offender really isn’t thinking about the other friend’s relative weight at all. Which makes CA’s script a really good response to “I am so fat” comments. I am the thinner partner in a loving friendship and I have been the “I am so fat” offender. When I catch myself, it just leads to me feeling like an ass and a bad friend, and I feel even worse, so don’t think that the other person is necessarily being glib or oblivious. I just share because I was feeling it and my friend and I share a lot with each other.

          • Moi said:

            I agree that it is all about tone, and the size of the person saying the words doesn’t necessarily correlate with that tone. I had a friend who, objectively, was overweight. She was also beautiful and smart and wickedly funny, but would get down on herself about her weight, no matter what compliments she was given. It became increasingly hard to try to bolster her self-esteem because not only would she respond to any compliment of “oh your hair is gorgeous,” or “you look beautiful in that [clothing article]” with a comment about her weight, but also her anti-self comments were always wrapped up in backhanded compliments to me, the skinnier one: “ugh, I feel so gross and fat. If I stood next to you we’d look like the number 10,” or similar. Compliments that make the person being complimented and the person speaking feel bad aren’t healthy at all. :/ (let’s not get into the endless policing of my food choices whenever she felt they somehow reflected on her, instead of just what I damn well wanted to eat).

            I agree that it is unfair and self-centered for the objectively thinner person to say as a self-denigrating comment, “oh I’m fat,” and put the onus on a larger-sized friend to make them feel better. Fat should not be an insult. It’s also unfair to tell an objectively thin person who might have low self-esteem for some perceived flaw, “oh you’re so thin, you can’t talk,” or “shut up, you don’t have anything to complain about, you’re so tiny!” because it minimizes their own feelings while also reinforcing that unhealthy stereotype of thin = perfect, fat = horrible.

  2. Mris said:

    Long-time lurker, first-time commenter. My all-purpose statement for when people run themselves down (and I agree that “fat” is a neutral word like “tall” or “brown-eyed,” so that doesn’t really count the same) is a quiet, “Please don’t talk that way about my friend [theirname].”

    Let’s say that Hepzibah says, “I’m so stupid.” I say very quietly, “Please don’t talk that way about my friend Hepzibah.” If they actually do need to talk through something, the fact that I am being very quiet and not in-their-face cheerful means that they have mostly had the space to launch into what’s wrong in real terms. And I’ve had several friends end up talking about self-esteem issues or real problems after this very comment. The quiet gives them the room, and also the fact that I am actively calling them my friend in that moment seems to be reassuring that I like them and am on their side. If Hepzibah is out of the room and Percival says, “Hepzibah is so stupid,” I will say, “She’s not. Please don’t talk that way about my friend Hepzibah.” So why should I behave any differently when the people running down my friends are my friends themselves?

    But there’s also a ritual grooming thing it cuts off. When people are doing, “I’m so ugly” or “I’m so fat” as a ritual grooming thing, where they’re supposed to say that, and I’m supposed to go into cheerleader mode and tell them all the awesome things about themselves and run *myself* down, then I have just put them on notice that I refuse to do that. I will do the positive forms of ritual grooming. I will do the ones that go, “That necklace looks great on you!” “Oh, thanks! I think I saw one in good colors for you over here on sale, do you want to look?” But I will not do ones that go, “This skirt makes my hips look huge.” “Oh, no, you look great in everything you wear! I only wish *I* could wear blah blah zero-sum game self-negging blah.” At that point I cut it off. “This skirt makes my hips look huge.” “Please don’t talk that way about my friend Hepzibah.” Annnnd done.

    • Kika said:

      I *love* the “Please don’t talk about my friend that way” response!

    • ona555 said:

      I have had my friends and my spouse take this approach with me on occasion. It’s very effective!

    • savagecritter said:

      One of my best friends has used this with me, and it really is a kind and effective way to deal with the situation. Because, you know, I don’t like to insult the things that my friends like, and yay! I am in the “liked by friends” category! Cue warm fuzzies.

    • Awww, now I’m feeling nostalgic for the days I used to tell my younger sister, “Hey! Nobody picks on my little sister but me!”

    • mintylime said:

      I like this response lots.

      “I’m stupid” is the one that sets me off most – usually coming from quite intelligent and educated people (Dunning–Kruger effect at work, I suppose) – especially when the triggering event is simply having forgotten something. I’ve taken to telling folks flat out “You might be forgetful, but you’re not stupid”.

      • The Kittehs' Unpaid Help said:

        My friends and I just say we’ve got CRS syndome (Can’t Remember Shit). Ah, menopause, how we love thee.

        • unagi said:

          On the other hand, self-hatred displays about menopause are sooo unattractive. I’m happy I lived till menopause, and the positives way way outdo the negatives in my book (never again mopping up unexpected hemorrhages with paper towels in a cramped filthy airplane bathroom, fewer mood swings and above all no pain..). So an occasional joke about borrowing my fan is fine, but I still cringe when I think of a particular performance of a famous-in-the-80s singer based entirely on hot flashes. And putting every forgetful episode down to menopause really ticks me off, If only because I was forgetful in kindergarten, way more than average, and I’m still forgetful, but it’s not that bad now, everyone knows how to read and write (or at least I do). I don’t particularly care to have an army of women who should know better stoking the stereotypes of how I’m losing my marbles.

          • Datdamwuf said:

            I’m with you, I do NOT have hot flashes, I have heat waves and sometimes a heat wave is really helpful when I was freezing 2 minutes ago, lol. Plus, I finally bought some thermometers for the house that actually work so I know when it’s really hot and when it’s really me! win/win

            My nickname as a kid was “absent minded professor” because I was always forgetting the practical stuff in pursuit of figuring out how the damn toad did that thing with or whatever. I may forget different things now but it’s no worse than when I was 12 years old.

    • I don’t know. I mean, it sounds like it would work for a lot of people!

      But for me, using my name *and* calling me your friend at the same time would just send me spiraling more and make me cringe. And, while, yes, I would probably stop with the negative self talk around you, it would be because I didn’t feel safe saying “I’m [stupid about social things]” around you because that message, to me, would be “I am going to deny you feeling that way and I don’t want to hear it and CLEARLY IT’S NOT REALLY AN ISSUE WOULD YOU SHUT UP ALREADY.” (Clearly I have a lot of baggage, so take that with a grain of salt.) I don’t know. I think it would just rub me the wrong way. Maybe the same idea, just with different words?

      As I said, I’m probably the one off, but just reading that made me cringe a little.

      • FlyBy said:

        I can see how Mris’s suggestion could come across as dismissive in the wrong situation. Calling someone on their self-destructive shit is a moderately difficult social skill and something I only do with close friends where I know it’s welcome! I’d also follow it with ‘What’s bothering you?’ or some other emotion-affirming invitation to discuss what’s hurting.

        And hey, if you need people to not use that approach with you, that’s totally valid. 🙂

      • Denzi said:

        My husband says, “Don’t talk about my wife that way!” and I definitely experience it in this “just stop talking about it” way sometimes. I have this internal argument that goes “how come you get to arbitrarily decide whether or not I am ugly/stupid/smell bad/whatever and I don’t?!” I like the Captain’s script better because it (probably) doesn’t have a chance to cause a mental argument or make one (at least me) feel like I am being told to shut up, as it actively invites my input.

    • Virginia said:

      That’s my response as well, except, er, not so much quietly.

    • millefolia said:

      Mris, I was thinking of your post about that when I read the post here! I’m glad you commented. (I’m the (a?) Liza you know; this is the username I use over here.)

  3. White Rabbit said:

    So, I just did this to a friend last night. We were in the makeup section at Target admiring some bold eye shadow colors, and I really liked a bright teal color, so she encouraged me to buy it. I responded emphatically with something to the effect of, “no way, I’m not pretty enough to pull that off.” To which she jokingly replied, while laughing good-naturedly, “um, do you want me to punch you?!” (This is a friend who’s known me for 15+ years, so we’re far more blunt and raucous around each other than I ever am with people I haven’t known half my life. Also, rest assured, she’s not at all inclined toward violence beyond making such rare cracks.)

    Anyway, I was certainly not fishing for compliments. And I’m not quite sure what cycling within one’s own head means, but I’m guessing that’s a reference to speaking in an absent-minded manner. I suppose I sort of fall into that latter camp. I was aware of what I was saying, but it’s something I feel very strongly, and it affects my choices on a daily basis, so comments like that have been known to come flying out of my mouth before I can catch myself. I do my best to keep them to a minimum, and this particular friend has figured out a way to defuse them that leaves us both laughing and quickly moving on to the next subject.

    Looking at this situation from my perspective, I would really appreciate a friend following CA’s advice. I would respond that this is something that I struggle with, and that while I try to not dump it on other people, it’s a big part of my life and will sometimes come out, and all I want from a friend when that happens is an empathetic acknowledgement that they understand it’s a thing I struggle with, even if they don’t agree with my sentiment/conclusion. End of story, now let’s go back to having a good time… My friend’s reaction last night essentially amounted to this. We went right back to perusing the merchandise and laughing while reminiscing about our days of wearing black lipstick.

    I have another very close friend who cannot tolerate it at all when I make such comments and essentially shuts down. And while I 100% respect her need to establish that boundary, I can’t help feeling shamed as a result, and it leaves me questioning the friendship. I think the problem for me is that, in shutting down the conversation when I make any such comment, she is also invalidating my experience of having and struggling with these feelings. I would love to stop feeling crummy about my appearance (was bullied growing up, am a trauma survivor with PTSD, and also struggle with social anxiety, so, UGH), and I have been working on this in various ways, including minimizing how often I make such comments (she knows all of this), but being told in an indirect way that this friendship hinges on my never making such comments or discussing those concerns leaves me feeling criticized and unsupported. It also leads to me not wanting to discuss this struggle with any other friends, which in turn leaves me feeling isolated. I’ve asked this friend to cut me some slack in this department, but I continue to get a very strong negative response. She means well, but at least for me, her approach isn’t helping. For what all of that’s worth.

