Athlyn Green is an intuitive counselor who also combines psychological and self-empowerment approaches.
A Subtle Attack
A front-on verbal attack is far easier to spot than subtle undermining but both can leave you reeling. If you've ever the victim of an underminer, you will have come away from verbal exchanges at first puzzled about the conversation, then after it has happened a time or two, wondering how normal conversation could become so skewed and somehow turned against you. Often, your gut registers that something is wrong, long before your mind accepts that this is what is actually happening and that the other person is trying to diminish you.
It's bad enough when this happens with a complete stranger and you are taken by surprise and wondering if they intentionally tried to make you feel bad. Even worse is when the underminer is someone you thought was a friend or is someone you are in a romantic relationship with. This can be very hard to take.
Undermining is a very twisted game and it takes many forms, but there are a couple of things you can pretty much take to the bank: you will feel unsettled and your underminer will continue this pattern.
This article will discuss undermining in different situations and by the time you've finished reading, you will equipped to spot when its happening to you.
Undermining Your Feelings
If you are a well-rounded person who generally tries to look on the bright side and only occasionally feels down, the following scenario can be particularly infuriating.
One form of undermining occurs when you are made to feel ashamed or deficient for expressing honest emotions or sadness. You know you have been there each time your friend needed to express emotion and you may have always been available to listen when this person needed to talk. You treated your friend's feelings as legitimate and valid and it's not unreasonable to have expected the same courtesy; however, when you turned to your friend, instead of being given a listening ear and sympathy, your feeling were dismissed or you were shut down. It may have been intimated that you were being overly negative and needed to work on being more positive. If this has ever happened to you, you no doubt came away feeling a sense of outrage that your friend viewed their feelings as valid but invalidated yours.
There's a reason for the saying "fair-weather friend." Such a person usually expects you to be at their beck-and-call through life's ups-and-downs and through any emergency but they are nowhere to be found when you go through the same things--and worse still, you are made to feel guilty for turning to them, as if in expressing your feeling, you were somehow lacking.
In any friendship there has to be give-and-take and a willingness to be there in good times and bad. When someone doesn't show you this courtesy, you are being shortchanged.
How an Underminer Turns The Tables on You
"I'm so worried."
"You sound like you're obsessing.
"I feel so sad."
"Are you depressed again?"
"I suppose you were up to all hours again.
Even when expressing opposite emotions, if you are dealing with an underminer, they will subtly try to turn your feelings against you.
"I'm so appreciative"
"You would be..."
"I'm so happy."
"You seem hyper."
"I'm so excited."
"Watch that, that doesn't turn into mania."
Mind Game Masters
I was given explicit instructions by my neighbor to call her son if I saw someone going into her house. When I did so, instead of thanking me for alerting him, he said that I should have called the police first. When I tried to explain I was following instructions, he brushed this off, as if I were a simpleton.
Instead of Truly Listening, An Underminer Questions
Questioning Your Motives
Have you ever had the following experience? You are chatting with someone you think is a friend. You start to relate an experience and your friend starts questioning your motives. Let's say you did something nice for someone and you are happily relating this. But your friend, instead of saying, "That was a nice thing to do," starts to question you: "Is it possible you did it because felt you had to prove yourself somehow?"
You end up having to explain something that really needed no explaining. Later, when you think about the conversation, you feel frustrated and annoyed.
Questioning Your Attitudes
In another scenario, you may state how you feel about something and instead of your friend saying they feel the same way or they feel differently, they make it appear that how you feel is unacceptable. They may ask probing questions: "Aren't you afraid, though, that with that attitude that you will..."
Once again, you find yourself trying to explain and justify yourself, when you shouldn't have to.
Questioning Your Behavior
An underminer may start commenting on what you post on your Facebook wall. At first you pay no attention but you start noticing that your activity is being carefully scrutinized and your behavior cast in an unfavorable light: "Wow, I can't see myself ever posting something like that" or "Are you comfortable leaving posts like that?" or "That photo you posted was so suggestive."
An underminer is a nit-picker and will try to place a certain spin on your posts.
Questioning Your Judgement
Even more outrageous is when someone questions your judgement. After all, you are an adult, with many years of experience under your belt, and you don't have to justify yourself to anyone.
You may relate how you responded or handled a situation. You are happy with the way you conducted yourself. But instead of saying, "Way to go; that was a smart way of handling that," this person implies that you could have handled things differently.
When this happens, you may notice that later, upon thinking over the exchange, you feel downright angry, because you know that how you behaved was acceptable, responsible, and on target, but once again, your friend has slyly turned the tables on you to make you appear incompetent and lacking.
What to Watch Out For
If you suspect someone is trying to undermine you, watch for the following:
- Do you notice that you frequently come away from exchanges feeling confused, frustrated, upset, or annoyed?
