Insults. We all get them from time to time. Even small negative criticisms can affect us for a long time. We dwell upon them and the intentions behind them.
In this post I explore how we can stoically deal with put-downs; remaining calm, rational and stress free.
Insults and The Emotional Brain
After we hear an insult, for most of us the initial reaction is to engage our emotional brain and argue back. Or perhaps defend our actions or ourselves. We then have to struggle with the stress and annoyance this causes. Instead of engaging emotional thinking, driven by feeling and impressions try the alternative. This is using logical thinking driven by facts and truth.
The emotional brain does not work rationally. It jumps to conclusions and fills in the blanks without any consideration of whether the criticism is valid. Initial thoughts tend to be unreasonable as they don’t use logic as a basis for next actions. This means we end up reacting in a way, which upon reflection, makes us feel uncomfortable.
The easiest option is to not respond or acknowledge the insult. Ignoring someone’s insult is the most potent form of counter insult. It shows that we are indifferent to the existence of the person who insulted us or his/her opinions. The way to do this is to take a moment. Breathe, think, then consider that if arguing or being defensive is the reaction that you want. By building in cooling off time it allows you to give a response more thought beyond an initial reaction. It allows logic to step in to move past the emotion. Stoics don’t have anything against emotions, but when it’s an unwanted emotion, sometimes it can cause more harm than good. So let emotions run their course, and then respond when you’re calmer.
Also understand that the emotional brain has a “self-serving bias”. This is the belief that individuals tend to ascribe success to their own abilities and efforts. They also ascribe failure to external factors. When individuals reject the validity of negative feedback, focus on their strengths and achievements but overlook their faults and failures, they are protecting the ego from threat and injury. These cognitive and perceptual tendencies perpetuate illusions and error, but they also serve the self’s need for esteem.
In other words, nobody gives feedback that will reflect badly on themselves.
Insults as an Attack
If you perceive criticism as a personal attack, as an insult to the person who we are, then this often triggers an emotional reaction. If you treat insults as criticism of your actions, not your person, then you detach yourself from the criticism. This then helps you to rationally work out what the next steps and actions should be. Don’t think you have to stoop to the level of the attacker, defend yourself and argue back at the attacker.
Be the better person by rising above the insults.
By doing this then people will look up to you for taking a mature stance. Especially if you remain positive and actually take the criticism well. You’ll also feel good about yourself for not participating in the negative exchange. Feeling good about sticking to your values is the most important accomplishment of all.
What is the source of the insults?
Seneca recommended that we consider the source of the insult. If we believe the source knowledgeable and wise, we should welcome their opinion and learn to overcome our anger. “Why is it an insult,” Seneca asks, “to be told what is self-evident?”.
The book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy makes a similar point:
Ask yourself if you respect or value the person who has insulted you.
If the answer is NO then be relieved that the person who insulted you disagrees with you (or dislikes you), because if they were to agree or like you then you must certainly be doing something wrong.
If the answer is YES then pause and evaluate if there is some truth in the insult.If there is truth then deal with the issue and try to improve, why be upset if the insult is actually a fact. If there is not truth then there must be a misunderstanding , clarify it.
Always remember rational people rarely insults others, at least not knowingly. So a person who insults us is either flawed in character or is immature. Try to ignore their comments, like we ignore the barking of a dog.
Insults, Perspective and Control
Keep perceived criticisms in context and put them in perspective. By trying to understand why the insult occurred it will allow us to see that they are just words, words which will come and go. These words are meaningless when considered in the context of the big picture. Stoics try to keep things in perspective. They understood that people are part of Nature and as such have the same origins and motivations as the rest of nature. Epictetus said:
Remember, that what is insulting is not the person who abuses you or hits you, but the judgement about them that they are insulting.
So we can control our judgement of a perceived insult that causes offence.
Marcus Aurelius knew as much:
Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill.
He advises us that we need to accept these people exist. Next, we should reflect on our own failings. Sometimes people won’t like you, for no specific reason. Don’t let this get to you because as I’ve said before, use reflection to allow us to be more tolerant of others and how they treat us. Epictetus highlights this:
When you are offended at any man’s fault, turn to yourself and study your own failings. Then you will forget your anger.
Looking for the Positive
While we can interpret criticism as damaging and distressing, we can also look for positivity in these comments too. Put aside the rudeness and meanness, look for the nuggets of honest feedback and suggestions for improvement. We can use these comments as an opportunity for improvement. Sometimes the person is having a bad day, but often there’s a grain of truth in the criticism. Remember, as I said above, an insult can only affect us if we decide that what was said what indeed an insult.
Feedback of any type tells you about the person giving you feedback. It highlights what they believe and their values. What insights can you take from the feedback and use? Even if someone is harsh and rude, thank them. They might have been having a bad day, or maybe they’re just a negative person in general. But even so, your attitude of gratitude will probably catch them off-guard.
All because of a simple act of saying thank you for the criticism. It’s unexpected, and often appreciated. And even if the critic doesn’t take your “thank you” in a positive way, it’s still a good thing to do for yourself. It’s a way of reminding yourself that the criticism was a good thing for you, a way of keeping yourself humble.
After seeing criticism in a good light, and thanking the critic, don’t just move on and go back to business as usual, actually try to improve.
That’s a difficult concept for some people, because they often think that they’re right no matter what. But no one is always right you may be wrong, and the critic may be right. So see if there’s something you can change to make yourself better.
How do you react to insults? Have I missed any important strategy? What do you think of the ideas presented above? Please leave a comment below: