Insult stings. It can take in a lot of forms including physical (slapping and punching), verbal (intrusive jokes), and facial expressions (raised eyebrow). Regardless of its form, it disturbs our peace of mind and therefore a hindrance to our happiness. So how do we deal with an insult? In this article, we will explore 3 and if necessary 4 steps approach on how to deal with put-downs from other people.
In one of his letters, Seneca points out to another Stoic philosopher Cato the Younger who was pleading a case when an adversary by the name of Lentulus spat on his face. Instead of returning an aggressive behavior, Cato wiped off the spit and said. “I will swear to anyone, Lentulus that people are wrong to say that you cannot use your mouth.”
Humor is effective because it will give the insulter the impression that you are not affected by his antics especially if he is doing it intentionally. Insult comes from a place of insecurity. People insult so that they can bring other people down and so that they can feel good about themselves. As a matter of fact, it’s probably the only way they feel good about themselves and to cover up their insecurities. By making humor against their attacks, you deny that very pleasure they are trying to achieve.
One of my favorite way to put humor to insults is to exaggerate. For example, when someone calls you “lazy”, you can respond with a grin on your face “I have a special talent of sleeping 24 hours straight.” By doing so, you are telling the insulter (subconsciously) that you are accepting the insult (although you know yourself you are not lazy) and by exaggerating it you are enforcing the fact that the insult does not bother you. By displaying this kind of self-reassurance, you will deny him with his intention of making you feel bad.
Epictetus would also approve this kind of approach to insults. On Enchiridion he said,
“If you learn that someone is speaking ill of you, don’t try to defend yourself against the rumors; respond instead with, ‘Yes, and he doesn’t know the half of it, because he could have said more.’
2. Give a grin and don’t respond.
What if the insult was not done intentionally? Maybe the person was just careless. One thing for sure is that we really cannot tell accurately what the person’s intention is. We can only feel that he may be doing it our purpose but the Stoics have always reminded us not to trust fully our senses. My default response is always to put humor on the insult. I have been so used to some of these insults that I already have a mental script for them so that when someone throws one of them, I can respond sarcastically to them on autopilot. With my constant practice of negative visualization, I have also learned to expect them and think in advance of a humorous response.
There are inevitable moments though that I ran out of wittiness and I couldn’t think of a good sarcasm to an insult. In that case, I just don’t respond. I give a grin and don’t say anything. An insult should not be responded with an insult because it will show that you are agitated. A distinction should be made between an insult and a tease. A tease is done in a fun environment usually with close friends and family members and in that case, a tease can be responded with a tease. Insult is different because it invokes negative feelings that make a person feel bad about himself. Exchanging insults is a toxic activity to be involved with. Another advantage of humor is that it eases the tension and actually might lead to a fun and worthwhile conversation. Again, if you cannot think of a humor to respond just give and grin and don’t respond. It guarantees that it will not escalate to toxic yelling. Although less effective than humor, a grin is an effective body language that lets your insulter know that you are not affected by the insult. It’s good to remember though the fundamental Stoic practice that feeling bad or feeling good is entirely up to us. As Epictetus puts it,
“Remember: It’s not the person who calls you names or hits you who insults you – it’s your own conclusion that these things are insulting. Therefore, when someone annoys you, it’s your own attitude that’s annoying you.”
3. Evaluate the insult for what it is.
Whether we were able to respond with humor or a sarcastic grin, it pays to evaluate the insult itself. Why? Because some of us might even feel a little bit of that sting even though we have made an excellent response and even though the insulter is no longer near us. It is part of our flight or fight response designed by nature.
I can tell from experience that the first two approach removes a lot of the sting of the insult. For a lot of people, it can already avoid the onset of negative emotions. However, should some of that sting remains we can fully extinguish it by thinking our way philosophically. In other words, use reason to eliminate the remaining negative feelings. This is what the Stoics mean by overcoming emotions in contrast with bottling emotions. The former encourage you to think your way out while the latter tells you to remain passive. The former is healthy while the latter is toxic. Stoicism (capital S) is about avoiding and overcoming emotions while stoicism (small s) is about bottling emotions.
So how do evaluate these insult so we can finally remove all the sting? We need to evaluate these two things: (1) the source and (2) the insult itself:
The source of the insult
Every one of us has probably been insulted by our parents. It stings but we know for sure that it’s for our own good. They do it sometimes out of desperation for us to become better people and to protect us.
When we are into some physical endeavors such as sports, we probably have experienced being insulted by our coaches. It’s most likely that they raised his voices so that we can pay attention and work with our weaknesses.
When we understand that other people yell us out of care, it completely removes the sting. Because of our fight or flight response, we put our guards but as soon as we realize that people are actually helping us for our own survival we need to put those guards down.
Truth behind the insult
In his essay, “On Firmness”, Seneca said, “Why is it an insult, to be told what is self-evident?” When what the insulter is true, it should take a little bit of sting. What we need to practice is unconditional self-acceptance and embrace all our insecurities. Each one of us has flaws that could take in various forms and if we only understand this fundamental truth then there should a little reason to be upset. It could be that the “alleged” insulter does not really hurt with his remarks but only reporting how things seem to him. For example, when we worked hard and someone says we are not doing “enough” our initial reaction might be that the person is not giving us credit for our hard work when in fact he might have different standards for hard work. Think of it as some sort of “customer feedback” where criticism from other people might actually help us improve our product or for our own self-improvement.
A pure blatant attack
If after contemplating the insult we make a judgment that it’s not one of those two things we previously mentioned then we can always tap on the fundamental Stoic principle that some things are not in our control. We need constantly remind ourselves to be indifferent to bad things people say to us.
4) Dealing with extreme form of insults – harassment
When we are working hard to be good people, incorporating as much as virtues as we can, it is very unlikely that people will perpetual to harass us. But let’s take the worst-case scenario in which we did a great job of doing the first three steps but the person continues to insult us. If the person behaves that way, then with should take the courage to tell him our boundaries. If the person is still hard-headed then we can tap into some authority to deal with the person. For example in a corporate setting, we can ask the help of the HR department and report the person. Again, all these things we can do without responding to his insult with an insult. We will never stoop down to his level.
In summary, we need to learn how to put humor on other people’s insults. If we can think of any, we can choose not to respond and instead return a smile to deny the insulter the pleasure from affecting us. If it still stings, we have to evaluate the insult for some truth because it might actually be thrown at us for own benefit. If it’s indeed at an attack, we have to remember the Stoic fundamental truth that nothing can hurt us unless we allow it. For repeated obtrusive insults we should take courage and inform the insulter of our boundaries. If it doesn’t work then we should ask help from an authority to deal with the insulter. No matter how tempting it is, we should not respond to an insult with an insult because it will create a toxic environment that is hard to put off.
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