How To Deal With Insults
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“Choose not to be harmed – and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed – and you haven’t been.” – Marcus Aurelius
I was at a busy library in London a few weeks back when a quirky, middle-aged lady started chatting to me. About three minutes into the conversation she commented on the grand size of my nose. And then she poked at it once with her finger while laughing.
A few years ago, such an incident would have really upset me. I would have turned bright red and cursed that woman under my breath. Then I would have spent the rest of the day secretly seething, and feeling very self-conscious about my appearance.
But what actually happened a few weeks back was this: Nothing.
What I once would have perceived as an insult had no effect on me whatsoever. The conversation soon ended and I went on about my day quite happily.
Last week in Munich I had another (albeit small) opportunity to take offense, when a German chap mistakenly identified me as an Englishman…
– I’m actually from Ireland.
– Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.
– [smiling] Don’t worry, it’s very hard to offend me.
Tis true. It is very hard to offend me nowadays. In this post I want to share with you the type of mindset I’ve developed that makes me pretty much immune to insults.
And then you can go post nasty accusations in the comments to test me out 😉
There’s a story about the Buddha that I like to keep in mind.
There was a man who constantly harassed and insulted the Buddha, throwing all sorts of verbal abuse at him. But the Buddha never seemed fazed by this. When someone asked why he didn’t take offense, he simply replied…
If someone gives you a gift and you refuse to accept it, to whom does the gift belong?
Last week in Frankfurt I was writing part of this very post while waiting for a train. An American woman approached and asked me for some spare change. When I returned a polite-but-firm no, she called me a jerk and moved on.
That was her gift, and I refused to accept it. I shook off the insult and got right back to work as if nothing had happened.
You always have a choice
I also like to keep in mind the words of Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search For Meaning.
Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust and went on to found logotherapy. In the book, he recounts his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps. He writes of the guards taking everything away from the prisoners, all of their human freedoms, in an effort to crush their spirit and destroy their will. But Frankl came to the realization that there was one thing that could not be taken away from him: his freedom to choose his reaction to what was happening to him. As Frankl himself put it:
Between stimulus and response lies man’s greatest power: the power to choose.
It’s easy to blame others for our misgivings.
— It’s his fault this happened!
— If only my boss wasn’t such a condescending bitch!
— I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those pesky kids!
I see that as surrendering your power to choose. Even if you find yourself in a terrible situation, or if someone throws the mother of all insults your way, you still get to choose your response. Nobody can take away that power from you, but too often we surrender it ourselves.
Standing up for yourself
I should clarify that I’m not advocating you sit back and let people insult you repeatedly without response (sorry, Buddha). You have to stand up for yourself every now and then, lest folks start taking advantage of you and your unoffendability.
I was in a hostel in Munich last week, sharing a room with three other people. One of them had a real knack for waking me up. It was like he’d been preparing his whole life for that one task. He’d get up at 5am, turn on the light, and start making all sorts of noise as he got ready for the day, seemingly oblivious to the fact that there were other people in the room trying to sleep.
The first morning I let it go, choosing not to take offense. But the second morning, when it became apparent that this guy wasn’t going to figure out the whole empathy thing on his own, I called him on it. If I hadn’t, I knew I would have carried the resentment around with me for the rest of the day, and probably would have bitched about the guy behind his back.
Too many of us do this, methinks. We whine and complain about how other people mistreat us, but we never actually say anything to the offenders. Whining and complaining is pretty pointless in general, but it also becomes spineless when you haven’t brought up the issue with the offender first.
So, if you ever have cause to take issue with someone or something, instead of getting offended, take action to rectify the situation. If you’re watching a movie that sucks, stop watching and go do something else. If someone pisses you off, call them on it.
And if you can’t call them on it for whatever reason, the smart choice is to distance yourself from that person, or just learn to accept their behavior. No good comes from enduring an annoyance and building up all kinds of secret resentment.
The Stoic approach to insult management
I recently read a great book about Stoicism as a practical philosophy of life. There was a whole chapter on how to deal with insults. I’ll share with you here a few of my key takeaways.
Let’s say someone insults you intentionally. Their goal is to upset you. The best way to handle that is to simply refuse to become upset. This not only stumps your insulter, but it also makes them feel completely powerless. It’s like someone trying to kill you by shooting you point blank in the chest. How do you think they’d feel if the bullet just bounced off, superman style, and you responded with nothing more than a raised eyebrow?
