My family and hometown friends love to rag on each other. From poking fun at someone's outfit to rehashing old embarrassing moments, I grew up in a world where jocular teasing could be a sign of affection. If you're anything like me, you may have been taught to interpret someone picking on you as them liking you — you may even find it endearing. So when it comes to dating, it's extremely important to differentiate what's consensual, playful teasing and what is negging. In all matters of the heart, it's important to draw the line when something crosses the line.
"There is a big difference between teasing and negging," Claudia Cox, relationship coach and founder of Text Weapon, tells Elite Daily. "It should not be confused with flirting or teasing. Teasing can make the other person feel good, whereas negging focuses on undermining their confidence."
According to Cox, playful teasing suggests that all parties involved are laughing. Perhaps you joke about how tall your boyfriend is (even though you both know how much you love it) or you laugh about your partner's coworkers (but you're both supportive of each other's work). Unlike flirting or teasing, which ultimately can be ways of building each other up, negging is meant to make someone feel vulnerable or judged. Negging can look like constantly reminding your partner that they don't make as much money as you or telling your date that no one else would ever find them attractive, so they're lucky that you chose to take them out. Negging isn't a jovial quip, it's a cruel way of making someone question themselves.
"There is an old saying, 'If someone is trying to put you down it’s only because you are above them.' This is true when it comes to negging," Cox says. "People who neg usually have low self-esteem. They are insecure in their social skills and their ability to attract someone in a healthy way, so they resort to undermining their target’s self-esteem. Their goal? Make the other person feel like they have to seek their approval."
Though some negging can be pretty easily detectable, a lot of the time negging can look like a sneaky insult disguised as something nice, which can make you feel like you need to justify yourself. For example, a man on Tinder recently told me that I looked like a "straight-up mom, but not in a sexy way." Without missing a beat, I caught myself going through all of my carefully selected photos, worried and wondering if I should make a "But I'm a cool mom!" joke to prove him wrong. It took a serious check-in for me to realize that questioning myself and responding with a self-deprecating joke was exactly what this person wanted. This wasn't a flirty comment or a cute joke — it was a gross way to make me question myself. It was negging.
According to life coach Nina Rubin, people (like my Tinder prince) neg to establish a hierarchy that they are at the top of. "It’s a strategic way to insult someone with the guise of a backhanded compliment," Rubin says. Rather than flirtatiously asking where your crush got their sneakers or playfully commenting on your partner's new haircut, negging is setting up a paradigm that leaves the other person feeling unsure or insecure about their choices. Picking on a body part you know someone is sensitive about, commenting on someone's past dating or sexual history, or dismissing someone based on their identity are never ways of lifting someone up. Negging is solely meant to make someone feel like they need to impress or please you.
Both Cox and Rubin attest that while negging can (and does) happen IRL, the rise of online dating and social media has inspired a world of digital negging. "Going up to someone and giving them a backhanded compliment takes guts — sitting on your couch, browsing through profiles on a dating app, or laughing with a group of your friends as you neg is way less risky," Cox says. "No one can hear the anxious pitch in your voice or read your nervous body language. You don’t have to face the consequences of having someone throwing a drink in your face or the sadness in their eyes as you destroy their confidence." As Cox shares, because texting historically makes it harder to read someone's tone, digital messages can allow for a sort of negging hit-and-run. "Because texting makes it notoriously difficult to differentiate sarcasm from humor, you can plead innocent if the other person gets angry by sending a 'JK', or 'Sorry, I didn’t mean it that way,'" Cox says.
With the ambiguity of the way digital messages are interpreted, online negging can also open the door for someone to tell you that you're making a big deal out of or getting offended over nothing. Someone making you feel bad for being upset about a mean text or trying to convince you that you're "overreacting" for being angry over a degrading message isn't negging — it's gaslighting, a form of emotional abuse that makes you doubt yourself or your reality. "Negging is a form of manipulation, period," Cox says. "What good can come from degrading another person, destroying their confidence, and attempting to control them?" Experiencing gaslighting (or any other forms of emotional abuse) can feel extremely isolating. If you've noticed signs of emotional abuse in your love life, consider opening up to a mental health professional or looking for local support groups or centers in your area. Harmful behavior is never OK.
Although negging may be associated with little kids teasing each other on the playground (cue: the opening scene from He's Just Not That Into You), Cox shares that negging can grow with age. "It’s a lot of the same dirty tricks, just tailored to attack and sting older insecurities, such as being old or not attaining a certain level of success," Cox says. "For example, a backhanded compliment might read something like, 'Love your outfit, most people your age would never be able to pull that off.' Or 'It must be hard having a brother so successful, do you wish you would have studied harder?'" Although these comments are equally cruel, Cox shares that people who have had meaningful, healthy relationships in the past can understand that negging is no way to build a foundation with someone. "They develop a healthy level of self-esteem, are self-validated, and don’t feel the need to put other people down in order to feel better about themselves," Cox says.
If you've noticed your date making some unsavory comments about your lifestyle or appearance, or some rando on Tinder is sending you insulting messages, spotting these behaviors can be the first step in knowing how to shut down negging. If you don't feel good about a comment or message, it's always OK to not respond or report it (if it's online). If you want to respond, try saying that you don't appreciate being spoken to that way or that you won't put up with harmful or hateful comments. Although your knee-jerk reaction may be to defend yourself, you don't need to bring yourself down to their level. Negging isn't witty or clever and you don't need to feel the need to "one-up" them.
If you're like me and you can't always tell the difference between playing teasing and harmful negging, check in with yourself about how these comments make you feel. If they are comparing you to other people in a negative way or making you feel like you need to justify or rationalize your choices, then you may need to draw the line.
If you and your boo like to rag on each other in a consensual way, you may understanding your own tolerance for jokes or little digs. Remember: Flirting and teasing are not negging. If you're ever worried that a joke or comment crosses the line, you may need to consider why you're saying it and how it will be received before opening your mouth. Sharing a laugh with the people you love is a beautiful thing, but negging is completely negative.
If you or someone you know is dealing with emotional abuse, you are not alone. Call The National Domestic Abuse Violence Hotline, a toll-free, 24/7 service at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or use their live chat feature.