Seneca said that one day, while Cato visited public toilets, he was pushed and beaten. When they interrupted the fight, he refused to accept an apology from the aggressor saying, “I don’t even remember being hit.”
Although his behavior may seem strange to us, Cato simply decided not to hold on to what happened. He did not get stuck in humiliation, frustration or anger, but quickly turned the page. He chose to act instead of just reacting. He chose to regain control of the situation and respond more maturely. He chose to be faithful to the principles of Stoicism, which teach you how to reply back when someone insults you.
Insults unleash an intense emotional response
Everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, tasted the bitter taste of insults. It’s not good, but responding with anger, frustration or even aggressiveness is as useless as taking poison waiting to harm the other. When foolish words flutter around us, we need to learn to reply back intelligently, for our own psychological well-being.
The main stumbling block, however, is our emotional brain. When we hear an insult we usually react automatically by getting defensive. We get angry and stressed, so we must not only deal with the insult but also with the unpleasant emotions it has generated.
To stop this mechanism we must understand that the emotional brain does not work rationally, it fills in the blanks and rush to draw conclusions regardless of whether the criticism is valid.
To respond to an insult intelligently we need to prevent an emotional hijacking. Instead of letting emotions take over, we have to activate our logical thinking by focusing on the facts.
Emotional hijacking occurs when we consider that insult as an attack on our ego. Then the amygdala reacts as if we were in danger and we stop behaving rationally. Instead, we need to be aware that the line between an insult and a constructive criticism can become very subtle and subjective.
In fact, Epictetus thought that insulting is not the person, his acts or words, but our judgment on what happened. It is a difficult thing to digest, but to be insulted, we must allow that insult to settle inside us. This philosopher added: “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
Stoics suggested that before we reply back when someone insults us we make it pass through these three sieves:
1. Truthfulness. If we feel insulted, Seneca suggests that we stop for a moment to consider whether the words are true. If someone is referring to one of our characteristics, for example, it is not an insult, regardless of the tone used, it is only an obvious point. If we don’t want it to happen again, maybe we should do something to change that characteristic, or just accept it, so that it doesn’t become a sensitive point that makes us jump every time someone touches it.
2. Level of information. The next step that we must take to respond to an insult intelligently comes from the hand of Epictetus, who recommends us to assess whether our interlocutor is at least well informed. If he’s an informed person, we should value what he is saying, even if at first it causes us rejection or does not hunt with our worldview. Maybe he’s right. If he’s not an informed person but is speaking from ignorance, we simply should not take his opinion into account or be angry about it.
3. Authority. The last filter through which we must pass an “insult” is to assess its source. If we are learning to play piano and the supposed “insult” comes from our teacher, perhaps it is a constructive criticism that we should listen to, instead of getting angry.
Be better than who insults you
Marco Aurelio, a prominent Roman and Stoic emperor, thought that we should not grant those who insult us the possibility of manipulating our emotions. He wrote: “The best revenge is not to be like the one who hurt you.”
Seneca, on the other hand, thought that anger always lasts longer than pain, so it makes no sense to be angry at an insult. We must not let that insults ruin our day or give them more importance than they deserves.
He wrote: “A great mind despises the grievances made to itself; The greatest form of disdain is to consider that the adversary is not worthy of revenge. When getting revenge, many take small humiliations too seriously. A great and noble person is one who, like a great wild animal, listens impassively to the small curses thrown at him”.
Ignoring someone’s insult is the most powerful way to fight back because it shows self-control and prevents us from falling into his game. The key is to take 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 reflexive response. We can resort to logic and go beyond the initial emotion. The Stoics had nothing against emotions, but in case of an unwanted emotion that can cause harm, it is better to let it run its course and not hold on to it.
Epictetus shared this idea. He asked himself: “Who is invincible? He who cannot be disturbed by anything other than his reasoned decision.”
Does this mean that if attacked we should not defend ourselves? Of course, no. But if the Stoics had the opportunity to choose, they would prefer peace to be right. Standing above insults is a more mature posture that will allow you to shield your inner peace. After all, it doesn’t make much sense to argue with an idiot.
Looking for the positive in the insult
We can even look for the positive in insults. We can put aside rudeness and meanness to look for gold nuggets that may be hidden in acid criticism. We can use those comments to improve. In fact, Stoics used to see the insult of a trusted friend or mentor as a personal favor, an opportunity for overcoming that should be received with gratitude.
Every time someone insults us and we manage to control ourselves, it is a personal victory. Replying to an insult with another insult, on the contrary, implies reproducing the chain of anger, immaturity or human stupidity. That will not change things. If we reply calmly and even with gratitude, we will take the person who insulted us by surprise, so he will be more likely to reflect on his behavior.
In order to control ourselves and insults do not make a dent in us, we must work to reduce the sensitivity to our own imperfections by embracing the idea that we have defects and weaknesses and that sometimes people will point them out. We are not perfect and we have to assume it. If you learn dropping your ego, the insults will pass by without touching you. It would be much worse to live in a kind of dream world where everyone pretends that you have no defects, so that you would not have the possibility to change and grow.