Your friends may enjoy having a laugh at your expense, but these so-called jokes can take their toll. Here’s how to take back control

Have your friends ever teased you about your new hairstyle? Or maybe your family likes to have a laugh about that person you’re dating, or joke about your role at work. It’s a common feature in conversations that makes everyone laugh. And you’re supposed to laugh, too. If you don’t, you’re branded a crybaby, and told you just ‘need to relax’ and ‘stop being so sensitive’. After all, it was just a joke.

But what if it doesn’t feel very funny? The truth is that this kind of behaviour is a form of passive-aggressive bullying disguised as humour.

“Passive aggression is a coping mechanism people use when they are afraid of displaying anger and, often, when they feel powerless,” says anger management therapist Andrea Brandt.

Maybe they’re jealous of the way you look, or envious of your accomplishments. If they can take you down a peg, they can feel better about themselves, and pretend it’s all in good fun.

If you find yourself the butt of other people’s jokes, there are ways to stand up for yourself. Here’s how to keep the bullying at bay.

Recognise that it’s not about you

When you’re the target of teasing, it’s easy to believe there must be something wrong with you, or that you must be deserving of such treatment. So, you feel bad about yourself, and allow the behaviour to continue.

Over time, it can wear away your self-esteem until you feel unable to speak up for yourself for fear of looking weak. But these jokes are not about you. They are the actions of someone who is trying to bully you to make themselves feel better.

Stay calm

It can feel upsetting, frustrating, and annoying when someone is constantly teasing or laughing at you. A bully enjoys ruffling your feathers, so don’t give them that power over you.

“You might not have the energy or headspace to come back with a retort straight away, and you should not feel that you have to,” says counsellor Jenny Warwick.

If you talk to them about their behaviour, try to avoid getting angry, placing blame, or accusing them of ruining your friendship.

“It can be helpful to write down the key points you want to make to them,” says Jenny. “You can even rehearse what you are going to say so you feel confident and calm.”

Set boundaries

“When you develop and assert your boundaries, you can begin to bring the cycle of passive-aggressive behaviour to an end,” says Andrea Brandt.

Let your friend know how their behaviour is affecting you. They may not realise how much it bothers you. Be honest and clear about how their jokes make you feel, and that you want it to stop.

“You can also choose where and when you have this conversation with them. Do it when you feel you are ready and able to,” adds Jenny Warwick.

People who engage in passive-aggressive bullying don’t like to be confronted. They may get angry, ignore you, walk away, or deny doing anything wrong. But don’t let that stop you from addressing their inappropriate behaviour. Holding them accountable for their actions will send a clear message that you are no longer a target for bullying.

Shift the focus

“Having a laugh at your expense can also be a way of deflecting negative attention away from the perpetrator, and onto the person on the receiving end,” Jenny explains.

Take control of the situation by shifting the spotlight back onto the person with the unhealthy behaviour.

“How is that helpful?”
“What’s your point?”
“Don’t be nasty.”

Remember you can’t change them

Even if you talk to someone about their behaviour, and tell them how it makes you feel, they may not stop. But that’s their responsibility, not yours. You can’t change what someone else does, but you can control how you respond.

Remember that your health, happiness, and wellbeing matter. If someone is constantly engaging in passive-aggressive behaviour towards you, it may be time to walk away. It can be hard to lose a relationship, but you deserve friendships with people who care about you, and want you to be happy.