How to react to an insult

Interpersonal skills Tips: How to react to an insult?

Insults can trigger an intense emotional response, all, to a greater or lesser degree, have tasted the bitter taste of insults, and it is not pleasant, without a doubt. But responding with anger, frustration, or even aggression is as useless as taking poison waiting to harm another person; when silly words vibrate around us, we need to learn to give intelligent responses to insults for our psychological well-being.

The main obstacle, however, is our emotions. For example, when we hear an insult and automatically react without thinking, we can get angry and stressed out in this situation, so we should not only deal with the insult itself but also with the unpleasant emotions it generates.

An insult is a message understood by people as something offensive or inappropriate, mostly seen as a conscientious action if the offender doesn’t show genuine regret. In this article, we will bring different perspectives of how to react when someone insults you.

Living in society, patterns of behavior can connect and distance people by how they are perceived within a social group or an individual. The insult can be considered universal to a social group if, for example, we bring to lunch at our Muslim friend’s house pork intentionally, even knowing its cultural significance.

A way of showing love, dress, being understanding with others way of living, a simple look can be considered an insult, depending not only on personality, critical analysis as well as social and cultural context that the person has grown, hence the importance of empathy and discernment whenever we think of reacting to an insult.

The Gift of Insults from Paulo Coelho – A Life lesson on How to React to Insults

Paulo Coelho brings us a story about an old samurai who lived near Tokyo that committed his life teaching Zen Buddhism to young people. Despite his age, the legend ran that he was still able to defeat any opponent.

One afternoon, a warrior – known for his total lack of scruples – appeared there. He was famous for using the provocation technique: he expected his opponent to make the first move and, endowed with a privileged intelligence to repair the mistakes made, counterattacked with fulminating speed.

The young and impatient warrior had never lost a fight. But, knowing the samurai’s reputation, he was there to defeat him and increase his fame.

All the students spoke out against the idea, but an older man accepted the challenge.

They all went to the town square, and the young man began to insult the old master. He kicked some stones in his direction, spat in his face, and shouted all the known insults – offending even his ancestors.

For hours he did everything to provoke him, but the older man remained unmoved. Finally, in the late afternoon, feeling already exhausted and humiliated, the impetuous warrior withdrew.

Disappointed by the fact that the master had accepted so many insults and provocations, the students asked:

How can you bear such indignity? So why didn’t you use your sword, even though you knew you could lose the fight, instead of showing yourself to be a coward in front of all of us?

If someone comes to you with a gift, and you do not accept it, to whom does the present belong? –  asked the samurai.

To whom he tried to deliver him. – answered one of the disciples.

The same goes for envy, anger, and insults. – said the master. 

“When they are not accepted, they continue to belong to those who carried them with them.”

The name itself that Paulo gives to his story explains the moral he brings here about reacting to insults; even though anyone is telling us that is hurtful, that can’t be it unless we recognize that message as ours.

Of course, it is not easy to get at this point, but it is not impossible; from Paulo Coelho, we can understand how the reaction to an insult is a matter of emotional intelligence if it lacks emotional balance, the first response always is going to be an explosion.

It is a gift because it is us who decide if we will unbox it and see if it suits us or wrap it or not and ignore it.

To respond to an insult intelligently is crucial to avoid an emotional kidnapping which is a term that psychologist August Cury uses to describe when our rational brain doesn’t work in a balanced way and only responds to emotions, and we don’t want that.

Instead of letting emotions take over, we have to activate our logical thinking by focusing on the facts; we want to do that by taking an emotional intelligence class, reading books about it, choosing mediation, and many more.

3 Ways to not be affected by offenses or insults

Be realistic 

It’s ubiquitous for people to include feelings in everything, exaggerate and distort emotions. Often, we can see a double meaning in games, and sometimes it can let our imagination deceive us.

Try to look at the events that harm you with detachment, visualize yourself as an outsider, relive that moment, and analyze it based on concrete facts; for that, you could use the following questions:

  • Did she/he raise his/her voice?
  • Was that comment true?
  • Was the commentary made at an inappropriate moment? Why?

Don’t take the offenses so seriously (take Steve Jobs as an example)

Most of the time, we take people who speak ill of us and do unpleasant things very seriously; the attention and magnitude we give to them are what defines how impactful it can be to us.

During the 1997 Apple developer conference, an audience member commented on Steve Jobs, who had recently returned to the company.

“Mr. Jobs, you are a brilliant and influential man. It’s clear and sad that you don’t know what you’re talking about at various points in your speech. I would like, for example, for you to express in clear terms like, say, Java and any other of your incarnations deals with the ideas embedded in OpenDoc. And when you’re done with that, maybe you can tell us what you’ve been doing personally for the past seven years.”

This comment about Steve’s skills and work could have been stressful and a reason that to take it personally.

 Instead, he agreed with the person who publicly insulted him and made the audience see the case with a broader view, demonstrating that his role at Apple was not to know all the details of his company’s technology but rather to help customers with the technology it creates.

Steve Jobs Insult Response

Look at what is happening through the offender’s eyes and try to understand their feelings

Often, the person who offends is going through a wrong time or is in trouble, sometimes harming others is part of it; try to understand the rude person, maybe they need help or support. 

You will not feel so troubled by unpleasant words if you find the reason for the wrath of your offender.

3 Displays of the Stoics to Evaluate Insults

  1. Truthfulness

If we feel insulted, Seneca suggests that we pause for a moment to consider whether the words are actual; if someone refers to one of your characteristics, it is not an insult. Regardless of the tone used, it is just an insult obvious point.

 If we don’t want that to happen again, maybe we should do something to change that characteristic, or accept it, so that it doesn’t become a sensitive point that makes us jump every time someone touches it.

  1. Level of information 

The next step we must take to react to an insult intelligently comes from the hand of Epictetus, who recommends we assess whether our interlocutor is at least well informed. 

If the person who insults us is informed, we should value the message, even if it causes us rejection or does not fall into our worldview. On the other hand, if you are not an informed person, but you are talking about ignorance, we should not consider your opinion or be angry about it.

  1. Authority

The last screen through which we must pass an “insult” is to evaluate its origin. For example, if we are learning to play the piano and the so-called “insult” comes from our piano master, maybe it is a constructive criticism that we should listen to rather than get angry. Be better than the one who insults you.

How to react when someone insults you?

When someone insults, you should ALWAYS breathe first to see the rational part from your brain; therefore, your emotions will be balanced with the information you are receiving.

As we saw in some paragraphs above, it is never a good idea to react to an insult without analyzing its content first; sometimes, understand its purpose is way better.

 At the moment, we may understand it as an insult. Still, if it is true, we can use it as a constructive critic or a reflection. Remember how we react is always our fault.


People tend to react based on old known patterns; when someone insults you, they quickly give the same reaction in the past, turning this into a subconscious action. As a result, people rarely respond, but they react frequently.

So to answer with balanced emotions and reason, we need to pay attention to the information they receive and how they make us feel, not letting neither emotion nor logic speaks louder than the other.

References and Further Reading

Skillopedia. How to react when someone insults you? 8 Ways to deal with rude and insulting people.

Wikihow. 3 Ways to be Confident when someone insults you.

INC. 5 Effective Ways to Respond to Backhanded Compliments.

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