We've all thrown out and received a few backhanded compliments in our time, whether it's with friends, family members, or behind the backs of authority figures we pretend to respect, but don't really care about. Though I'm not one for generating and reciting too many backhanded compliments myself, I've found that many people (including myself) tend to receive most of these compliments from their parents that are actually insults. It's disheartening to say the least; parents are supposed to be your biggest support system. They may not realize they're doing it, but even so, these kinds of comments can still be pretty hurtful.
Of course, parents aren't the only source for backhanded compliments and children aren't the only people who receive them. Women receive backhanded compliments on their appearance quite frequently, ranging from "You look good for your age!" to "You look great — did you lose weight?"; people of color frequently receive backhanded compliments like "You're beautiful for a/n [insert ethnicity here]" or "You're so confident despite being an immigrant from [insert country here]"; and so on and so forth.
But the reality is that backhanded compliments from parents always feel more personal than those from peers or strangers, because if your parents aren't going to love and support you unconditionally, who will? Of course, there isn't always malice intended behind what they say, but it sure might come off like there is. Take a look at these five disguised "compliments" you might have heard from your parents that are actually pretty insulting.
1. "I'm so glad you dumped [name of former significant other]. They were a bad decision."
Yeah, Mom and Dad, we all make bad decisions. But for a parent to tell you that you messed when you are hurting, or when you already know you messed up, doesn't do you or your parents any good. Instead of being reminded that my last ex was a bad decision, it's much more helpful for me to hear, "What can I do for you?" or "How can we help get your mind off this?" after a bad breakup.
2. "It's nice to see you're relying on less makeup, because you look better than ever."
There are two implications here: The first is that makeup is (for some reason) inherently bad and that enhancing your appearance with it is also in some way bad or deeply artificial; the second is that you were wearing too much makeup before, and now that it's gone, you're finally pretty. Thanks, parents!
3. "You'd be so beautiful if you didn't have all those piercings/tattoos/colors in your hair."
On the one hand, your parents are telling you you're beautiful; on the other, though, they're telling you that beauty is conditional, and that's compromised by external things — even if those external things are a huge part of who you are. Like the comment on makeup, this backhanded compliment has to do with what your parents consider to be ideal beauty — they want you to know you're a shining star, but only when you get rid of the blue hair.
4. "Your sibling is [insert something impressive here] for the summer, but I'm glad you're back at home."
Getting compared to a sibling, cousin, or other relative your age is already unpleasant enough, but when it has to do with that person being more successful, less lazy, or more ambitious than you are, it can be downright infuriating. Having to hear about your brother being better than you for volunteering while you're taking the summer to read, relax, and do your own thing undermines your individual need for self-care and your ability to make autonomous decisions. Of course, a parent could genuinely mean this, but in many cases, the parent may not actually glad the kid is back at home — they just wanted an opportunity to say the first part.
5. "I'm so glad you got a real job!"
Dad, I'm sorry you didn't consider my full-time retail position a real job, or all my extra curricular and magazine editing jobs in college real jobs, or my volunteer gigs to be real jobs. In my opinion, a "real job" isn't necessarily a job you intend to turn into a career or even a job you get paid for. For me a "real job" is either work I do that I care deeply about, or work I do that helps me pay the rent and afford decent meals. It doesn't have to be in an office, be a permanent position, or make me enough money to immediately afford a house, dog, and three children. Just saying, Mom and Dad.