There's a nice cartoon on the web that epitomises what I'm trying to describe:

enter image description here

Another dimension of this behaviour, is that it is often used as part of a manipulation attempt, to get someone to do something they wouldn't normally do because of its potential harm:

  • A asks B to do potentially harmful act X (whether intentionally or out of ignorance).
  • B refuses, citing the potential risks from doing X
  • A claims X is patently not harmful and B's denial has more to do with ulterior motive Y
  • Since B cannot conclusively prove X is harmful until B has engaged in X and caused themselves harm, they are left with two equally bad choices:
    • either engage in X against your will, risking harm, to prove accusation Y is false, or
    • avoid X and give A the ability to claim accusation Y is true, opening B up to further manipulation.


A: Here, have some heroin with me.
B: No man, heroin is addictive, I don't want to.
A: Heroin's not addictive, you're just saying that to judge me.
B proceeds to get addicted to heroin to prove friendship


A: Come to my party! C is coming too!
B: Sorry A, I can't! I have exams!
A: Dude, nobody's ever had to study for that exam! You just don't like C, don't you! That's the real reason you're not coming!
B skips party to study, A tells everyone at school B hates C


A: It's a Tuesday, so let's not use a condom. You can't get pregnant on a Tuesday.
B: What? Yes you can!
A: ... omg, you don't trust me! You think I'm cheating and I have an STD don't you! That's why you refuse!
B proceeds to prove their trust, as well as the fact that you can in fact get pregnant on a Tuesday

etc etc.

Is there a good word, phrase, or proverb that describes either A's behaviour, or the situation B finds themselves in?

  • 3
    I'd prefer to see better placeholder names like ALEX, BOB, CLAIRE, etc. instead of A,B,Cs.
    – NVZ
    Feb 8, 2017 at 15:58
  • 3
    I suppose you could say B was set up to fail in a no-win situation, though one might use different terms depending on things like whether the deception is deliberate.
    – Lawrence
    Feb 8, 2017 at 16:18
  • 5
    Cut off your nose to prove it's there?
    – 1006a
    Feb 8, 2017 at 18:44
  • 2
    Unfortunately, it's not really an established idiom, just a twist on the "spite your face" version. That idiom is well enough known and understood that I think the altered phrase would be pretty instantly understood, if a new phrase is acceptable.
    – 1006a
    Feb 8, 2017 at 20:32
  • 3
    "phrase that describes either A's behaviour" um, how about being a huge jerk? Feb 9, 2017 at 17:36

9 Answers 9


That situation is a dilemma.


dilemma NOUN

1 A situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially equally undesirable ones.

‘His dilemma rests in the choice between telling a lie and losing his chance to marry the woman he loves.’
‘He was given two tough choices, a dilemma that he didn't wish to have.’

Also, catch-22 may work.


catch-22 NOUN

A dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions.

‘There's always been a bit of a catch 22 about golf - you need to have a handicap to join a club, yet it's very difficult to get that handicap in a civilised way without spending hours on a rain sodden driving range in some murky British suburb.’

  • Thank you. I don't like "dilemma" because it doesn't make explicit the notion that "to disprove one of the alternatives you need to suffer harm". I had considered "being put between a rock and a hard place", but again, this is only slightly stronger visually, in implying both situations are unpleasant, but the self-destructive nature of one of them is not present. Feb 8, 2017 at 17:01
  • I do like "catch-22" to describe the situation B is in, although my interpretation of catch-22 is that it is a problem formulated exactly so as to prevent you from being able to take any meaningful action, so it shifts the focus from risking harm to risking inaction. E.g. B is in a catch-22 situation since "They can't disprove X without harming themselves, and they can't avoid harm without risking X being labelled as not proven to be harmful", leading to inaction. However, it's fairly close; if nothing more appropriate is suggested I will accept catch-22 as an answer :) Feb 8, 2017 at 17:12
  • I would have prefered the "Cut off your nose to prove it's there" answer, suggested in the comments, but since the original commenter has not posted it as an answer, I'm selecting catch-22 as it's a close second that captures part of what I had in mind. Feb 18, 2017 at 2:35

I might describe B as being:

  • guilted or manipulated into a lose-lose situation.
  • argued or painted into a corner.
  • coerced into a no-win situation.
  • goaded into a poor decision, just to prove a point.
  • a pawn in A's game. (Chess analogy implies sacrifice and manipulation.)

However, I find the cartoon scenario slightly different than the other examples. In the cartoon, it doesn't seem that A or B has ill motives. If you focus on the fact that there's a burning question to be answered, it seems appropriate to say that curiosity killed the cat. Or the wildebeest. If you focus on the fact that there is a debate (still no ill motives), maybe for the sake of argument, B fell on his sword to prove his point.

  • 1
    this reads like a TV Tropes entry ;)
    – Michael
    Feb 9, 2017 at 17:29
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    If "fall on one's sword to prove one's point" was a recognised phrase, I would have accepted that as an answer. However, like "cut off one's nose to prove it's there", unfortunately, it seems that only the "fall on one's sword" is a recognised phrase here. Feb 9, 2017 at 19:44
  • 1
    @Michael - ha! I'll take that as a compliment. :) Tasos - yes, I couldn't think of a common phrase that combines those ideas, but maybe someone will! Seems like a nice group brainstorm here.
    – Jeff Ward
    Feb 9, 2017 at 20:05

You can call it guilt tripping :

Guilt trip

VERB: to make (someone) feel guilty, especially in order to induce them to do something. (ODO)

NOUN: a strong feeling of being guilty that makes you behave in a particular way. (MMD)

He guilt tripped me into going to the party and doing heroin.