    Another perspective to consider is that, at least in some cases, these comments may be testing the waters to see if the other person is open to a deeper conversation on the subject. I know that I’ve internalized a lot of messages that friendship should be all about Fun and Good Times, and that no one wants to spend time talking about Heavy and Unpleasant topics (I realize this isn’t quite right or healthy), so I’m very uneasy about bringing up my body shame with a friend I’m building a friendship with. Again, CA’s advice would open the door to such a conversation if that’s what the person is seeking.

    (I’m never quite sure if my somewhat ramble-y thoughts are helpful or relevant, so feel free to torpedo this post if I’ve made this too much about me.)

    • With your friend who shuts down, is there a difference between “I am unattractive” versus “I’m feeling really insecure about my looks lately”? Because the first one drives me bat-shit crazy, plus it triggers my own insecurities like whoa, given that I also have major issues regarding my appearance. But the second one makes me feel sympathetic and caring.

      • White Rabbit said:

        That’s a really good question, and I had to stop to think about it.

        An example of something I might say would be: “I’m thinking about starting to date again after my long hiatus, but I’m really worried that no one will be interested in me because I’m not very pretty…” So a little bit of both, but probably more of the former. (A couple of years ago, this might have sounded more like… “because I’m ugly and weird looking,” so at least I’ve made some progress!)

        I really like the idea of phrasing it more like your second example. I’m not sure that it will make a difference with this particular friend, though I’m hopeful, and I can definitely appreciate how the latter would be far less jarring for a friend to hear.

        I think part of what originally drove me to making overly simplistic and blunt comments such as, “I feel unattractive,” was a misguided attempt at expressing my frustration while trying to avoid inadvertently dragging a friend into a Deep Discussion about the topic. I realize now that I can also just say, “I’ve been feeling insecure about my looks lately,” and ALSO not turn it into a Big Deal Conversation.

        • Vicki said:

          From another angle: if you say “I feel unattractive” the possible answers there include asking if you want to talk about it, or the Captain’s “What do you want me to say?”; something like “I’m sorry that’s bothering you, do you want to go see a movie?” (or any number of other things that are sympathetic while also changing the subject); or a reassurance that the other person thinks you are attractive.

          Phrasing it as “I am unattractive” or “I’m not pretty enough to do that” almost forces the person to either argue with you (say that you are attractive enough for $whichever) or change the subject. It sounds as though neither of those is the response you want.

          • White Rabbit said:

            Saying something like, “I’m sorry you feel that way. I know you love pedis – maybe getting one would make you feel better? Meanwhile, want to get some ice cream?” would be totally fine. I’m not sure what I’m saying that’s giving another impression.

            I fully acknowledge that expressing a negative feeling about myself puts the other person in an uncomfortable place, but at the same time, I’m not deliberately fishing for a specific response beyond the general empathy that friends offer each other when one or the other is frustrated about something. All I’m doing is expressing a genuine feeling to a trusted friend. It’s most definitely not a manipulation tactic (at least not in my case), but I’m starting to get the impression that maybe some people see it as that?

            I think part of the problem is that the issue at hand, whatever it may be – in my case, it’s feeling unattractive – is very personal and has no obvious and immediate resolution. My expressing a feeling about that is NOT meant to drop the burden of resolving that negative feeling on my friend. I just need to vent or share a but, and I’m just looking for friendly empathy in response. I certainly don’t have some unrealistic expectation that my friend will have a magical answer that will fix it or make me instantly feel better.

          • White Rabbit said:

            Whoops. I missed your excellent point about “I *am*…” versus “I *feel*…” I agree that there is a difference.

            I’m still working on convincing *myself* that it’s merely a feeling and not a reality, so I will need to be extra conscientious about how I phrase it when I talk about it.

            And you’re right – I don’t want to force someone to argue with me, flatter me, or abruptly change the subject.

          • zuzu said:

            Have you asked this friend what makes her uncomfortable about when you do that? Because if you haven’t, you’re better off asking rather than projecting your own feelings onto her and deciding that “her approach isn’t working.”

            Maybe your approach isn’t working for her. Maybe you could Use Your Words and tell her what it is you’re really feeling rather than running yourself down and getting disappointed when she doesn’t react the way you want her to. Or Use Your Words when she does have that reaction and ask her what’s wrong.

          • White Rabbit said:

            Yes, I have. We have talked about it extensively. Please don’t assume that I’m projecting, or that I’m fishing for a specific response from her.

            The bottom line is, she doesn’t agree with my feelings and she doesn’t ever want to hear me cutting myself down. She means well, but I still have a long way to go before I reach the point where I stop saying such things altogether (not to belabor the point, but I’m a survivor of multiple traumas and bullying, and I didn’t seek help until later in adulthood, so I’m still processing and healing), so it’s stressful for both of us, as we’re at an impasse on the subject. That said, we’ve been close friends for a very long time, and there are many wonderful things about the friendship, so this isn’t a friendship deal-breaker for us.

          • zuzu said:

            OK — from your description, it seemed that she was shutting down but you hadn’t discussed what was going on. It’s good you’re discussing it.

          • the witching hour said:

            This reminds me of an excellent Pervocracy post about this cycle of “I’m ugly”/”no you’re not” in which she says she doesn’t want someone to tell her she’s pretty, she wants someone to acknowledge that her pretty is not her worth.

            One of the problems with “pretty” is that it’s rigid and clearly defined, and if you don’t fit the mold it’s hard to convince yourself that you do. Have you tried shifting the focus to “attractive”? For me, that helps make it about the whole person and not just the meat suit, and it’s totally subjective, which makes it kind of irrefutable. And clearly you have already attracted at least one awesome friend.

          • TO said:

            “This reminds me of an excellent Pervocracy post about this cycle of “I’m ugly”/”no you’re not” in which she says she doesn’t want someone to tell her she’s pretty, she wants someone to acknowledge that her pretty is not her worth.”

            Yes, this is so true!

            It’s also why I feel kind of uncomfortable telling people they’re pretty (or smart), because I feel like even if I’m addressing their fear of being ugly (or stupid), I feel like I’m also implicitly agreeing with its importance and with the idea, which seems really pervasive, that their worth as a human comes from their appearance (or intelligence) or what other people think of their appearance (or intelligence).

          • White Rabbit said:

            (Thanks for your comment. My response is in moderation.)

          • alphakitty said:

            Totally — I’ve never thought of myself as either especially pretty or especially ugly, just kind of ok. While there were times of my life when that bummed me out (can you say, high school?), for the most part it just means appearance never became an important part of how I value myself. Instead, my self-identity is based on who I am and what I do. Still got issues there, but at least I feel like that is real, and something I have some control over.

            One time I made an offhand comment to a friend about not being beautiful (not fishing, it was contextual), and she was all effusive about how of course I was!! It didn’t make me feel better (I hadn’t been feeling bad!) it made me feel like she was saying being physically beautiful mattered, and since I think objectively there are few people who would think “alphakitty — now that’s a beautiful woman!” it was actually really annoying and undermining. I don’t think it’s that she has a broader definition of beautiful than I do, either, or than the world in general does. She just thought admitting I’m just average qualified as running myself down, and she had to buck me up! Arg.

        • teacoat said:

          Ever since discovering the FA/HAES movement, my issues about my weight have all but disappeared. But before then, if I heard one of my friends who was skinnier than me make any sort of comment about how they were “so fat” it made me *awful*. If they thought *they* were fat, what did that mean they thought of me who was 20, 50, 100+ pounds heavier? (Actually, this is still something that bugs me, but for slightly different reasons.) So if you’re telling your friend that you aren’t pretty, but she thinks that you’re prettier than she is, that’s understandably going to make her feel Not So Great.

    • TO said:

      I think it really helps if the person you’re talking to can understand when you just want to vent, and if you tell them so if they don’t seem to realize that. That you aren’t asking for help or advice or even reassurance, just their ear and for them to physically be there. It takes so much of the pressure off when you realize that what a friend needs from you is just that, and it feels like something you’re actually capable of giving. One of the worst feelings is to feel like you are responsible for something but are also incompetent — knowing that all you need to do is be there is a big weight off your back in that case. If someone is truly your friend they probably really do want to help, just don’t know how or feel overwhelmed feeling like they can’t really help enough.

      • White Rabbit said:

        Yes – I wholeheartedly agree.

        I actually had this very conversation with my best friend a little while back. She and I are both the “jump in and try to fix it” type, and I eventually intuited that she was stressed because she felt the need to offer a solution for a couple of major family things I was struggling with at the time. It was a huge load off for her when I reassured her that all I needed was a friendly ear.

        • I’m also a fixer. After reading CA for a while, I started working on not being that (or not being ONLY that), and a while I ago I was having a conversation with a friend which went basically like this:

          Friend: *long vent about problems with her mother*
          Me: Would it be OK if I make some suggestions, or would it feel better to just get to talk about it and getting some sympathy back?
          Friend: *short pause* Wow, you’re the first person who’s actually asked me what I want when I vent. Suggestions are OK but don’t be too pushy with them because that just makes me feel worse, OK?

