Researcher and storyteller Brené Brown enjoys immense popularity because she describes feelings and experiences that so many people share. In one particularly relatable story, she shared a piece of advice she gave her children: avoid candle blower outers. A candle blower outer is someone who can’t celebrate your wins. They let their jealousy color the timbre of your friendship and issue backhanded compliments. 

“You’ve got this flame, and this is your spirit, and this is your soul, and this is your light,” Brown said in her “Atlas of the Heart” special. “You want friends who protect your light. We don’t want to surround ourselves with candle blower outers.”

Brittany Hardy, a licensed marriage and family therapist, defines a backhanded compliment as “a nice/nasty” comment, which appears to be a compliment on the surface, but has a critical undertone. The words seem flattering, but beyond the surface meaning, that person is undermining you in some way.

Photo credit:The Hardy Clinic

The Origin of Backhanded Compliments

Backhanded compliments tend to say more about the person who issued than the recipient.

“Individuals who frequently engage in the practice of issuing backhanded compliments may be struggling with feelings of inadequacy and insecurity or may be experiencing jealousy or unhappiness,” Hardy said.

A backhanded compliment from someone who isn’t normally belittling could be the result of a bad day. Generally, the a backhanded compliment comes from a place of dysregulation.

“We are wired to be judgmental for the purpose of maintaining our safety,” Hardy said. “Feeling unsafe can look like emotional dysregulation or inability to manage uncomfortable feelings such as envy.”

Interestingly enough, that unsafe feeling transfers from the person who extended the compliment to the one who received it.

“Receiving an unexpected and perplexing message or information can lead to a sense of confusion and frustration, ultimately causing the individual to feel insecure and unsafe,” Hardy said.

Do These Compliments Require an Apology?

While these snide comments may seem harmless, it’s important to take accountability for their often negative impact. Hardy believes an apology is appropriate.

“Backhanded compliments can often come across as insincere or even insulting, and it’s important to take responsibility for any hurt feelings or misunderstandings that may have resulted from your comments,” Hardy said.

How to Respond to a Backhanded Compliment

If a comment has left you confused, frustrated or unsafe, then Hardy says you can handle it in one of two ways.

“You have the choice to respond or ignore it,” Hardy says. “The decision should be based on the situation and the person involved. If you choose to respond, it’s important to explain why you were offended. You should also provide examples of how they can compliment you in the future.”

Other experts advise that you seek clarity from the person. Ask them simply and sincerely, “What did you mean?” When someone is challenged with explaining their hurtful words, they’re more likely to consider their choices going forward. It also lets them know that you caught their thinly veiled slight.

Hardy warns that while direct confrontation is a good option, it may negatively affect the relationship.

“Be prepared for the possibility that they may become defensive, but remain firm in your stance,” she said.