- Does this happen with just this person?
- Has this been a continuing pattern?
A toxic relative thrust ugly wallpaper into my hands. I thanked her but explained that I wanted to choose my own colors for wallpaper. She replied, "Beggars can't be choosers."
Undermining With Gifts
Another way an underminer operates is lavishing you with "gifts" but you rarely come away from any exchange feeling good about it.
- In the first place, you didn't ask for these items.
- You may be given broken-down junk that has been picked up from yard sales or cast-offs from the underminer's home.
- Or your underminer lavishes you with expensive items, but this is done with the sole intent of showing you how much better off financially your underminer is compared to you.
- They keep giving you things, which puts you in a uncomfortable situation of reciprocity.
I was visiting a relative and she just happened to mention a woman she knew who stayed home with her three kids. The relative knew I was a SAHM. She looked me straight in the eye and said sneeringly, "I wonder what she DOES all day. After all, she doesn't WORK for a living."
Undermining the Stay-at-Home Parent
If you've made the choice to stay at home with your children while they are still small, be prepared for underminers who will try to make you feel unmotivated and lazy instead of the loving parent you are.
Remarks to Parents
"No one can afford to stay home with their kids anymore."
"With the economy, it's irresponsible to not work."
Why aren't your kids in daycare?
I guess you spend a lot of time watching the soaps.
Underminers with no knowledge of your finances will make judgements and verbalize about your situation. It never seems to occur to them that looking after a home and yard can be a full-time undertaking, or if it does, they certainly don't let on.
Remarks to Homemakers
"That's right, YOU don't work
'Some of us actually have to work for a living."
"Oh yes, you chose to quit a good job to be able to stay home all day."
"It must be nice..."
"I don't know what you do all day."
"What do you do with all that free time?"
"It's so hard when only one person chooses to work."
"Wow! Your partner actually supports you?"
"You're lucky that your partner has a REAL job."
"No couple can make it on one income these days."
Faux Concern and Financial Undermining
You might own your own home or even be mortgage-free; however, in talking with someone who is an underminer, you may soon find that they persist in treating you as if you are impoverished.
Under the guise of being helpful, an underminer might mention that low-income people qualify for breaks on their property taxes and ask if you've looked into that or into other programs. You might reply that you haven't or that you don't think you would qualify, but the underminer doggedly persists in urging you to check things out.
If you are like many people, you don't make a habit of broadcasting your financial matters, so you may be left scratching your head, wondering why your friend chose to mention this and in microscopic detail. If you aren't onto their methods, you won't necessarily understand what it is they are trying to do.
There's a method to this particular madness. The underminer has subtly implied that you live on very little income plus they may also be hoping you will defend your financial position and in the process reveal how much you make a year. If you don't take the bait, they may go further and question you outright, hoping you will reveal your income.
Either way, without knowing your financial situation, they have relegated you to the poor bin. In doing so, they are undermining you and your achievements.
Forewarned is Forearmed
Once you know how to spot common scenarios, as mentioned in this article, you'll be able to recognize when someone is subtly undermining you.
Questions & Answers
Question: I came across undermining as a tactic just recently. I had a very close relationship with a family member that turned toxic in early adulthood. In trying to stay on good terms for "family's sake", I've realized I've been undermined my entire life by this person, to the point of feeling like I am actually an underminer, also. How can I tell if I am undermining back, only in defense mode?
Answer: Yes, it is certainly a mind game extraordinaire--and it can feel devastating, especially when it comes out of the blue: you are caught off-guard and it's hard to know how to respond and not undermine the other person in trying to defend yourself.
Calling out how inappropriate the other person's behavior is (in trying to undermine you), rather than attacking the other person is a far more effective approach. The underminer is trying to turn the tables on you (using something you've said or done to cast you in a bad light), but instead of attacking them, you can point out that their assessment of you wasn't sought out. In private you could ask them what part of them is so damaged that they have to undermine someone else to try to make themselves feel better. The last thing they wanted was THEIR behavior examined. So in a sense, you've now turned the tables on them but done so in an appropriate fashion.
© 2017 Athlyn Green
DDE on September 25, 2017:
I have not been a victim of undermining but know of someone who enjoys undermining others. I think she is an insecure person and undermines others because she wants to feel above the rest. A well-informed hub on a topic that most people ignore.
Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on September 19, 2017:
Excellent, very important and insightful article!
All this is so relatable and I would be surprised if someone says that they have never been undermined by relatives or friends at some point of time.
I believe it happens with everyone unless one learns how to deal with it or how to handle those remarks. The best option I believe is to ignore such undermining comments and do what you think is best suited to your needs and requirements.
Thanks for sharing this well explained and well presented article!