          That’s when I sent a silent thank you to CA and the mantra “use your words”. This has since become my personal script when a friend talks about stuff that makes zir life hard.

    • Thneedle-dee-dee said:

      You have the answer at hand. You used this phrase: “I would love to stop feeling crummy about my appearance”. That’s really different from “I’m ugly” or “I’m not pretty” or even “I feel unattractive”. Because you’re talking about your inside workings, rather than about appearance.

      (I know for me, when people say negative things about themselves, I really dislike it for a couple of reasons. One is because it *feels* like fishing for a compliment, and I just have issues about that kind of thing. Another reason I dislike it is because the more we hear a phrase the more we believe it (advertisers know this well), and that’s true even when it’s ourselves saying the thing we’re hearing.)

    • misspiggy said:

      Ooh, this is both helpful and relevant. I completely know what you mean about absent-mindedness – sometimes bits of the I Hate Me stuff in my head spill out before I really notice. And other times I just want to tell a friend how rubbish I’m feeling about myself and have them tell me I’m not rubbish. Which I guess is fishing.

      But is fishing OK when you really want to stop feeling like you should throw yourself out of the window, and can’t get out of it on your own? The female friends with whom I fish tend to feel pretty bad about themselves too, so we’re happy playing that game with each other.

      That didn’t work well with my husband though, so now I sometimes say to him, ‘I am feeling really terrible about myself today and it would help if you could tell me something you like about me.’ He doesn’t believe his opinion of me should make that much difference, but he generally obliges and it helps a lot.

  4. MissPrism said:

    Oh, I had a case of this recently! It was someone I was only just getting to know, so not a close enough friend for some of the stock answers. After she had in the space of five minutes called herself fat, lazy, stupid, ignorant, talentless, old and boring I cracked and asked her if she could maybe wait until after I left to run herself down any further, because it was making me really uncomfortable.

    It maybe wasn’t the most socially ept way to say it, but she hasn’t done it since.

  5. You can also try reframing the question.

    Friend: I am so stupid!
    You: Why do you feel stupid?

    Moving the question away from their perceived status/your perception of their status and towards what’s making them feel this way.

    • Stay Excellent said:

      ^This. Statements such as these feel like they come from a situation which a person needs to vent about. From there on, it’s striking the right balance between acknowledging the person’s feels and trying to argue against the statement the person made about themselves(trying to reason that the person is perceiving themselves sounds too much like gaslighting-for-a-good-cause).

    • igglanova said:

      I think this can backfire. A person lambasting him / herself for being ‘stupid’ is already feeling low and upset. Asking them to justify themselves like that can be perceived as invalidating, leading to frustration and an even bigger feeling of foolishness if the criteria for seeing themselves as ‘stupid’ don’t hold up to scrutiny.

      • JenniferP said:

        So what do you suggest instead?

        • igglanova said:

          I think the question you suggested in the OP is already ideal.

          “When you tell me things like that, what would you like me to say or do?“

          This way, you have avoided (what could be perceived as) questioning the validity of the upset person’s feelings. There’s no need to explain why they feel stupid, and no potential for getting bogged down in a tedious argument where one person insists that they really are stupid while you end up necessarily implying that they’re wrong or overreacting. You’ve skipped right ahead to practical matters, and given them an opportuntiy to ask for what they need upfront.

          • Okay. That’s fair. It’s an interesting perspective, and thank you for it.

            – Everyone’s friendship and communication style is different, and of course the nebulous creature we call “advice” will not a perfect match for everybody.

            – I do not have any qualifications.

            – I do not feel that asking why someone feels pain is questioning the validity of the hurt, but I recognize the legitimacy of that perception, and thank you for bringing it to my attention.

            – All advice has the potential to “backfire,” if by “backfire” you mean “is not immediately a
            magical cure.” Somebody who is depressed or struggling or having chemobrain or in the middle of a panic attack or even just mentally exhausted may find that “When you say that you feel “stupid,” what do you want me to do or say about that?” to be a difficult question to answer, sometimes; perhaps they do not want to assign you homework at this moment; perhaps it makes them feel like they have to state their needs logically and eloquently and fill in forms in order to receive basic life support; perhaps it makes them feel like, rather than being vulnerable, they must now assume the role of hand-holding educator.

            – This does not mean that it is a bad question to ask forever and ever. It is a fantastic question to ask. It should be printed on coasters and flags. I completely agree with it. I will use it on everybody.

            – I am not going to argue that the Captain should add a big, bold-lettered caveat to her already-great script: “WARNING: MAY CAUSE TIREDNESS IN CERTAIN INDIVIDUALS! DO NOT TAKE WITH FOOD!” because I recognize that, as with all advice, it is a starting point for rewarding human interactions, and Your Mileage May Vary.

            – Please speak to your friends and loved ones with the care and consideration that they deserve, and react to their individual needs as each unique person merits!

            – Oh, and YMMV.

          • igglanova said:

            I realized after the fact that my comment could easily come across as nitpicky or overly critical of your original suggestion. Sorry about that. The difficulty in dealing with a chronic self-insulter is that nearly anything you say to them can be twisted into something negative. I was only trying to offer one way that I’ve seen ‘why do you feel stupid?’ backfire in real life. Although, as you’ve alluded to, it’s not always possible to prevent anything we say from backfiring anyway, if a person is determined enough to continue with the insult streak.

  6. Bev said:

    Hey, is there a stock answer for someone who says “sorry” like it’s going out of fashion? To the point of apologising for existing?

    • White Rabbit said:

      I used to do this when I was younger. It was the result of practically non-existent self-esteem, which in my case was the result of bullying and child abuse.

      I would recommend gently pointing this out to your friend. I still remember the first time a good friend said something to me – it was a real turning point. I knew I needed to work on it, but talking to a friend about it made me feel safe about not apologizing all the time for everything. I’m obviously not saying your friend will have the same reaction, but I think talking to her about is a good idea.

    • lizbarr said:

      Like White Rabbit, I have/had the same problem, and for much the same reasons — it’s one of the things my therapist and I are working on.

      And I just wanted to throw in, the very worst thing you can do is snap at your friend, “Stop apologising!” Because if they already feel apologetic for their existence, feeling like they’re annoying you isn’t going to help. /bitter experience

      • TO said:

        Then what does work? Because honestly, sometimes it is not just annoying, but really really stressful to have someone apologizing and apologizing and apologizing to you. It can make you constantly fearful of saying the wrong thing or using the wrong tone of voice and triggering a bunch of apologies, since those apologies can make you feel like you’re being a bully (because why else would they be constantly apologizing for such trivial things), which can also make you feel angry and resentful because you know you’re really NOT being a bully or mean and you’re really a perfectly nice person and why are they acting like you are one and why is it your responsibility to reassure and hold their hand them every 20 seconds anyway when you have your own life to deal with (and you feel mean if you don’t have the emotional energy to reassure them every 20 seconds), but you’ll try really hard to hide your annoyance and you’ll feel really really guilty for being annoyed when the person is obviously so stressed out and are you such an aweful person that you can’t just be sympathetic? And then you’ll get more tense because you’ll be worried about appearing tense and making them think you’re mad at them and triggering another round of apologies, but you won’t be completely able to hide your tension and it will show and they’ll start apologizing again and you’ll again feel like a horrible person for letting your tension show in such a way that it’s stressing them out…

        But obviously you do have to do something before your head explodes and you just say ‘WOULD YOU PLEASE STOP APOLOGIZING I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE’ because then they will freak out and start apologizing for constantly apologizing, then realize they’re doing it again and apologize for it…

        And basically both parties will end up stressed out and hating themselves, which is no good.

        • TO said:

          That was long but what I’m getting at is having someone constantly apologizing to you for reasons that don’t make sense to you can make you feel like you’ve said or done something wrong yourself to make them feel that way. And also make you feel like you’re responsible for their happiness and self-esteem. All of which can leave you nervous and feeling like a clumsy oaf who can’t say or do anything right without accidentally hurting someone.

          • Erl said:

            So, this may sound harsh. But perhaps you and this person are not the best friends for each other, and it would be most positive for both of your lives to attenuate that friendship.

            You used the word “you” a lot in your long comment. But what you meant—unless I misunderstand—was “I.” Your experience of this person’s apologies as not merely an irritant but an intense emotional drain and an allegation you’re a bully is a personal one. That’s fine; it’s okay to not be okay with other people’s stuff.

            However, it sounds like you have a meaningful personality feature that makes it hard to cope with your friend’s repeated “sorry,” and your friend has a meaningful feature that makes it hard to stop saying “sorry.” Neither of those can really be dismissed or removed at once; there are no magic words. So I’d recommend owning the problem by talking about it with your friend. A good script might be: “I have a lot of trouble when you say sorry so often; how can we deal with that together, either by reducing your sorry, increasing my comfort, or letting me express this feeling non-explosively?” And remember that one of the options is choosing to manage your interactions so that this stressor doesn’t build up.

          • I’ve had people call me up on it when I was younger, and I was bullied at school and had unpredictable parents, so I did used to apologize pre-emptively for silly things like taking up people’s time, or talking, or you know, existing.

            What’s helpful is when you do it in a way that tells them that time with you is a safe space, in which they are not being secretly judged and criticized so that you can store up facts to use against them in the future.

            Sometimes something along the lines of:

            “You know, you don’t have to apologize for just being you. I like you, that’s why I’m hanging out with you. If you step on my feet, or show up late, then I would appreciate an apology, but you never need to apologize for just saying what’s on your mind, or doing things the way you do them.”

