What do call call when someone backstabs you constantly, subtly with you only realizing it after a fixed time because of the subtle nature and you always giving them the benefit of the doubt. The negative action causes you mental anguish.

Example: In a friendship situation what do you call it when someone is fake nice to you so you think they act in your benefit but in subtle ways they intentionally cause you mental harm e.g. they give excuses to you constantly and they do so intentionally and you realize they do so because they want to do harm to you

Words that don't quite fit.

  • Backstab - The word is a bit too harsh as it doesn't convey the subtleness of the behavior and it isn't a single event but constant behavior over a long time

  • Condescending - I want to convey more the fact that they are not overtly/obviously doing the negative action but it is done subtlety which cause harm since you only realize it after a long period because initially it isn't

  • Sly - This is probably the closest I can think of but I am looking for a phrase or words that convey the slyness and the negativity in a phrase like the phrase backstab does

I am looking for a word, phrase or expression to convey this in speech and writing

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    By the way, you probably don't literally mean "backstab" in particular. That's when your "friend" goes and talks to a third person, and criticizes you / blames you for something.
    – Fattie
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 16:25
  • 1
    Avoid answering questions in comments. Post comments here only to ask for more information or suggest improvements. Other types of comment can be posted in the main chatroom or a chatroom created for the purpose.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 19:49
  • I'm tempted to up vote all of the answers on this topic, except the last one. All of them are great answers, except that last one. That last one is borderline between going too far and simply not being relevant for the OPs simple description of the target person/behavior. Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 20:44
  • **Betrayal. // ** You should indicate the part of speech you want, and the tone. Commented Jan 7, 2018 at 5:44
  • This could be a "degrading" relationship or a "microaggressive" relationship. ("Microaggression" technically afaik has something to do with racism, but I think it's a potentially very useful term for these situations more generally)
    – SAH
    Commented Jan 7, 2018 at 6:36

15 Answers 15


I usually refer to such behavior as "undermining":

undermine (verb) : 2. damage or weaken (someone or something), especially gradually or insidiously. "this could undermine years of hard work" synonyms: subvert, undercut, sabotage, threaten, weaken, compromise, diminish, reduce, impair, mar, spoil, ruin, damage, hurt, injure, cripple, sap, shake; informal: drag through the mud "their integrity is being undermined"


I would call this an insidious relationship.

Full of wiles or plots; lying in wait or seeking to entrap or ensnare; proceeding or operating secretly or subtly so as not to excite suspicion; sly, treacherous, deceitful, underhand, artful, cunning, crafty, wily. (Of persons and things.)


The Domestic Abuse Bill aims to create a specific offence of domestic abuse that will also criminalise coercive and controlling behaviour. ... to identify some of the more insidious and damaging behaviours that perpetrators use to control their partner or ex-partner which are covered within the new offence.”

Police Professional, 03 jan 2018


While undermine is also one of the first words I thought of, I'd like to suggest two-faced (Merriam-Webster) as better fitting the “fake nice” and so on from your friendship example.


A similar concept is gaslighting:

Manipulate (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity.

From Wikipedia:

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target's belief.

gaslighting has an aim of making its victim question themselves, which isn't exactly the same as "mental anguish".

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    came here to see if anyone posted this yet. +1
    – BlackThorn
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 23:05
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    Gaslighting is a strict subset of the request, though. While gaslighting requires a level of trust for betrayal, it certainly doesn't encompass the full range of examples given.
    – The Nate
    Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 1:09
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    Gaslighting is a very specific thing; let’s please not water down the word by applying it more broadly than it is.
    – KRyan
    Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 1:18
  • @KRyan - I'm not sure what you mean, but in my last sentence I said there are differences. The question is a little vague - the OP wasn't clear on what types of "back-stabs" or "mental anguish" they meant.
    – Kobi
    Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 13:29

Consider passive-aggressive: See the "subtle insults" section of this page: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-superhuman-mind/201611/5-signs-youre-dealing-passive-aggressive-person

Passive-aggressiveness matches the "subtlety," "giving excuses," "only realizing it after a fixed time," and "mental anguish" aspects mentioned in the OP description. From the Psychology Today article mentioned above:

Passive-aggressiveness, as the word indicates, is a tendency to engage in indirect expression of hostility through acts such as subtle insults, sullen behavior, stubbornness, or a deliberate failure to accomplish required tasks.