If someone is trying to hurt you with an insult, it can also help to imagine that they’re a child. Because, really, such insults are childish. If you’re at a friend’s dinner party and his 3-year-old son comes up to you and calls you a poo poo head, you’re probably going to look at him in amusement, maybe ruffle his hair and then return to the adult conversation. You wouldn’t take the insult seriously.
Unless, that is, you are actually a poo poo head, and not all that comfortable being one.
Which brings me to another point: Sometimes we find ourselves taken aback by insults because there’s some truth to them, because they poke at our insecurities. Like if you’re losing your hair and someone makes a bald joke at your expense. In such a scenario, realize that your reaction says more about you than it does about the severity of the insult. If you have a solid foundation of self-assurance and are comfortable with your appearance, you won’t take offense.
See, if you’re really sensitive about your hair loss, that’s entirely your issue to deal with. Instead of wishing people would stop mentioning your receding hairline (out of your control), you could just learn to be comfortable rocking the bald dome (within your control).
“Anytime we think the problem is ‘out there,’ that thought is the problem.” – Stephen Covey
Likewise, if someone calls you fat and you get offended by it, I suspect that you’re not truly comfortable with your weight. Instead of resenting that person, you should use their words as a launch pad for exploring your relationship with your body, and making it a healthier one.
The Stoics actually welcomed insults, for two reasons.
The first is best summed up by these words from Antisthenes (who was technically a Cynic and not a Stoic, but I digress)…
“Pay attention to your enemies, for they are the first to discover your mistakes.”
The idea here is that insults can act as signposts. If there’s a grain of truth to them, then they help point us in the direction of our faults and insecurities, and we can get busy working on those and improving ourselves.
The second reason Stoics welcomed insults was because they believed they helped build a kind of immunity against criticism. A man who has been criticized regularly in the past is likely to shrug off future insults as no big deal, while a man who has never been insulted before will surely be left reeling when someone first likens him to donkey appendage.
Along these lines, a Stoic named Cato purposely used to go against the norms of fashion in ancient Rome, shunning the popular light purple tunic in favor of simpler, darker attire. As explained in the aforementioned book…
Cato did this not because he “sought vainglory”; on the contrary, he dressed differently in order to accustom himself “to be ashamed only of what was really shameful, and to ignore men’s low opinion of other things.”
This mindset has definitely proven beneficial to me. I used to get upset by negative comments here on the blog, or by people disagreeing with me. But not so much anymore.
I encourage folks to put themselves out there online, and in the real world, because you learn how to deal with other people not liking with you, or disagreeing with you, or thinking you’re a complete asshole. I believe it’s important to learn how to handle that. You’re inviting criticism, sure, but I see it as hardening myself against criticism, building a thicker skin.
Again, imagine the guy who never puts himself out there, never puts himeself in a position to be criticized. What happens when he falls into an unavoidable situation where criticism is inevitable?
Easy: He crumbles.
It’s (usually) nothing to do with you
Nowadays I tend to feel sorry for people who insult me. Granted, pity isn’t always my initial reaction, but give me a few seconds and I can usually reign myself in and realize that I don’t have to take offense.
Some people seem to be put out by the fact that I don’t drink, and they act a little shitty towards me because of it. I met a girl in England who openly mocked me about not drinking, and I understood perfectly once I saw her realtionship with alcohol. It wasn’t healthy, and she knew it. My teetotalling ways shone an unflattering light on her drinking habits, and she resented me for that. The quick and easy way for her to feel better about herself was to write me off as a weirdo, worthy of her best insults.
I once parted ways with a girlfriend, and a few months later she told me she was glad we broke up because I was “too free thinking and in love with the world.” She wasn’t being cruel — I’m pretty sure she didn’t mean it as an insult at all — but those words really hurt me at the time. Being free thinking and in love with the world are two of my favorite things about myself, and there was someone telling me that they disliked those qualities.
It took me a while, but I eventually came to realize that those words said more about my ex than they did about me. As long as I was happy with my world-loving, free-thinking ways, it didn’t much matter what she thought.
With that realization, I was able to let go of the hurt.