            There’s a pretty good chance that the person will then apologize, because that’s how they have trained themselves to avoid bad things happening. I think the best thing you can say then is something like “It’s okay, and it doesn’t matter if you keep doing it. I just want you to know that you don’t need to do it when you’re with me.”

            Now, you know that it is annoying, and it might keep happening. But you have set up things so you can just occasionally remind them, “Hey, remember what I said about unnecessary apologies. You’re awesome, that’s why I’m here. Now tell me more about [that thing].”

          • Thank you very much for this. I have a cousin-in-law who is just as you describe. She apologizes for things that it wouldn’t occur to me to apologize for (and I have a bad tendency to be to read waaaay too much into people’s actions toward me), and it can escalate to her crying in otherwise cheerful social situations that seem low-stress to me. I so much want to be a good friend, and I have a lot of empathy for social awkwardness (I have been known to simply walk away from them when I can’t take it) but really don’t know what to do until it’s gone so far that I’m just impatient. I think part of the problem is that it happens in a group, and of course then all the attention focuses on her, and that would be enough to make ME cry.

            Maybe taking a little walk with this script would be helpful? Anyway, I know I sound insensitive here, but it’s SO helpful to hear from someone on her side of the experience.

          • White Rabbit said:

            Whoa. That sounds really intense.

            I honestly can’t relate to that experience, and I used to apologize for damn near everything. I broke the habit pretty quickly around the age of 14 when I started high school and met new friends who were accepting of me and reassured me that I didn’t need to apologize all the time. Prior to that, I had been ostracized and bullied pretty intensely, and my family life was a nightmare, which only reinforced my sense that something was wrong with me.

            I don’t know what is going on with your friend, but it sounds like it is having a very negative affect on you. You’re right that your friend’s happiness and self-esteem are not your responsibility, and I would also strongly advise against taking your friend’s insecurities personally, as difficult as that may be.

            If this is a close friend and you’re feeling up to the task, I would still recommend gently addressing it with your friend — not an accusation that s/he’s driving you nuts (true as that may be), but just an acknowledgement that you notice that s/he apologizes a lot and that you don’t understand because you don’t see the need for it. Then be prepared for a reaction that can range from apologizing again and promptly shutting down, to a confession of something awful that has happened that has caused him/her to feel so insecure. Again, this could be the prompting your friend needs to start working on breaking the habit.

            If you don’t feel up to it, that’s perfectly okay in my humble opinion, but then I would suggest creating some distance. There’s no use continuing to feel so intensely frustrated, and it’s quite possible your friend’s antennae are uber-sensitive* and are picking up on the fact that the apologies are driving you bonkers, which would only feed into his/her instinct to keep apologizing.

            *I’m not using “sensitive” as a pejorative here. It’s not uncommon among trauma survivors to have a heightened perception of people’s moods.

          • TO said:

            Oh don’t worry, this happened years ago with someone I’m not even in touch with, and we worked it out somehow after a bit, I don’t even remember how anymore. We got to know each other better and both started to relax more, I guess.

          • TO said:

            And I do agree that humour works better than anything else, if and when you can pull it off.

        • lizbarr said:

          Luckily I was thinking about the techniques that work for me while I showered!

          There’s something my therapist has been teaching me, and it’s kind of what my best friend found instinctively. Say we went out for coffee, and I chose the cafe, and I looked at reviews and recommendations, because that’s what I do — and it was terrible.

          “Sorry,” I’d say, “Nothing in the reviews said they used cow’s milk when customers asked for soy.”

          My friend would say something like, “Why are you apologising? Are you personally responsible for my cowtastic coffee?”

          “…No.”

          “Did you go looking for really terrible cafes? Did you choose this place based on its one-star ratings?”

          “No!”

          “Then you have nothing to be sorry for. It’s not your fault.”

          What she had to do was work out why I was apologising, what I thought I was responsible for. (Short answer: EVERYTHING EVER THAT GOES WRONG IN THE WORLD.) And then she sort of gently showed me how ridiculous and self-centred my sense of responsibility was (is). This demonstrated a lot of patience on her part, and there are probably easier ways to wean a person off apologising, but using humour meant she could do it without raising my defences.

          • Kaesa said:

            That’s the method I tend to use when other people apologize at me for things they haven’t done, and the one that helps me the most when I apologize to other people. “Stop apologizing!” just makes me apologize, but gentle humor and the Socratic method really do go a long way, if one is up to it.

            (Also, it’s kind of a relief to see how many other people have had this problem.)

          • This is more or less what I do with my fiancee, who has a long history of apologizing. We have, after months of repetitions, got it down to, “Why? You haven’t done anything wrong.” I now say it pretty much automatically whenever she apologizes automatically. She does it a whole lot less now, and usually accepts that I mean it.

          • misspiggy said:

            That’s great – I will ask my husband to say that instead of ‘argghh! Stop saying sorry all the time!’

        • Naamah said:

          I feel bad that this is sort of tangential to the original letter, but this really, really, really hits home for me.

          TO, I am saying all this with love, for serious. So assume my tone of voice is really friendly. Not pushy or accusatory or mean. I am assuming that you have the best of intentions and are a really nice person.

          I am also assuming the person is not apologizing in the sense of “I’m sorry you got stuck in traffic, that sucks,” which is a completely reasonable use of the phrase. From what it sounds like, this person is a reflexive apologizer, like I am. I’m also-also going to assume that you don’t actually have any anger issues that cause you behave in a way that even a person without anxiety issues would find threatening, vexing, or unreasonable.

          I’m also gonna say that neither of you is to blame for this. This is an example of a communication conflict where both parties are dealing with discomfort in ways that are not bad, objectively, but which upset the other person. You don’t understand their response very well, and maybe they don’t understand yours. They don’t know how to deal with it when people show certain feelings. That’s not your fault, it’s not theirs, it’s rooted in the past, and there’s no point in “shouldn’t feel” and “getting over.” It’s the situation you have to deal with. That’s all. Neither of you are bad.

          I’m just going to throw this here, if you want to look at it:

          http://naamah-darling.livejournal.com/590784.html

          That is where I take a quote by PomperaFirpa from another recent CA column and use it to discuss my own history of emotional fragility and fear triggers.

          It’s not addressing the specific issue of over-apologizing, but it does go into the reasons someone develops those fearful responses, and what function those defense mechanisms once served. It talks about how it feels. The comments are pretty good, too. It might help you to get a look at it from the other side. I’m always willing to answer questions over there.

          Moving on, I do this apologizing stuff, and I do it more the more anxious I get, and the more agitated or angry the other person seems to be. I do it because I am legitimately, for-real scared, and I don’t know what else to do. I know it’s annoying. But I’m *scared*. So it’s painful, because I know I am only making things worse for myself, but “I’m sorry” is a tension release that I really need at that moment, because I don’t know what else to say, ’cause “I’m scared” and “please don’t hurt me” or “don’t yell don’t yell don’t yell” are all kind of weird things to say to a person who has never hurt me. They don’t make sense. They make me look like I think the other person is a monster, or like I for-real think they WILL hurt me, when I don’t think that at all! But it’s not thinking. It’s feeling, and those feelings are SO POWERFUL.

          So the first thing you have to understand is that this does not mean the person thinks you are a monster. You aren’t the person who caused them to create this defense pattern, okay? Just remember that. So being angry with them for making you feel bad is . . . about the least helpful thing you can do. However, it IS aggravating, and sometimes it’s really hard to control that anger. So it’s not like your problem is invalid and you are wrong. You aren’t wrong at all.

          I have made a lot of progress recently in this regard. I don’t know if any of this will be helpful, because I don’t know the situation. But here is what I do know.

          It helps to know what is provoking this response. In my case, it was a fear of being yelled at and verbally abused. That doesn’t sound too bad, but trust me, it was, is, nightmarish, and the pain left behind is very real, and the scars are very ugly, and my god, it has fucked up my communication abilities to an extent that I have yet to fully comprehend. I will NEVER be free of it. You may not do those abusive things, ever, and that’s exactly right and that’s wonderful, but the thing about an emotional trigger is that it doesn’t care about intent, or who you are with, or anything. It’s a lizard-brain fear response. It absolutely does not mean that the person does not trust you! I swear it does not.

          So if this person is doing it when you are exhibiting anger or frustration, it’s because they don’t know how else to react. People like me who were abused this way were often never told what we needed to do. We were made to guess, and we were yelled at when we got it wrong. No matter what we guessed, we were always wrong. There WAS nothing we could do right. We could have been perfect — sometimes we were — and we would still be hurt by the people who should never have hurt us. That screws a person up.

          So. Two things need to happen. The person needs to know how to react around you when you are in these moods. You need to help them replace their reflexive verbal (or actual) cringing with something else. Not in an “or else I will be annoyed with you” way, but in a “here is what would be actually helpful for both of us, so you can be more comfortable” way. You HAVE to make sure that they understand that you are not going to hold this against them. You have to not embarrass, humiliate, or belittle them. You just need to open up a dialogue where you both talk about what you need. Easier said than done, right? But it can be done. You need to explain to them what you actually need in those moments when they see you angry or frustrated or upset. You need to be open, up-front, and honest about it. The worst things to someone like me are not knowing what to do, and the fear of doing the wrong thing, to the point that you are apologizing for things you did not do, or have not even done yet.

          I have behavioral tics that are anxious ones, where I am basically reaching out for reassurance. And Husband finds it annoying. When I did it, I would not get back what I needed, which is mirrored sympathy and support, because he’d be annoyed with me. So we replaced these tics with something else. We call it sonar, and it works like this. The original conversation would go:

          Me, anxious about x thing involving Husband: I love you.