Because passive-aggressive behavior is implicit or indirect, it can be hard to spot, even when you're feeling the psychological consequences.

Another adjective might be snide: slyly disparaging (Merriam-Webster, Tenth Edition, definition #3)

"Passive-aggressive" is an adjective used to describe the person him/herself, or their behavior: For example, "She's passive-aggressive towards me" or "He's very passive-aggressive." While "snide" is an adjective used to describe the "subtle insults" themselves. For example, "I didn't fully understand his snide remarks until later in the day."

  • this is the right answer.. it is exactly text book passive aggression, if you've not heard of it.. it is probably better defined Aggressiveness by Stealth to avoid being caught Passive aggressive people are highly dangerous to be around as they see the world entirely through a filter of passive aggressive behaviour.. i.e. they think you are passive aggressive too, and do it to you first ... it's a mental condition and VERY dangerous
    – Mr Heelis
    Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 16:28

The first word that I thought was: deceitful...

However, after looking at various synonyms, and found this really neat word, "Machiavellian" via google search.

enter image description here

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    Please don't post screenshots of text. That makes it hard to discover the content via search engines.
    – Arminius
    Commented Jan 6, 2018 at 21:48
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    Machiavellian implies deep and treacherous deceit, and usually with a clear and consciously planned out objective in mind. In fact it implies a degree of deceit which you would be utterly shocked about if you learned of it. This would be more appropriate if e.g. an apparently close friend went out of their way to be an amazing friend but all the while they were doing so as part of a detailed plan to charm your wife away from you or joining the board of your company and working for you for a few years in order to steal your customers for their own family business. Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 10:38

The term white-anting kind of fits, but perhaps not entirely.

The Macquarie Dictionary says the verb "to white-ant" means "to subvert or undermine from within".

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    This seems to be particular to Australia (it would not work in the US). Besides that, it's a great term.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 13:24

I think people would typically call such a person a snake in the grass:

From our old friends at dictionary.com:

snake in the grass


  1. a treacherous person, especially one who feigns friendship.

  2. a concealed danger.


A treacherous person, as in Ben secretly applied for the same job as his best friend; no one knew he was such a snake in the grass. This metaphor for treachery, alluding to a poisonous snake concealed in tall grass, was used in 37 b.c. by the Roman poet Virgil (latet anguis in herba). It was first recorded in English in 1696 as the title of a book by Charles Leslie.

Or, more casually, just a snake.

  • As an aside, I would also consider "Machiavellian", as suggested by someone else. Mind you, that tends to indicate extremely complex schemes involving the manipulation and/or ruination of multiple people. In your example, it sounds as if the person is mainly focused on harming you, specifically, in which case "snake in the grass" might be more appropriate.
    – Aiken Drum
    Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 0:24


Oxford definition

NOUN (plural treacheries)

1 Betrayal of trust.

1.1 The quality of being deceptive.

That 1.1 is the most applicable to your case, I think.

Some other terms to consider:

  • False
  • Two-faced
  • Subversive
  • Shady
  • Conniving
  • Snake
  • Anus

Your friend is:

  • a Wolf in sheep's clothing.

a person who conceals his or her evil intentions or character beneath an innocent exterior.

  • double-dealing.

the practice of working to people's disadvantage behind their backs.

  • a weasel.

a deceitful or treacherous person.

  • deceitful.

guilty of or involving deceit; deceiving or misleading others.


Another choice in the vein of two-faced and snake in the grass but less colloquial might be duplicitous.

