Dealing internally with insults: A stoic solution

Image: Hatim Belyamani

Grasp your left chest with your right hand… Feel a little flutter in there?

Good, you have a heart.

If this is the case (I sure hope it is), then you’re like the rest of us with beating hearts, and you’re likely sensitive to insults, no matter how tough of a stance you form when facing them.

Insults can harm us for our entire life if we don’t know how to process them.

From verbal abuse to being slighted or snubbed — even physical assaults to a certain degree, like when another man embarrasses you at the local tavern by slapping you across the face with his leather glove to challenge you to a duel (happens all the time, right?) — being able to deal with insults is a great tool to have.

From my studies, I’ve found the stoics to have incredible insight into the nature of insults and how to mentally and emotionally process them. (This book is awesome if you’re interested in stoicism.)

Before we jump into dealing with any kind of insult, there’s three things to assess.

1

First of all, when insulted, Seneca suggests we pause to consider if the insult is true. If someone makes fun of your unibrow, and you have a unibrow, then there’s no need to be upset. They’re merely pointing out the obvious. Maybe you should wax yourself.

2

Once we diagnose that the insult is NOT true, Epictetus asks us to consider whether or not the insulter is well-informed. Perhaps they’re speaking out of naive ignorance. In this case, we should calmly set the assho… — sorry, person — straight.

3

Next is to consider the source. If I’m learning how to play the cowbell, and the person who is criticizing me is my hired cowbell instructor, well, I can’t get upset because I’m paying this person to criticize me.

If none of these are the case, rather than feeling offended by their insults, perhaps you should feel relieved.

The truth is, most people who openly and maliciously insult you have a flawed character. If this kind of person disapproves of what you’re doing, then you should see yourself as being on the right track. It should concern you even more if this deplorable individual (we’re speaking in ego terms here) was agreeable to what you were doing.

Marcus Aurelius claims that rather than giving them the honor of your anger, these people deserve your pity.

You should feel no sting when anyone like this insults you. Much like when a dog barks at you — you might reason that the dog might not like you, but you wouldn’t let it ruin your day/week/year/lifetime hanging on to the horrid idea that the dog isn’t your pal.

A huge insight in this area is to see (and this one is a bit of a bitter pill) that the only source of any real sting from an insult is you.

“Remember that what is insulting is not the person who abuses you or hits you, but your judgement about them that they are insulting.”
-Epictetus

Epictetus goes on to say, “another person will do you no harm unless you wish it; you will be harmed at just that time at which you take yourself to be harmed.”

When we get right down to it, what upsets us is not the insults in and of themselves, but our judgement about the insults.

Whether insults harm us or not depends on our values. The good news is, our values are things that we have total control over.

Hopefully this helps in the area of insults. The next time you set out to the local tavern, pull this up on your phone in case a verbal (or mildly physical) scuffle ensues. And if anyone challenges you to a duel, please tell me so I can know that your life is as awesome as it is.


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