          Husband: I love you too.

          Me, two minutes later, increasingly anxious: I love you.

          Husband: I love you, too.

          Me, visibly upset, two minutes later: I love you.

          Husband: . . . I love you, too.

          Repeat ad nauseam. I do not get what I really want, which is reassurance. It does not actually tell him that I am feeling anxious, but I’m projecting it, which is aggravating because it is making him guess at my mental/emotional state. It does not provoke a reassuring response from him. Only progressively more perplexed responses that seem less and less sincere. (Note: we do love each other immensely, this is never in question.)

          The new thing goes like this:

          Me: I love you.

          Him: I love you, too.

          Me, two minutes later: I love you.

          Him: *smiles* *PING!*

          Me: *smiles*

          Me, two minutes later, realizing I am doing this: *PING!*

          Him: *PING!* What’s bothering you, darling?

          It is stupid and makes no sense, but what it is, is a way for me to say “Hey, I am going to use my loooooove sonar to find out how close you are to me, because I need to feel close to you right now, because I need to feel safe.” It works to point out that I’m doing it a lot, because I am not always aware of it, without accusing me of being irritating.

          To flip things, Husband has this thing about when I leave the house. Part of it is humorous superstition (long story short, the few times we’ve left the house without saying “be careful” to one another, bad things have happened, and to our friends, too, so now we say it, laughingly, ALWAYS) and part of it is genuinely that he has very real panic issues about me leaving. I have panic issues about being PREVENTED from leaving. This is . . . suboptimal. He will interrupt me asking if I have: keys, phone, wallet, glasses, this, that, the other, and I find it infuriating, because I just Want. To. Go. So instead of having this whole conversation, I nip it when it starts by saying “I gotta go. Cat barf!”

          http://xkcd.com/791/

          And it works, because it breaks the inner script that he has, the one that plays on repeat in his head, with something new that is ours, that means something different, that means that I see and understand his concern, and that I love him and that I’ll be okay, and it’s fine to let me go, no really.

          All this isn’t the same as apologizing, but it comes from the same sense of un-safety. So maybe you could work out something in your own between-you language that says “It’s okay, I’m not actually angry WITH YOU.” Because I get the “I don’t have the energy right now to have a whole long Thing about reassuring you.” So come up with a shorthand, a very loving, VERY loving shorthand, for that conversation. And use it. And keep using it. Sometimes you will have to have the Whole Damn Conversation again. Use it at the beginning, at the end, in the middle. The person needs to see that you mean it, and they WILL learn. And using words they are not used to hearing (*PING!* or “cat barf”) in a scary context, like the one that started the hamster wheel of fear in their heads. They are safe words, words that are safe, that can mean any of a number of things at once, and which always include “I love you, you are safe, I don’t want you to feel afraid, and none of that is conditional on you being ‘good’ and never making mistakes.”

          It honestly helps, if you can come up with something.

          And you need to know how to react. If you’re in the middle of feeling frustrated and angry, and the other person starts the super-apologizing placating thing, it is going to seem unfair and extra-frustrating for you to have to change your behavior or think about the other person while still managing your own 100% valid feels, and to an extent it is. But it is something that you will have to do LESS of as your communication improves.

          Sometime when they are not anxious or scared, tell them that you noticed they get uncomfortable and scared under [these circumstances], and that’s not at all how you want them to feel, since you care about them and all, and so you’d like to know what it is, specifically, that scares them, and you’d like to work out a way to deal with it that helps you both say what you really mean, rather than just them placating because they’re scared of something you aren’t actually saying/doing, and you being exasperated because it’s exasperating (and I get that it is, totally, I do) and only making it worse for them.

          Some good things to ask and say. Note: you must be so fucking careful how you say this, because if you come across as being judgy or annoyed or that you think they are being stupid and overreacting, they are just going to lie and try harder to hide it, and that helps nobody; make it clear you are doing this to make THEM feel more comfortable, that this isn’t about them being the problem:

          “I want to understand how you’re feeling when this happens. How does X thing make you feel, exactly? What feelings are we working with, here?”

          “What is it about when I am angry/frustrated/whatever that upsets you? What is it that I DO that reminds you of what you are afraid of?”

          “When you say that, what is it that you want to happen? Do you want me to stop the behavior? Do you want me to reassure you that I am not angry with you? Do you just want to be given permission to leave without me being mad at you?”

          “Are you using fear to cover up another feeling, like anger or frustration, that you don’t feel safe actually expressing?” Because sometimes people do use fear to cover up for anger. Fear is a “safe” thing to feel for folks like me, oddly, because other responses tend to make abusers super-angry. So we retreat into it when we are provoked, even if it’s not how we necessarily feel.

          “What would it help you to hear? ‘I’m not angry with you, it’s okay!’ ‘I don’t mean to upset you but man, I am really upset about this thing that is not about you.’ ‘You made me upset with this thing you did, and yeah, I’m a little annoyed, but that doesn’t mean that I’m angry with you or hate you or think you are a bad person.’ ‘I am really upset, but I am not going to hurt you, reject you, yell at you, or do any of those bad things, because you are my friend and I love you, and I want to work this out.”

          “What would it help you to be able to say? Even if it seems silly and embarrassing, like ‘It’s not my fault, please don’t be angry!’ or ‘I didn’t mean to I know I was bad but I didn’t mean to!’ or ‘Please don’t start yelling, I’m scared right now!’ or ‘I need to run away now, but I still love you and don’t want to be in trouble when I come back!’ It doesn’t matter if I know it already or you think it makes you sound like a big baby, that’s okay.”

          “Here is what you can do/say when you are anxious instead of being all I’m-so-super-sorry all the time, and here is what I will do/say to let you know that it’s okay, instead of being all this-is-annoying-I-am-not-mad-at-you-except-now-I-kinda-am-’cause-you-are-only-making-it-worse.”

          “Let’s come up with a way that we can remind each other of what we are doing. If I’m doing that thing I do that upsets you, you can say [x silly thing]. If you are doing that thing that frustrates me, I can say [x silly thing]. It’s just a reminder, not ‘SHUT UP,’ and we should only use it to help ourselves become aware of these patterns that seem to be messing us both up. It’s a friendly tool, a happy one, meant to help us trade unhelpful habits for helpful ones.”

          It’s . . . it’s a huge subject. It is.

          Obviously that person has been hurt at some point, and developed these responses as a powerful survival tool. Never forget, that is what it is. Something they needed, at some point, for some reason. Your goal is to teach them that they don’t need to use that response with you. Your goal is to trade ineffective communication for effective communication. It takes patience. It isn’t easy. It can be frustrating, tiring. And it takes a willing partner.

          So try, always, to be really straightforward with what you need and how you feel, and help them to try to be the same with you. A lot of the time that means addressing the issue when it is not going on. Having these conversations when they are scared and you are aggravated is a bad idea.

          You aren’t responsible for how they feel and for their self-esteem. But they are your friend, and you are responsible for your half of how you two communicate. Sometimes, if the friend is someone who was badly hurt at some point, you gave to take more than half for a while, maybe always. Sometimes that’s the price of admission for having an otherwise fucking amazing person in your life.

          This is super-long now, and I am tired, and should stop, but I hope it is at least a little helpful. I really feel for your friend. They had some bad people in their past, and nobody deserves that. I hope that you can work things out so that you are both HELPING each other in tense situations, not frustrating or scaring each other! And I really, really think that you can.

          I am willing to answer questions or whatnot, if you have them. I wish y’all luck.

          • Naamah said:

            Holy balls, that was long. I am so sorry, everybody. Jeez.

            . . .

            . . .

            Um. Oh, dear.

            Look. Look what I just did, for real, right then. I’m not kidding when I say I have a problem with apologizing too much.

          • I for one found this really interesting and potentially helpful in future, thank you!

          • J. Preposterice said:

            That was so amazingly super-helpful I cannot even express how super-helpful it was. This is the hugest and fraughtest and most horrible communication problem my spouse and I have and it’s always been…intractable. Years-of-therapy intractable. But we’ve never tried these techniques or been able to explain for ourselves what was happening. Between this and TO’s description of the other side I feel like we both now have a better grasp on what is up with the other person and have some new ideas to try.

          • alphakitty said:

            too awesome to need apologizing for

          • kadimonster said:

            Thank you. Because, oh, man, I thought I was the only person who got trapped in that cycle of fear and the wanting to run away. And I am getting a little better about it, but… Thank you.

          • SadieBlake said:

            Bahaha! Naamah, you’re adorable. (Also, is that a Jacqueline Carey reference? Because if so…. YES. LOVE.)

            Your situation sounds so similar to me & Mr.Blake (some of which I’ve detailed…. uh, down the comments page here somewhere). It is SUPER helpful to develop your own language and derail the Hamster Wheel Of Fear, and I totally love the love-sonar strategy.

            Aaaannnddd…. to bring that right back around to the original post: sometimes it helps to have friends develop derailing language, too. I have an amazing friend who, when I start getting down on myself, responds with a lovingly sarcastic agreement: “Yep, that’s why I hate you so much!” We spend time together on an almost-daily basis, so that comment is very obviously and laughably false, and helps me giggle and realize she loves me and maybe I’m not so bad after all.

            This is also the friend who, when I semi-jokingly said that if Big Important Thing I’m Working On fell through I might as well go jump off a bridge, responded with “Ok, I’ll push you,” and a big evil grin. Mr.Blake was (more than) slightly horrified, but sometimes it’s better to hear a response in the vein of “I know you’re going through a serious thing, but that was a silly thing to say and it deserves a silly response,” than “OHMIGODAREYOUOK??”

