- We use computer simulations and a simple free energy model to study the response of a bilayer membrane to the application of a negative (compressive) mechanical tension. Such a tension destabilizes the long wavelength undulation modes of giant vesicles, but it can be sustained when small membranes and vesicles are considered. Our negative tension simulation results reveal two regimes—(i) a weak negative tension regime characterized by stretching-dominated elasticity and (ii) a strong negative tension regime featuring bending-dominated elastic behavior. This resembles the findings of the classic Evans and Rawicz micropipette aspiration experiment in giant unilamellar vesicles (GUVs) [E. Evans and W. Rawicz, Phys, Rev. Lett. 64, 2094 (1990)]. However, in GUVs the crossover between the two elasticity regimes occurs at a small positive surface tension, while in smaller membranes it takes place at a moderate negative tension. Another interesting observation concerning the response of a small membrane to negative surface tension is related to the relationship between the mechanical and fluctuation tensions, which are equal to each other for non-negative values. When the tension decreases to negative values, the fluctuation tension γ drops somewhat faster than the mechanical tension τ in the small negative tension regime, before it saturates (and becomes larger than τ) for large negative tensions. The bending modulus exhibits an “opposite” trend. It remains almost unchanged in the stretching-dominated elastic regime, and decreases in the bending-dominated regime. Both the amplitudes of the thermal height undulations and the projected area variations diverge at the onset of mechanical instability.