Wordnik quotes the following

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

adj. Given to or marked by deliberate deceptiveness in behavior or speech.


from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

adj. marked by deliberate deceptiveness especially by pretending one set of feelings and acting under the influence of another


You could make use of the idiom "A thorn in my side", defined as "A person or thing that is frequently problematic and/or annoying."

Which is less overtly malicious than 'backstabbing.'

  • 2
    This doesn't imply being duplicitous though.
    – KevinDTimm
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 17:28

If you don't mind informal words:


A person or group that is friendly toward another because the relationship brings benefits, but harbors feelings of resentment or rivalry

That wording implies that you do recognize the barbs but you the break of the relationship is difficult. A similar concept would be:

Rock in my shoe

Is a colloquialism implying something that you stomach due to the inconvenience of actually dealing with the problem.

  • Frenemy' is the recent neologism that fits just right. The second phrase is more likely to be a 'stone in my shoe' and means something different, simply a small but constant annoyance. It has nothing to do with friends.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 13:27
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    @Mitch It's interesting, I've always heard it "Rock in my shoe", and it always refers to a person. As in: "Jar Jar Binks is a rock in my shoe." I figured it was common, but when I went to look up the phrase I couldn't find it. Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 13:37
  • From the ngrams link, 'rock' does appear, but it is just 1/2 as common as 'stone' currently and is only a recent introduction. Sure, I agree it is often used in reference to a person, but does not feel like it is not usually about someone who is a friend.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 13:53
  • @Mitch LOL, as I think about it the only context I've heard it in is referring to coworkers. Ah, that takes me back.@Coworkers I have not heard this referring to any of you to be sure ;) Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 13:57

The correct and common-use term for this is being "two-faced". They show you the nice side but behind your back they're doing the opposite.

A more precise word which would more likely be used by somebody with an extensive vocabulary and strong command of the language is "disingenuous" which implies that somebody is being deceitful without necessary telling an outright lie.


I vote for more clinically precise terms. Sociopath, or anti-social personality disorder, or narcissist.

Anti-social personality disorder (Sociopath)

An individual diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder needs to meet all of the following criteria:

A pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by at least 3 of the following:

  • Failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
  • Deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure.
  • Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead.
  • Irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults.
  • Reckless disregard for safety of self or others.
  • Consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations.
  • Lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.

This enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior must deviate markedly from the expectations of the individual's culture.

This enduring pattern is inflexible and pervasive across a broad range of personal and social situations.

This enduring pattern leads to clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or a manic episode.


An individual diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder needs to show at least 5 of the following criteria:

  • Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).

  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.

  • Believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).

  • Requires excessive admiration.

  • Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.

  • Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.

  • Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.

  • Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.

  • Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

This enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior must deviate markedly from the expectations of the individual's culture.

This enduring pattern is inflexible and pervasive across a broad range of personal and social situations.

This enduring pattern leads to clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

They could also have borderline personality disorder which has a characteristic of a lot of manipulation.

  • 1
    Please do not use codeblock for anything that is not actually code. Emphasis or strong emphasis are available instead.
    – Nij
    Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 7:57
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    The reason they're clinical terms is because they have precise definitions. Somebody might behave in this way because they are a sociopath or a psychopath, but you can have one without the other (neither logically implies the other). This answer errs towards armchair psychiatry.
    – wizzwizz4
    Commented Jan 6, 2018 at 10:50
  • Sociopathy and psychopathy are colloquial terms for anti-social personality disorder. They are all the same. The term probably changed due to political correctness and stigmatization. Even one of the tests for psychopaths is called Psychopathy Checklist - Revised. Whether or not you sit in an armchair is irrelevant - a form of appeal to authority fallacy - or in this case the inverse. However, using armchair logic, professional psychiatrists do in fact sit in armchairs. :)
    – Chloe
    Commented Jan 7, 2018 at 17:19

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