          • Naamah said:

            Naamah started as my dance name, years ago, and I found the books later — and thankfully loved them! It could have been awkward.

            I love the “That’s why I hate you so much!” and “I’ll push you!” because that’s exactly the kind of sense of humor I have. I don’t always want a joke-y response to things, I usually want an honest response to my feelings, but there’s no reason honest has to mean super-serious, and it at least points out the ridiculousness of what I just said. If they go on and talk to me about what is wrong, or let me talk about it on my own, that’s pretty much ideal.

          • Wow. Thanks. My fiancee has really cut back on the reflexive apologizing, but she definitely does the repeat-loop of “I love you.” You’ve just given me a handle on it. Thank you!

          • Also, “loooooove sonar” is an awesome name for it.

          • TO said:

            Wow, thanks for responding so thoroughly.

            Like I said somewhere higher up, this situation as well as the person are long gone, it was a fairly brief stage that happened when I was first getting to know this person (at the time we didn’t know each other well at all, but I was in kind of a tutoring/mentoring situation where I occasionally had to give them advice, long story), and we did sort it out and go on to develop a much more positive relationship.

            Although I don’t think it was ever nearly as bad as it must sound from my post – what I was explaining were my fears about what would happen more than what actually did happen…. In real life we would both be a little bit tense and not completely enjoy the interaction but neither of us was really freaking out. I guess I was trying to explain what if can feel like sometimes from the other side, and how someone may seem a little impatient not because they actually want you to feel bad but because they’re stressed out by being afraid of making a mess of things or doing or saying something wrong.

            And I definitely do get the person just being intimidated and the importance of not getting angry– in fact I’ve felt that way myself before (though I didn’t apologize about it, I would just get quiet and tense and withdraw and not be able to think clearly, but I do tend to get freaked out by anger), and knowing that was a large part of what stressed me out when I found myself on the other side.

          • TO said:

            “t helps to know what is provoking this response. In my case, it was a fear of being yelled at and verbally abused. That doesn’t sound too bad, but trust me, it was, is, nightmarish, and the pain left behind is very real, and the scars are very ugly, and my god, it has fucked up my communication abilities to an extent that I have yet to fully comprehend. I will NEVER be free of it. You may not do those abusive things, ever, and that’s exactly right and that’s wonderful, but the thing about an emotional trigger is that it doesn’t care about intent, or who you are with, or anything. It’s a lizard-brain fear response. It absolutely does not mean that the person does not trust you! I swear it does not.”

            Yeah, that actually resonates a lot with me, as I sometimes do some of those things myself and also find people yelling at me or speaking sharply to me (or looking vaguely tense as if MAYBE they might actually be angry at me) really freak me out (though my own response to being intimidated is to withdraw — asking for approval or apologizing would just make me feel far far more vulnerable and is really the last thing I’d ever do if I felt insecure). I’m far more used to being on the intimidated side of things than the intimidating side, so it was kind of freaky to suddenly be on the other side (and kind of made me feel a little like, ‘you know what, they were right, I AM a socially incompetent nerd who can’t even speak to other humans right without messing everything up’ with a small side-order of ‘hey, how can you talk to me like I’m a bully, bullies are the evil enemy and I’m NOT a bad person?’ although I did know at the time neither thought pattern was accurate and did mostly suppress them).

            In the situation I was describing it ended up being VERY helpful to me to look back on ways nice people had acted in the past when I was tense around them and what was helpful. Humour being a big part of it which started to become possible once I knew this person well enough to joke around together (though I wasn’t good enough at it to do it with a relative stranger, and I had to say something before I got stressed out). Also speaking about it another time outside of the actual situation. But the first few times it happened I was really at a loss because I just didn’t know the person very well and really had no idea how to handle it and would kind of just wish I was elsewhere.

          • Private Editor said:

            This comment is amazeballs, Naamah. Thank you so much. (I’m trying to train myself out of apologizing, and I wish I’d known all this stuff when I got started!) Thank you.

          • mintylime said:

            Thank you, this comment was fabulous A+++++ will read again.

        • SadieBlake said:

          Mr.Blake and I run into this a lot. He’s had a rough time with inconsistent and emotionally not-ok (passive-aggressive) parents, and has some pretty deep wounds in the self-esteem area. And I, too, used to get frustrated at the whole apologistic downward spiral – he would say “Sorry” and “Are you ok?” about as much as he says “I love you” – which is all the damn time. And what I realized is – to him, those all say the same thing. “I care about you, and want you to care about me, and I’m afraid that you’ll stop caring at some point and it will be my fault.”

          That realization made it a lot easier to be gentle with him. We’ve had to use a lot of words to get to this point, mind – but now when he says “Sorry” and I don’t think he’s done anything that merits an apology, I just ask “What are you sorry for?” Not in a Throwing Apology In His Face way, just in a Genuinely Curious way. It helps him to stop and think about why he’s apologizing – and then we either talk about what he’s apologizing for, and whether or not it actually offended me, and make amends… or he can take a look at it and go “Hmm, I guess I didn’t really need to apologize for that. Never mind, I’m not sorry!”

          I’ve also asked him to replace “Are you ok?” – a closed ended question that ends either in a frustrated “Yes, I’m FINE!” or a curt “No,” both of which are emotionally fraught – with “Is there anything you need to talk about?” – which is open-ended and gives me the opportunity to either reassure him that I’m ok, or tell him that I’m upset/annoyed/distracted/etc but am not sure how to process or talk about it yet, or that I do need to talk and I’m glad he brought it up and here’s what’s pissing me off, or what have you.

          We also have friends who take the approach of “Hey – if taking care of myself and being myself makes me an asshole, then so be it. We’re assholes and proud of it!” Meaning, essentially, that they’re not going to walk on eggshells and try to guess whether they’re upsetting someone or not. They won’t go out of their way to be jerks, but they’re going to be themselves until someone tells them they’ve crossed a line. It’s been very freeing to be around them and realize I don’t have to worry about offending them – if they take offense, they’ll tell me; and until that point, I’m free to be an asshole too! And hey – I don’t have to worry about the emotional well-being of every single human I interact with! If I come across as a jerk sometimes, oh well! They’ll live! And in the meantime, I’m comfortable and got what I needed. I can’t take care of everyone, especially if I don’t take care of me.

          It sounds like maybe you and this friend are triggering each others’ insecurities. So I think a rough script for talking to this friend of yours might be something like, “Hey, you know, you don’t have to apologize for everything around me. In fact, I would feel better if you didn’t. When you apologize, I actually feel like I’ve done something wrong to upset you – then we both feel bad about ourselves. I would like it if you felt that you could trust me to tell you when something’s wrong. I want you to just be yourself around me – even if it feels like you’re being a jerk – and I promise, in return, I will tell you if and when you actually do upset me. Deal?”

          Then, if he/she does apologize needlessly, you can just gently say, “What are you sorry for? You haven’t done anything to upset me yet. Remember? I’ll let you know if and when I need an apology.”

      • What I would usually say if someone told me to stop apologizing: “Sorry!” lol

        What can I say – I apologize a lot if I feel like I am disappointing someone in some way. Plus I am Canadian and we make apologizing into a national sport. We say sorry to people if they step on our feet, for xog’s sake!

    • The Kittehs' Unpaid Help said:

      I usually just say “Will you stop apologising? You have nothing to apologise for!” when I’ve heard it too often.

    • Chris said:

      Sometimes I say “I’m sorry” to indicate that I’m sorry that someone is going through something, not because I think I’m responsible for the situation.

      • Naamah said:

        I do this too. It can be an expression of sympathy.

      • mintylime said:

        I’ve found it useful to consciously replace that particular automatic “I’m sorry” for that with a wider variety of scripts – “wow that sucks” or “you have my sympathies” or “that’s sad” or (occasionally) “yuck. what are you going to do about that?”

        “I’m sorry” is just so … overloaded.

      • coraanderson said:

        I do too.

        In light of the occasional ”Why are you sorry? You didn’t fire me/sprain my wrist/kill my dog” response, I’ve started expanding it a little. Instead of just ”I’m sorry,” I’ll say ”I’m sorry that happened to you,” or ”I’m sorry, that’s gotta hurt!” or ”I’m so sorry for your loss.” Making it a more detailed/complete sentence seems to forestall the confusion between sympathy sorries and guilt sorries.

        • I don’t think there’s any confusion really. If English is the friend’s first language, they know what you mean.

          xkcd.com/945

          • Obsidian Entropy said:

            Thank you! It’s frustrating when I say I’m sorry as an expression of sympathy and the person responds that it’s not my fault. Why would I think it’s my fault?

          • mintylime said:

            This may be a thing in which I am strange and non-normative, but …..

            Because, literally, by saying “I’m sorry” you are apologizing, which is an implicit admission of fault. Even when you’re trying to use the idiomatic meaning of it as offering sympathy.

            This is why “I’m sorry to hear that” always sounds to me like the most insincere of sympathy – it parses out as “I’m sad that you made me hear this unpleasant thing”.

            Tangentially, it’s the same reason why I sometimes like getting flowers, but the entire culture around giving (and expecting!) flowers makes me twitchy – “I looooooove you soooooooo much I had some female genitals cut off of plants and I am giving you these dying plant parts! NOW LET ME TOUCH YOUR GENITALS PLZ.”

      • TO said:

        It can be an expression of sympathy, but personally I think those situations are not _usually_ as ambiguous, since that’s such a common use of ‘I’m sorry’.

