Refuse to Let Insults Steal Your Tranquility


Cato the Younger (photo courtesy

Although there are many reasons why people insult one another, ultimately, insulting someone is just BAD BEHAVIOR. Some times, it is a case of projection (e.g. I am worried that I myself am going bald so I make a joke about needing sunglasses when I look at your scalp). Sometimes insults—as confirmed by social comparison theory—can temporarily make us feel better about ourselves if we make a “downward” comparison (e.g. I look better than you because I just lost 20 pounds and you didn’t). There are times when a well-intentioned suggestion, or even a compliment can be perceived as an insult to those who are overly sensitive. Other times a true insult can be cloaked in compliment.

As with all human (bad) behavior, sometimes insults just happen—and they happen when we least expect them. One has to first wonder “why would this person want to insult me”? None of us are impervious to verbal derogation, but I do think it would do us all well to reflect a bit before giving a knee-jerk reaction of anger when we are the recipients of a verbal slam. Cato the Younger, Roman Republic Statesman whom some described as the “perfect stoic” countered insults with humor. In his book A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy author William B Irvine describes an incident in which Cato’s adversary Lentulus spit in his face. “I would swear to anyone, Lentulus, that people are wrong to say you can’t use your mouth!”. In another incident, Irvine describes the reaction of Socrates when someone came up to him and unexpectedly boxed his ears. He reacted by joking about what a nuisance it is never to know when to wear a helmet when one goes out. The point is, that reacting to an insult with humor sends a message that the insult is of no importance to you and the perpetrator did not succeed in upsetting you.

Of course, because insults can come so unexpectedly it is hard to come up with jus the right witty statement just at the right time. We all know what it is like to reflect hours or even days later and kick ourselves for not having said back then what we just thought of to say now. Therefore, for most of us, I think the following guideline might be useful:

First: Consider the source.

  1. If the verbal critique comes from someone you trust really cares about you—think of it as feedback. If the feedback is reasonable, then thank that person as their suggestions might really make a positive difference in your life.
  2. If the insult comes from someone who doesn’t know you well enough to offer such personal suggestions, consider what THEIR motive (conscious or unconscious) might be. It is often said that when someone like this insults you, that insult reveals more about HIM OR HER than it does about YOU. Hence, let it go; it has no relevance to you.

Second: if the insulter is just plain being mean and if you can’t think of something humorous to diffuse the situation (and thereby preserve your own tranquility), just walk way. According to Irvine (also a philosopher), walking away is another very effective method of sending a message that the insult means nothing to you. Silence, after all usually gives people the reflective pause they need to realize their wrongdoing.


Copyright Raeleen D’Agostino Mautner, Ph.D. 20016. Dr Mautner is a Radio Host, Author, and Columnist for The Italian Tribune. For more on my work:

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