Fuck, and such
Some of us insist on getting really offended by profanities, like the word fuck. As my buddy Trevor notes, this makes little sense…
The only reason [some] words are bad is because we MAKE them bad… some people have chosen to interpret the noise of the air pressure of the consonant f, followed by the vocal chords making an uh, then more air pressure of the consonants ck, as poison to their ears.
And that’s really what it comes down to: a choice. Nobody can offend you without your permission. If you choose to interpret a word as offensive, that’s entirely your business.
Some people get upset when I use naughty words on this blog, or when I write about taboo subjects. Or they’ll get offended just because my opinion is different to theirs. And to those people I say: You do realize that thousands of children in the world are needlessly starving to death every day, right? If you’re going to take offense to something, I recommend you start there, not with what some random dude writes on the Internet, that little thing you disagree with, or wish your sensitive eyes hadn’t seen.
Stephen Fry said it best…
“If I had a large amount of money I should found a hospital for those whose grip upon the world is so tenuous that they can be severely offended by words and phrases yet remain all unoffended by the injustice, violence and oppression that howls daily”
(It must be noted though that Mr. Fry surely has accumulated a large fortune at this stage, yet still no such hospital. Color me disappointed.)
Now, all that said, I don’t advocate people go around shouting profanities from the rooftops. Best be considerate and refrain from asking little old ladies how their motherfucking day is going.
Practical steps for dealing with insults
Alright, I feel a bit of a summation is in order. Here’s a step-by-step approach to dealing with insults that I’ve found particularly effective.
When someone throws an insult your way, the first thing you need to do is take a moment. Just breathe. Don’t respond right away. Most people immediately let their lizard brain loose to respond to insults, fighting fire with fire, and that’s how they get themselves in trouble and say or do things they later regret.
So take a moment. With time and practice, that moment will become shorter, because you’ll train yourself to instinctively respond in an appropriate manner.
2. Consider the intent
Don’t even worry about whether there’s any truth to the insult just yet. Consider the intent instead. If you can figure that out, it’s easier to come up with an appropriate response.
If the other person is intentionally trying to insult you, or at least that’s what you suspect, there are a few things you can do.
One is to just completely ignore the insult, to pretend you didn’t even hear it. Just act like whatever was said isn’t even worth acknowledging because it’s so ridiculous.
But there is a danger to that. As noted earlier, sometimes you need to stand up for yourself and call someone out when they insult you. Because if you don’t, they may receive the message that you’re a pushover, willing to be their verbal punching bag whenever they need someone to pick on.
My approach is to ignore the first insult. If that doesn’t work, and the person persists in trying to insult me, then I call them out. You can say something like, “Yeah, I heard you the first time.” Say it while looking them in the eye and with an amused look on your face, and hold that for a few seconds before going on to talk about something else.
Another way to call them out is to name the game. Ask them, “You wouldn’t be trying to offend me now, would you?” Or say, “Wow, my view on that really makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t it?”
Again, you remain calm and appear as though you’re amused by the childish game they’re playing. Because insults are a childish game after all, and you’re above that. So let them know.
You can also respond to an insult with self-deprecation. If someone tries to make a joke at your expense, you add to the joke. Again, you’re sending the message that you can’t be messed with, that you don’t take offense to silly things.
Here’s where we switch from talking about outer response to inner response. Inner is more important, because on the outside you can fake a good response to an insult, or a good non-response, but you may end up secretly seething about it for months or even years afterwards.
And that’s not good. You don’t just want to appear unoffendable. You actually want to be unoffendable.
As mentioned, I don’t worry about whether there’s any truth to the insult when it happens (unless it’s an obvious falsehood and I can easily dismiss it). Instead, I focus on delivering an appropriate response and save the contemplation for later, usually when I’m alone and have adequate time to think. Only then will I consider if the insult actually has any basis in reality, and if it points to an issue I need to address. If not, I can just forget about it.
I’ve found that nowadays it’s almost impossible for me to get offended by false accusations. I’m secure enough in myself and I live in line with my values. If someone tells me I’m a terrible person, I know it’s not true.
And if there is some truth to an insult fired my way, I take that Stoic approach and try use it to my advantage. Not only does it help me discover parts of myself I need to work on, but it’s also good practice for handling whatever future criticism the world sends my way.
How do you handle insults?
This was a pretty long and comprehensive post, but I’m sure you fine folks can teach me a thing or two about handling insults via the comments. Have at ’em.
Note: this article was first published on November 15, 2011.