        Personally when I think of people who say sorry a lot, I’m not thinking of that kind of ‘sorry’. I’m thinking of clear apologies, e.g., when you’re helping someone learn something and they ask you to give them some hints on what they’re doing and every time you do make a suggestion or give them a hint they apologize (for not already doing it that way or something, I guess). Or when you ask someone to do something minor and they apologize profusely (for not already doing it?), etc. This is more something that’s come up for me more often in teaching or tutoring situations though, than with friends. A different dynamic… But some people can get caught up in a similar dynamic with friends, occasionally. Where there’s a sort of anxious hunger for explicit approval from other people.

        It’s presumably got to do with past experiences and/or general confidence, but it has those similar overtones of someone constantly putting themself down and asking for approval or reassurance from others, and the other person not necessarily sure of what’s a helpful reaction. I’ve noticed the more I can stay relaxed myself and use humour, and if possible just ignore the other person’s anxious responses (if they aren’t literally asking for approval or something that requires a reaction), the more likely it is that I can get things going more positively and break the cycle or reduce it. But it can be difficult and require a lot of energy to find the right reactions.

        Though thinking about it, this seems to be a different kind of situation from the original LW, since in that example I think it was more venting and wanting sympathy than begging for approval or reassurance.

        • TO said:

          Or maybe it wasn’t, I don’t know. Sometimes people put themselves down a lot because they want to prompt people to contradict them and get to hear from another person that they’re OK.

      • cadenzamuse said:

        My partner and I have a shortcut for the “I’m sorry”/”why are you sorry? you didn’t cause this thing”/”I’m sorry because you’re hurting” bit. If I say “I’m sorry” and mean sympathy, I follow it with the explanation “sympathy, not apology!”

    • Erin said:

      I, too, agree with White Rabbit and had the problem for similar reason. One of the things that I look back and laugh at is that when my high school boyfriend pointed out that I apologise a lot for things I don’t need to apologise for, my response was “Oh, sorry.”

      I don’t know when/why I stopped doing that (possibly around the time and because I decided I was totally fucking awesome and fuck anyone who thought different? Or before that, when I was so depresed that I literally did not care about anything at all?), but eventually I did. In retrospect, the response that most helped me, because part of the constant apologising was based in hardcore social anxiety and knowing that I was constantly fucking up basic social interactions because I didn’t understand them, was for the person to say “‘s okay” or “don’t worry about it” and then immediately moving on like I hadn’t said anything.

      Because nothing nothing nothing would have been able to convince me at the time that I didn’t need to apologise, and that was both the most reassuring response to get me to stop obsessing over things and the quickest way to move on.

      Of course, everyone is different, and the script in the post works just as well for constant apologisers as it does people who are vocally down on themselves, because really, they’re the same thing.

    • staranise said:

      I tend to solemly intone, “I forgive you… this time.” Then let the grin I’m holding back crack through. This is especially useful when the person has apologized for something clearly not worth apologizing for (“My hair is brown! I’m sorry!”). This is partly because I’m Canadian, and we have twenty different uses for apologies, some of which aren’t apologies at all. (If someone steps on my foot, I say, “I’m sorry,” which means, “Attention: There has been a breach in the rules of ettiquette between us. Please address this.” The other person then has to apologize back.)

      Otherwise, if your friend is acting like a scared, traumatized rabbit and flinching every time you move? Take a deep breath and remember that, unless you really are being angry/aggressive, it isn’t about you. With one uber-apologizing friend, we’ve discussed that I really do like hir and don’t hold unspoken hostility or hold little things against hir, and will reassure hir of this fact whenever zie asks me to. Other than that, I ignore the “sorry”s as conversational punctuation. Having this friend be a little anxious, and remembering that zie has stuff going on that’s totally not to do with me, is the price of admission for that friendship.

      • unagi said:

        Totally agree staranise, there’s definitely a cultural thing going on. Sometimes I have to tell Americans bluntly that when I say I’m sorry, I’m just being polite, it doesn’t mean I’m about to slit my veins over something. A real apology takes more words than that, and has to address the subject. A quick sorry tossed in conversation may just mean I wish things were otherwise, not that I’ve done anything wrong and I’m “groveling”. I assure you even when I’m sincerely apologizing it’s rare that I come close to groveling :-). And then I’d truly be sorry.

    • the witching hour said:

      The first hundred times, I just say “You’re fine” or “No big deal” in the most casual tone imaginable, then carry on with whatever I was saying. Especially when someone is stuck in a spiral, I try really hard to project the EVERYTHING IS FINE AND NORMAL vibe and give them a little space to slow down. So I don’t focus in on the apology, I treat it as conversational static. I liked the sonar metaphor upthread– usually Friend just needs a quick call and response to verify everything is fine.

      If someone did something to inconvenience me in a small way, I argue their point of view:
      Me: Hey, did you wash my plate from dinner?
      Friend: Oh, sorry. Sorry.
      Me: [lightly] No, that’s totally reasonable, I leave old food around all the time. You had no way of knowing that THIS ONE TIME I was going to come back to it.

      After doing these things for a while, if they still apologize a lot, I will very casually and lightly say, “Hey, It kinda stresses me out when you apologize all the time. It makes me feel like you think I’m constantly judging you, which I’m not. It’s not a big deal, I just wanted to put that out there.”

      Also. I am kind of an intimidating person, and my natural conversational mode is a semi-confrontational exchange of statements from both parties. I find it helps to put people at their ease and signal when and about what they are invited to talk if I go out of my way to ask questions and listen to their answers.

      • Datdamwuf said:

        Thought I’d chime in here because lizbarr above said she was apologizing for “EVERYTHING EVER THAT GOES WRONG IN THE WORLD” this made me recall a very helpful class because I used to apologize for everything myself.

        Sometime in my mid twenties I had a communications class (business related) and the instructor told us; men rarely apologize, women tend to apologize even when they have just done something great, it has to do with our social conditioning, empathy and bottom line is that at work one should never apologize at all for anything unless someone calls you on it, and never ever if it’s for something over which you had no control.

        Instructor emphasized that no matter how good what we did was, no matter if we pulled everyone’s ass out of the fire, we always tend to see the little mistakes we made, or how if we’d only done XYZ or controlled some uncontrollable thing, what we did would be better. Basically, we (women) tend to say; here is your thing, and then say “I’m sorry, it could have been better”. The instructor then told us to hear our own words and stop saying I’m sorry. Just stop and not only would we feel better, our work would be better received, and our bosses would reward us better. And I did this, I got a rave performance review and a great raise, just by deleting “I’m sorry” from my language. To this day I always notice when I apologize for anything at work and I make sure that if I do I never phrase it “I’m sorry x happened”, it’s always something like “I apologize if we x’d”. Note the we? The thing is most of the time when I used to apologize it was not for anything I could control. I’m not saying you shouldn’t apologize to people when you really have done them wrong and it’s appropriate, I’m saying that 90% of the time you are apologizing when you should not, and do not need to. Hope this helps someone as much as it helped me.

    • KL said:

      I don’t know the answer, but I can sometimes be one of those people, and it’s usually a sign that my depression and/or anxiety is spiking and I need to take steps to keep it under control.

  7. I find myself trying to dodge comments like that at work. Ritual female bonding, shyness of cameras,etc. I try to change the subject and then later bring out other ways of thinking of things, like health at every size and noticing and giving specific compliments, at other times, that relate to the insecurity.

    I also have negative self talk problems and have been making specific efforts to challenge them. For instance, I at first said bad self talk, but bad is an unfriendly word. I am not allowed to say that I suck, unless it involves a straw. My friends challenge these words and phrases because I have talked about the therapy involved.

    Sometimes around people with the same problem, I talk about my challenges in a way that I hope welcomes them to try some of the same solutions.

    if it’s a real emotional problem and not a verbal tic, I try to validate the emotion, because emotions are real, without feeding into it. If someone is saying they are ugly, I might tell them I think they are lovely, or I might talk about how painful it is to feel that way about oneself.

  8. Naamah said:

    You are getting some great advice, some of which I am about to repeat with emphasis.

    With, specifically, “I am fat,” you really can’t say anything about “You aren’t fat!” without feeding SOMETHING negative. I don’t know your friend, so I don’t know at what point she’s at re: self-acceptance, or what the best tactic for addressing it might be. For me, if I said that about myself, it’d help to hear “That doesn’t matter. If what you mean is ‘I’m gross and ugly,’ well, that’s not true at all. You are a wonderful person, you are not gross, your body does not disgust me, you are beautiful, and I think you are the bees knees. There’s nothing wrong with being fat. If anyone has ever been an asshole to you about it, they were an asshole because they were an asshole, not because you’re fat.” That all presumes that you think those things are true, of course. And some people aren’t ready to hear “Yes, you are fat. And that’s okay.” yet. That’s not advanced not-hating-yourself, but it’s not beginner level, either.

    For other negative self-talk, it helps to do these things:

    1) Determine by asking, or by magical unicorn telepathy, whether she wants to be complimented (true compliments only, that is important), wants to vent, wants sympathy, or wants some sort of problem-solving or advice, or something else entirely. This can be hard. They may not even know. That’s okay. You don’t get only one chance to try.

    2) If it is completely unfounded self-flagellating (I’m stupid and worthless and nobody will ever love me), and not a more complicated problem potentially based in reality (I am so fucking broken I cannot even keep a job), pointing out that they are being unfriendly to themselves can help. Be gentle. I use “Would you say that about a friend you cared about a great deal?”

