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Are You Condescending?

Every now and again, a particular topic or theme will randomly appear across a number of therapy sessions I conduct. One month it’ll be the theme of rebuilding trust, a few months later it’ll be grief and loss.

For whatever reason, the theme of May was condescension. Whether I was working with a parent and child, a couple, or an individual talking about their relationship struggles, I kept hearing about how someone was condescending and why that was harming their relationship. It got me thinking: how, exactly, do we know if we’re condescending? And what impact does this have on our relationships? In today’s post, I present some red flags I see to help you answer these questions.

First Thing’s First: What Does it Mean to be Condescending?

Being condescending means having a patronizing or superior attitude toward others. Simply put, it’s about making someone else feel kind of stupid in exchange for a little stroke to your ego, which inevitably leaves others feeling pretty crappy. While we’ve all witnessed overt examples of condescension, there are also very subtle ways to practice this not-so-great habit. Here are some signs and phrases to signal that you might need a cup of Humble Tea:

  1. “You didn’t know that?”

I cannot stand when people say this. None of us know everything, and just because you read an article that taught you something interesting 10 seconds ago doesn’t mean you’re suddenly an expert on the topic. Chill.

2. “I mean, isn’t it obvious?”

Obviously not or you wouldn’t have to ask.

3. Using a term of endearment in the wrong context.

If you’re a boss saying, “Hey sweetheart, can you get me that document?” I am absolutely begging you to stop this habit immediately. Words like “sweetheart,” “honey,” “baby,” and the like should only be used in intimate contexts when someone has explicitly agreed to liking this term. And even if you are leaving these terms in the romantic realm, don’t use them when you’re trying to prove a point. For example, “Oh honey, you should know that,” makes a very nice word sound very patronizing.

4. “Are you stupid?”

This one might seem like a no-brainer, but I’m actually shocked at the number of partners who try to convince me that there’s a difference between calling their significant other stupid versus saying they do stupid things, as if the latter is so much better. It’s not. If you’re even floating the word “stupid” around your friends, family, or significant others, you’re in the red zone and I’d encourage you to get out ASAP.

5. Lecturing.

There’s a difference between sharing your thoughts on a subject versus hogging the spotlight so you can spew out all the facts you know and talk like you’re a professor. Relax. If I wanted a lecture I’d go to a conference.

6. Using jargon.

I get it: you use terms in your job repeatedly and might forget that the rest of the world might not know what you’re talking about. But I swear some people use jargon as a way of putting others in the inferior position of being forced to say, “I don’t know what that means.” For example, if someone were to ask me, “Hey, Kristina, what kinds of things do you notice in therapy?” a condescending (and annoying) response would be, “Well, I notice there’s typically a lack of differentiation between self and family members and that using SFT helps them get increased scores on Beck’s Depression Inventory.” Are you kidding? Automatically, this would force them to ask me, “What’s SFT? What’s Beck’s Depression Inventory?” Reminder: the most intelligent people are typically the ones who are able to put the most complicated of information into the simplest language.

But How Does Being Condescending Affect Relationships?

First and foremost, spending time with someone who’s condescending is really annoying. You’re constantly being corrected, continually having information jammed down your throat, and questioning your intelligence. When this happens repeatedly in relationships, people can start absorbing the message that their partner doesn’t think they’re smart, which can be upsetting, infuriating, and hurtful. It’s also a surefire way to make someone feel defensive, as suddenly they’ll feel the need to defend why they are smart, why they are capable, and why you should think so. Condescension not only has the power to erode someone’s self esteem, but it can also create a competitive dynamic between partners that simply isn’t helpful, and the relationship becomes a constant battle of who knows more than who. Sounds pretty exhausting if you ask me.

Reality Check: You Don’t Know Everything

Even the smartest people on the planet don’t know everything. All of us have our strengths and weaknesses, and forgetting this fact can be a main contributor to acting condescendingly. Additionally, I actually often see this quality as a sign of insecurity. Across the board, the most condescending people I’ve met have also been people who I discover are the most insecure about themselves. Making others feel inferior gives them a moment of reprieve from their own internal battle of thinking they aren’t good enough. Ironically, however, this causes them to drive people away when they likely need them most, creating a very unhelpful lose-lose situation. So, if there’s one piece of advice I’ll leave you with, it’s this: do unto others as you would have done unto you. You likely know what it’s like to feel stupid, unworthy, or inadequate, so let’s all do our best to ensure no one else ever has to feel that way.


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