July 24, 2021 - The Stoic Gym Blog
How to Deal with Insults
Insults take many shapes and forms
Insults take many shapes and forms. When we take something as an insult, we may be justified in doing so. Or we might be misinterpreting the situation. Or we may be seeing things that are not there. Depending on how sensitive you are, you can see many things as insulting.
- Someone ignores you; you can take that as an insult.
- Someone says that you are wrong; you can take that as an insult.
- Someone implies that she’s superior to you; you can take that as an insult.
- Someone calls you stupid; you can take that as an insult.
The list goes on and on. An insult does not affect us just for a moment. Insults affect us long after the incident is over — maybe for an entire day, an entire week, an entire month, or an entire lifetime. You may spend a lifetime mentally plotting against those who you think have insulted you. The only problem is your feelings have no effect on the person who you think insulted you. They only make you miserable.
Three steps to dealing with insults
Step 1. Understand that insults are externals and they are nothing to us
From a Stoic perspective, the most important thing to realize about insults is that they are external to us. They are someone else’s opinion. What is external to us is nothing to us. We don’t own them. We don’t control them. Even if you are a Gandhi or a Mother Teresa, there will be people who will be against you. If we are constantly bothered by other people’s opinions, we can never be true to ourselves. So, we don’t have to be offended by them but look at them rationally.
What does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a stone and insult it, what response will you get? Likewise, if you listen like a stone, what would the abuser gain by his abuse? However, if you have some weakness, then he has an advantage over you.
— Epictetus, Discourses, 1.25
Step 2. “Hear the truth without insult”
When we are not offended by the insult, we look at it rationally. Is the other person justified in their insults? If your boss tells you that your report is full of mistakes, instead of taking it as an insult, you can first see if she is right. If she is, then the best response is to make sure that you are careful in the future. Most of the time when we are offended, we miss the fact that the person who ‘insults’ us may have a point. What they are saying may be true, at least partially. So, if the insult is based on truth, we should take action to correct our behavior rather than getting angry with the other person.
… hear the truth without insult.
— Seneca, On the Shortness of Life, 15
Step 3. Use a strategy to deal with the insult when it is not justified
If the insult is not justified from a rational perspective, we still don’t have to get angry. We can use one of the following strategies to deal with it.
1. Know that insults cannot hurt us
Other people’s opinions do not change who we are. If your name is John and someone thinks you are Paul, it doesn’t make you Paul; it just means they are mistaken. If somebody thinks you are a helicopter, it doesn’t make you a helicopter; it just means that perhaps they may be delusional. In cases like these, we recognize that we are what we are irrespective of what others think. So why should we be upset if someone thinks we are stupid? Why should we spend time thinking about it or being upset about it? If someone has a distorted version of reality, it affects them, not us. We don’t become stupid because someone thought so, any more than we become a helicopter because a deranged person thought so.
…the easiest thing is to provide no response at all, just carry on as if nothing happens.
2. Deflate insults by ignoring them
When we choose not to respond to insults because we find them unreasonable, insults lose their power over us. Insults come from other people and therefore they are external to us. Because externals are nothing to us, we can ignore them. Anyone who insults us does so because they feel powerful. However, when we choose to ignore their insult, they have no power over us. It makes us invincible. Others cannot manipulate us because we choose not to be manipulated. Neither can they make us feel inferior, upset, or angry.
Who then is invincible? The one who cannot be upset by anything outside their reasoned choice.
— Epictetus, The Golden Sayings.
3. Understand that not getting insulted is a sign of strength
Becoming upset or wanting to justify oneself is a sign of weakness. As Seneca points out, small animals may run scared by any animal that may make a noise, large and noble animals are not bothered by little mongrels that bark at them. When we are not bothered by insults, we are not out to avenge them. We don’t add fuel to the fire and so we let the insults die.
Many have taken small injuries much more seriously to heart than they need… that man is great and noble who like a large wild animal hears unmoved the tiny curs that bark at him.
— Seneca, On Anger 2.32
4. Refuse to sink to the other person’s level
When someone insults us when we don’t deserve it, they are wrong. When we insult them back, we become like them. That’s not what we want to be. We take the high road because we don’t want to be like them.
Not to be like that is the best revenge…
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.6 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Meditations, Book 6)
5. Deflect insults with humor
Often insults are designed to hurt us. Insults gain power when we resist them. This is often the reason why, when you resist people, they double up on what they said. But we don’t resist them, insults lose their power. This is what happens when we ignore other people’s insults. But there is even a better way. We can even accept them with humor. We can make it light. As Epictetus once observed about the person who insulted him:
…the person obviously didn’t know me well enough, or he would have brought up much more damning flaws in my character.
— Epictetus, Discourses
You can use one or more of the strategies described above to deal with insults. Different strategies appeal to different people (I am partial to humor) and different occasions may call for different strategies. Use whatever strategy or strategies work best for you.