    3) Respond to the emotion. Sometimes the “fact” is incidental. “I don’t think you are stupid or worthless at all! But you’re upset about *something*, or you wouldn’t say that about my friend. Wanna talk about it?” And that can get them away from that thing and into the part where they actually get around to the real thing that is upsetting them. Maybe something happened to make them feel bad, like someone said something really rude, or was mean to them. Maybe they are just really frustrated with some part of their life they feel like they should have control over, and don’t. Maybe they are doubting their abilities because they are under pressure. Whatever it is, if you get them to talk about THAT, then that could really help.

    Of course, we hear a lot of this stuff at times when we CAN’T take time to discuss it deeply. When we have to move on. If it is someone I don’t care about, but don’t hate, I will ignore it, or be noncommittal but positive, trying not to reinforce it. If it’s someone I do care about, I will come back to it at another time and say something like “You were upset earlier about this thing, and I wanted to see if everything is okay with you. Want to talk?”

    I am not really great at that bit, I admit. But as long as you are not telling them that what they are feeling is bad and wrong and shut UP, and you are being sincere and loving and genuinely wanting to listen, people tend to respond to that with surprising honesty and candor. (In my experience. YMMV.)

  9. SweetMisery said:

    My boyfriend likes to comment on his weight alot. He’s within a pretty healthy range, and i’m sure him being muscular in some parts and not in others throws the numbers off a bit. I told him this: “I’m going to say this once, so you better listen. I don’t need you to lose weight. I think you are sexy and amazing the way you are, and the only reason I want you to lose weight is because you want to. I want to support you in doing anything (healthy) to make yourself feel better (about yourself), and I am willing to be your cheerleader/partner and whatever else you need (as long as this stays healthy).”

  10. MaryKaye said:

    My tic of that kind is “Are you mad at me?” to my partner. After years of being annoyed by it, he took the lead of asking what it was about, and we learned two things:

    (a) Sometimes it’s the “ping” described above, where I am looking for reassurance. In that case if he points it out I can try to look for reassurance better: “I’m really worried that …. X”.

    (b) Sometimes “Are you mad at me?” means “I am mad at you. That thing you did was mean. Why are you being mean? Are you mad at me?” In that case unpacking it works a lot better than just saying it over and over. So he has learned to try, “No, are you mad at me?”

    I wish I was better at distinguishing me-mad-at-him from him-mad-at-me. That sounds like it should be so obvious! But for whatever reason it isn’t, so we have to sort it out sometimes.

  11. I know I am horrible about this, because I am in a never ending anger war with my body, and my lizard brain anxiety which tells me that today will be the day my husband finally notices my skin folds over when I bend to the left and be completely disgusted and run away screaming into the night for a girl 10 lbs lighter. So in order to not be the woman constantly bemoaning being not the size I want (although I know logically and practically this is the size I should be and is healthy for me), I talk around the subject.

    “oh I wish I had that girls thighs” or “kiera knightly is so freaking perfect it hurts my eyes to look at her” or I won’t allow my stomach to touch him when we are cuddling.

    So for me, it’s not a need for false compliments, but the only way I feel I can express my certain self loathing. And I don’t know how to stop it, because to stop it would mean I actually do like my body, and the the insecure lizard brain programmed by years of “well aren’t we just full of ourselves today “(mother when I would complement myself in someway) or “do you really need a second slice of pizza? You had to buy new pants the other day as it is” (ex-husband) does not allow goatdiva to like herself.

  12. adelady said:

    Just a general word about the ‘I’m so dumb’ and ‘I’ll never understand this stuff’ type comments. A lot of this is a hangover from people’s childhood and schooling, when the notions of intelligence and talent being entirely innate were absorbed from parents, teachers and peers. (Often second hand. Many children don’t need anyone to directly tell them they’re dumb, they just presume it because they’re having some difficulty.) Others are belittled and rejected because they don’t meet some imaginary benchmark.

    It _is_ possible to be ‘too dumb’ to understand quantum mechanics or the remote intricacies of some genetic science sub-specialties. But that’s not the kind of relative intelligence or education that most people are referring to. For most things that people mess up or can’t understand it’s simply a matter of how much work they do or don’t, will or won’t, put in to improving their competence or their understanding.

    I can’t come up with any clever scripts like the Captain’s for responding to an adult saying these things because all my practice and expertise is in dealing with children and other students, and that only in specific circumstances.

    The main thing to bear in mind is that, at least for many young people, the “I’m too dumb” announcement is often an all purpose excuse for not putting in any further time or effort to the subject generally or a particular task they find onerous. If you know someone well, you can probably judge pretty well if they’re simply moaning about something unfortunate or if they’re standing in their own path to better coping with their problems.

  13. Where’s the difference between running yourself down, and just being truthful? For example, the reason I’m single is because I’m unattractive. That isn’t me having low self-esteem, I’ve been told that directly many times. Or the reason I’m not in grad school is because I’m kind of dumb… I did horribly on the GREs even after studying my butt off.
    Can we just never acknowledge truth if the truth is negative?

    • JenniferP said:

      So, when you tell your friends (or some internet strangers) you are ugly, or stupid, what do you want them to say to you? Do you want them to just listen? Do you want them to agree? Do you want them to reassure you that it’s not that bad?

    • Naamah said:

      I definitely experience some of that frustration. People want to deny it when you say “I am fat” or “I am kind of limited in what I can do by the crazy” or “I’m not very attractive.” And sometimes it’s a loving act to say, “No, really, sugar, it’s not that bad. You’re not being fair.” But sometimes when people do that, to me anyway, it’s like . . . someone not acknowledging the reality of my experience.

      We just have really mixed messages about it when it comes to appearance/weight, because to even acknowledge that someone is unattractive is considered insulting. Beauty is a highly-valued trait, to the point that it is actually valued more than self-acceptance. Our beauty standards are horrendously narrow on a societal level, but self-acceptance folks are all about finding the beautiful in everyone. Which is great, and I 100% approve, but it bothers me that not as many people acknowledge that physical beauty is not the only, or even the most desirable, trait in a friend or beloved, or in yourself. You can be unattractive and acknowledge that and still have good self-esteem, and it can be just a part of who you are. But with that SPECIFIC thing, when you put it out there, it’s really hard for people to know how to respond to that without weasel words or outright lies.

      I’ve had to explain to people that when I say “I’m fat,” for instance, I genuinely do not want sympathy or ludicrous assertions that it isn’t true. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just how I am. I’m stating it as a fact, acknowledging it so I can move on with whatever I was saying that involves that. It’s hard to get people to understand that when I say “I can’t do that, it’s beyond my ability,” I’m dead serious, because people are SO used to other folks being genuinely unfair to themselves.

      And even now, because you said that you’re not smart, I feel obligated on one hand to point out that I’ve never found testing or achievement in school to mean a thing when it comes to usable intelligence. On the other hand, one of the most pleasant people I know is actually not very smart at all, but he’s a lovely person, and my family loves having him around as a good friend. So does it really *matter*?

      Obviously, these things cause real-world effects. Really unpleasant ones, really painful ones. Loneliness, rejection, loss of opportunity, lots of sad stuff. So it’s not like they aren’t important, anything that affects social interaction that much is extremely important. But beauty and intelligence are not particularly useful measures of a person’s worth, even though they are prized traits.

      • White Rabbit said:

        “You can be unattractive and acknowledge that and still have good self-esteem, and it can be just a part of who you are. But with that SPECIFIC thing, when you put it out there, it’s really hard for people to know how to respond to that without weasel words or outright lies.”

        Thank you for your entire comment, but especially this part. You said all of this much more clearly than I ever could.

        I consider myself to be on the “unattractive” end of the human beauty spectrum, and I want to be able to occasionally talk about that and the implications that come along with it with a trusted friend. It’s a real thing, with real consequences, and sometimes I feel sad about it. Unfortunately, even my closest friends immediately jump to arguing with me in an attempt to make me feel better, so I have never felt really HEARD on the subject.

        I see this as one of the few ways that people still silence each other despite our best efforts. I know we all mean well, but denying someone’s experience as an unattractive person – a rather painful experience, at times – just adds more hurt to the experience. And when the idea of being unattractive is so viscerally upsetting to people that even our closest friends can’t stomach the possibility of it, that doesn’t exactly reassure those of us who are unattractive that it’s not something we should spend time worrying about.

        As for what I want from a friend – just to be there with me in the moment, acknowledge my feelings about it, and if they’re feeling generous, remind me that there are plenty of awesome people in the world who won’t dismiss me or think less of me just because I didn’t win the genetic lottery.

  14. TO said:

    “And even now, because you said that you’re not smart, I feel obligated on one hand to point out that I’ve never found testing or achievement in school to mean a thing when it comes to usable intelligence. On the other hand, one of the most pleasant people I know is actually not very smart at all, but he’s a lovely person, and my family loves having him around as a good friend. So does it really *matter*?”

    I agree with this. I’m torn between debunking the ‘IQ test’ idea of intelligence and all the myths about what intelligence is, and arguing with the basic premise that intelligence is a measure of worth or character in some way anyway.

    We’re a lot more conscious of this with appearance, for all that we worship it. We still basically on some level accept that it doesn’t make you a more worthwhile human being, even if some people need to consciously remind themselves of that. But somehow intelligence is seen as linked to character in some way, to the point that it almost seems controversial to say it’s not the be all and end all of the universe. And I don’t really think it is. I mean, I do think it’s desirable and useful and such and I hugely value learning things, but it doesn’t by itself make you a better or worse person.

    I mean if I had a kid I’d far rather have them grow up to be a decent caring person with a serious intellectual disability than a smart person who treated others badly. I’d be a lot more proud of the first kid.

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