How to respond to insults intelligently, according to the Stoics

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Louise Hay
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Seneca related that one day, while Cato was visiting the public baths, he was pushed and beaten. When the attack ended, he refused to accept the attacker's apology saying: "I don't even remember being hit."

Although his behavior may seem strange to us, Cato simply decided not to grasp what had happened. He chose not to get stuck in humiliation, frustration or anger, but immediately turned the page. He chose to act instead of react, to regain control of the situation and respond in a more mature way. He chose to stick to the principles of Stoicism, which teach us how to respond to insults intelligently.



Insults trigger an intense emotional response

We all, to a greater or lesser extent, have experienced the bitter taste of insults. It is not pleasant, but responding with anger, frustration or even aggression is useless, it is like taking a poison from us hoping that another will die. When we are insulted we must learn to respond intelligently, for our psychological well-being.

The main obstacle, however, is our emotional brain. When we hear an insult we usually react automatically by putting ourselves on the defensive. We get angry and stressed, so we not only have to deal with the insult but also the unpleasant emotions it generated.

To stop this mechanism we must understand that the emotional brain does not function rationally, rather it tends to fill in the blanks and draw conclusions regardless of whether the criticism is valid.

To respond to an insult in an intelligent way, we must avoid an emotional hijacking. Instead of letting emotions take over, we need to activate our logical thinking by focusing on the facts.

Emotional abduction occurs when we consider the insult to be an attack on our ego. At that moment the amygdala reacts as if we were in danger causing us to stop behaving rationally. Instead, we must be aware that the line between an insult and constructive criticism can be very subtle and subjective.



In fact, Epictetus thought that it was not the person, his deeds or words that insulted us, but our judgment on what had happened. It's hard to digest, but in order to be insulted, we have to allow the insult to creep into us. This philosopher said: "No one can harm you without your consent, you will be hurt the moment you allow them to harm you".

The 3 filters of the Stoics to evaluate insults

The Stoics advised passing the insult through these 3 filters before responding:

1. Truth. When we feel offended, Seneca suggested that we pause for a moment to consider whether the words are true. If someone refers to one of our characteristics, for example, it is not an insult, no matter what tone is used, it is simply a matter of course. If we don't want it to happen again we should do something to change that feature, or just accept it, so that it doesn't become a sensitive spot that makes us jump every time someone touches it.

2. Level of information. The next step we must take to respond to an insult in an intelligent way comes from Epictetus, who recommends that we evaluate whether our interlocutor is well informed. If he is an informed person, we should evaluate what he is saying, even if it causes us rejection at first or is not in tune with our worldview. Who knows, maybe he's right. If he is not an informed person but is speaking out of his ignorance, we should not take his opinion into consideration or get angry.


3. Authority. The last filter through which we should pass an "insult" is to evaluate its source. If we are learning to play the piano and the alleged "insult" comes from our piano teacher, perhaps it is constructive criticism that we should listen to instead of getting angry.


Be better than those who insult you

Marcus Aurelius, the famous Roman and Stoic emperor, thought that we should not allow those who insult us to manipulate our emotions. He wrote: "The best revenge is not being like someone who has hurt you."

Seneca, on the other hand, thought that anger always lasts longer than pain, so there is no point in getting angry over an insult. We must not allow the insult to ruin our lives or give it more importance than it deserves.

He wrote: “A great mind despises the complaints that have been made to it; the greatest form of contempt is to consider that the opponent is not worthy of revenge. In revenge, many take small humiliations too seriously. A great and noble person is a person who, like a large wild animal, listens impassively to the little curses that are thrown at him ”.

Ignoring someone's insult is the most powerful way to react because it shows self-control and prevents us from falling into his game. The key is to wait a moment before reacting. Breathe, think and then decide what to do.

When we increase the time between the stimulus / insult and our reaction, we can give a more reflective response. We can resort to logic and go beyond the initial emotion. The Stoics had nothing against emotions, but if it's an unwanted emotion that can cause harm, it's best to let it run its course and not hold it back.


Epictetus, who shared this idea, asked himself: “who is invincible? He who does not let himself be disturbed by anything more than his reasoned decision ".

Does this mean that if they attack us we shouldn't defend ourselves? Of course not. But if the Stoics had the opportunity to choose, they would prefer peace to being right. Rising above insults is a more mature choice that will allow you to protect your inner peace. After all, there is little point in arguing with an idiot.


In search of the positive in the insult

We can also look for the positive in insults, putting aside rudeness and meanness to look for the pearls that might be hiding in acid criticism. We can use these comments to improve. Indeed, the Stoics saw the insult of a friend or mentor as a personal favor, an opportunity to overcome that should be accepted with gratitude.

Whenever someone insults us and we manage to control ourselves, it is a personal victory. Responding to an insult with another insult, on the contrary, involves reproducing the chain of human anger, immaturity or stupidity and will not change things. If we react calmly and with gratitude, however, we will take the person who insulted us by surprise, so they are more likely to reflect on their behavior.

To control ourselves and make sure that insults don't hurt us, we need to work to reduce sensitivity to our imperfections by embracing the idea that we have flaws and weaknesses and that sometimes people report them. We are not perfect and we have to assume it. If you learn to calm your ego, the insults will pass without harming you. It would be much worse to live in some kind of dream world where everyone pretends that we have no flaws, in this way we would not have the possibility to change and grow.

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