I have a few friends who will try to manipulate me with self deprecating remarks.

Perhaps I've been helping them with something for a while and am obviously making moves to leave when they say something like:

"Oh I am sorry, I'm such a burden, I'm so selfish I shouldn't have taken up so much of your time with this. I'm a terrible friend."

As far as I can tell, this backs me into a corner with few good options.

  • If I leave soon after I feel like I'm validating that remark
  • If I stay and tell them how they aren't a burden or bad friend it takes more of my time and I can only imagine it encourages the behaviour.

This is just a general situation, it is used in many others such as comments about looks, giving them a lift, not being able to visit when they wanted you to.

I know I'm not alone in having people act like this, I wondered whether anyone had come up with a general response to self-deprecating interlocutors that would, ideally, get through to the person that I care but that they can't manipulate me this way.

Edit: Another, work related, question with some good answers is here.


3 Answers 3


Teach your friend to say "thank you" instead of sorry. It's an incredibly powerful lesson that will make both of you feel better.

Two comic-strip boxes. In each of the boxes there are two people discussing. The first box has positive colors and says: "If you want to say: Thank you for listening". The second has sad colors and says: "Don't say: Sorry I'm just rambling"

(Follow the link above for more examples and explanation.) I wouldn't talk like this to someone I worked with, or a customer at a service desk, but to an actual friend, or someone who worked for me and talked this way about the support I was giving them as a manager, I really would suggest a reword:

Friend: Oh I am sorry, I'm such a burden, I'm so selfish I shouldn't have taken up so much of your time with this. I'm a terrible friend.

You: Hey, have you ever heard the suggestion "don't say sorry, say thank you"? It's super cool and a much better way to acknowledge that someone is helping you. Like today, you could say "thank you for giving me so much of your time on this." And then I would say "no problem, I am happy to help a friend like you." [Smile.]

Everyone wins if your friends learn this reword. You don't have to fake-argue, you get genuine appreciation (who doesn't like that?), your friends feel better about themselves, ... there is no downside other than the few moments where you point this out to them. With any luck, they'll apply the lesson throughout their lives.


"Don't worry I was happy to help." That should really be the end of it. I wouldn't go down the path of trying to reassure them any more than that. Sometimes I'll ignore comments like these altogether.

I will add that sometimes these are comments that can potentially demonstrate that a person is aware you are getting less out of your friendship/relationship than they are, if you find you're being asked to do stuff like this all the time and not much else may want to evaluate it.

EDIT- In response to a comment notifying me of changes in site policy requiring answers to document either personal experience or citations to reliable authorities:

My response to this question is primarily informed by the several years I spent in counseling and sitting in a circle listening to others relay stories about their dysfunctional friendships and relationships. My proposed response was simply what I would say in that situation, given the information provided. I don't believe that there is a one-size fits all approach to this topic because each situation is fairly unique. In terms of the later question as to how to communicate that this type of behavior bothers you, I would direct you to this page for potential references and would especially highlight the section entitled "codependency":


  • This matches my experiences, too. Many of those I have dealt with are legitimately having depression issues, but most of the people around them write them off as being passive-aggressive. That is a self-reinforcing cycle. I feel like Kate Gregory's answer is better overall, but I think this is also helpful. Also, it takes many people to teach these people they're not bad, they need to not all say the same thing, and this is one of the helpful things to say to that end that isn't what Kate suggested.
    – Ed Grimm
    Dec 17, 2019 at 5:52
  • @EdGrimm Thanks Ed. I too like Kate's answer.
    – David Reed
    Dec 18, 2019 at 5:33

It is important to distinguish between someone who sounds self-deprecating because they are a bit depressed and need help, or someone who talks like that because they want free stuff. Since you talk about manipulation, I presume you already know.

"Oh I am sorry, I'm such a burden, I'm so selfish I shouldn't have taken up so much of your time with this. I'm a terrible friend."

This person follows a script, and the next scene should feature you being extra-nice and helpful, telling them they are such a wonderful human being, etc. Such record-breaking passive-aggressive self-deprecating bullshit deserves an appropriate response. Today Karma calls upon you to deliver the goods, might as well enjoy it!... Simply flip the script and deliver slapstick instead. Possible replies:

  • "Oh, you think?" Wait three seconds and give them a hug. "I don't mind, love you anyway. I must be a masochist."
  • "Weeellll to be honest..." Long and awkward silence. "Gotta go."

Basically they hand you a stick: beat them with it. That should convince them not to keep using this tactic. You can also go meta and hand them a bigger stick:

  • "I'm so much worse than you, look at all the stuff I did, it's all crap, I'm so sorry, I should leave before totally ruining everything."
  • 2
    While I note that you recognize there's a difference between self-deprecation due to depression and someone just trying to be manipulative, I'm not sure I trust people to make that judgement. I've seen lots of depressed people written of as trying to be manipulative. I've been written off as trying to be manipulative when I was quiet because couldn't figure out what to say. I know that there are people who are entrenched in their passive aggressive behaviors, but so far all of the ones I've gotten to know have been depressed.
    – Ed Grimm
    Dec 17, 2019 at 6:02

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