  • 1
    See also urban dictionnary (I know I know...).
    – MorganFR
    Feb 8, 2017 at 16:51
  • Thanks. I suppose this is useful in describing A's behaviour, since they're achieving the effect in my examples using guilt tripping as a device, but this is not what I'm after. The cartoon, for instance, involves no guilt tripping. I'm more interested in the situation where to disprove X you need to suffer harm, for no real benefit other than reiterating to A that X is indeed harmful. Feb 8, 2017 at 17:16
  • 1
    @TasosPapastylianouYes, that was the situation I was describing. I suppose the gif itself is somewhere between brainwashing and peer pressuring.
    – MorganFR
    Feb 8, 2017 at 21:05
  • "peer pressure (brain)washing"
    – Michael
    Feb 9, 2017 at 17:28

Strictly speaking, a self-destructive proof is an ordeal. Merriam-Webster says:

1: a primitive means used to determine guilt or innocence by submitting the accused to dangerous or painful tests believed to be under supernatural control <ordeal by fire> <ordeal by water>

An ordeal by water was a test of witchcraft. The suspected which was thrown into a river or lake. If she floated and survived, she was obviously a witch and could then be burned at the stake. Drowning proved her innocence.

  • Thank you. I feel this isn't the phrase I'm after, though. An ordeal proves a person's guilt or innocence via harm. Here no guilt or innocence is involved, but rather the notion that disproving that the act itself is not harmful, necessarily involves demonstrating its harm on oneself. Feb 10, 2017 at 14:11
  • 1
    What you're looking for is a word for a very specific kind of empirical proof. I'm not sure such a narrower term exists. 🤔
    – verbose
    Feb 11, 2017 at 3:08

This sounds like a trial by fire:

A test in which a person is exposed to flames in order to assess his/her truthfulness, commitment, courage, etc.


The idiomatic phrase originates from the medieval practice of determining a person's guilt by having them go through an ordeal, such as walking through a fire.

  • This is an interesting take on it, but I feel it has the wrong connotation. Trial by fire sounds like a noble attempt to atone for a crime, or demonstrate / test one's purity and courage, by subjecting one unto trying circumstances which they must overcome. In my case, the self-destruction is largely pointless, except for the fact that it's the only conclusive proof to the assertion that it is not. (i.e. "Trial by fire" would only have been correct if the assertion was "Nuh-ah, fire does not really burn, you dummy!"). Feb 8, 2017 at 19:52
  • 3
    Closely related to trial by water witch tests; if you float you are a witch, if you sink they give you a christian burial. later a survivable version with a dunking stool was developed.
    – user219159
    Feb 8, 2017 at 20:21

I would describe the situation as being between a rock and a hard place.

As per Wiktionary:

  1. (idiomatic) To be in a difficult and inescapable position.
  2. (idiomatic) Having the choice between two unpleasant or distasteful options; in a predicament or quandary.

Similar but less common idioms include begin caught between the devil and the deep blue sea and being between the hammer and the anvil.  

  • Thank you! This phrase has been already been discussed under the "dilemma" answer below. As I said there, it does a good job of describing the unpleasantness of the dilemma, but my focus is on how one of those involves "self-destruction as the only means of (dis)proof", if such a phrase exists, and I don't feel these phrases capture that adequately. Feb 9, 2017 at 14:22
  • @TasosPapastylianou I suspect that such a phrase does not exist, and if it does exist it will most likely be obscure enough that using it will get you nothing but blank looks and requests for elaboration. Sometimes a lengthy explanation truly is the best option.
    – Pharap
    Feb 9, 2017 at 19:13

You could call the situation a Zero-Sum situation:


  • of, relating to, or being a situation (such as a game or relationship) in which a gain for one side entails a corresponding loss for the other side

(Used mainly to reference games/situations where there is no mutual loss or mutual win.)

Examples: Coin flip, dividing up a budget, gambling, etc.


This does imply that B's loss would even out A's gain, so it may not fit every situation. It does work really well for the Wildebeest situation, though.

  • This covers cases of manipulation well, but it has the wrong focus (i.e. the respective gains on either side, rather than the aspect of needless self-destruction). Furthermore, oftentimes there is little gain from proving a harmful situation, other than "Huh, I guess you were right" anyway. E.g. nobody really gains from "Huh. I guess you were right. You can die from drinking chlorine. Huh." Feb 8, 2017 at 19:46
  • The second and everyone else from then on knows not to drink chlorine. I do agree that it does not cover "needless self-destruction" fully, but I disagree that nobody benefits from proving something is harmful, unless they prove it only to themselves and tell nobody.
    – Hank
    Feb 8, 2017 at 19:50

I think the closest to what you're looking for is "cutting off [your] nose to spite your face." Generally, that refers to someone engaging in very self-destructive acts as a petty revenge, but you could also use it here.

You could also use the more generic "sacrifice _____ on the altar of _____." That generalizes well, but always sounds sarcastic.

  • Thank you. This has been addressed in the comments already, via "cutting off your nose to prove it's there", which I felt would be the perfect answer to this question, but I could not find a valid reference to its use (even though I'm now pretty sure I've heard it before myself ... false memory? :) ). I cannot accept "to spite your face" though, since the focus here is completely different. I'm not after self-destruction as an act of petty revenge, but rather in the sense that engaging in it is regrettably the only conclusive means of demonstrating its destructive nature, in the face of doubt. Feb 9, 2017 at 14:45

The cartoon is an example of situational irony, defined by dictionary.com as

irony involving a situation in which actions have an effect that is opposite from what was intended, so that the outcome is contrary to what was expected.

That is of course less specific than what you are asking for, but as other answers have pointed out, there doesn't really seem to be a standard idiom for this very specific type of scenario.

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