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How to Deal With Insults and Put-Downs

Timeless advice on dealing with insults. Read More

I disagree

as someone who was verbally abused for 31 years. We cannot help our reactions to insults, only our response.

Feelings aren't right or wrong, they just are.

Abusive words: "soul murder"

Thank you

In particular for your concluding paragraph. If you don't want to be offended, then DON'T be! Oh, how often I've tried to get this message across to people. Why give another power over you?

yes, but that is robotic.

yes, but that is robotic. Your comment remind me of my Father who is totally stoic and never allowed us, his kids, to feel emotion at all! We are supposed to ignore it and bottle it inside. If we are insulted and feel bad: pretend you don't. If you don't want to be insulted, then don't is bad advice. We are becoming so mindless and robotic, I understand why so many people do drugs.


I agree that ignoring insults is the best route not to be offended, and this can be very effective in punctual situations. However, I find this is less so in situations where there's constant insulting, i.e. verbal abuse, psychological harassment, emotional bullying and the sort.

The law is evolving somehow to find ways to protect from non-physical cruelties, but to a significant extent, we're still left to our own devices when it comes to avoid emotional injuries.

Relevant, but would like some follow up

This article is very timely in my life as I have been ruminating on my poor reaction to a recent unexpected insult/slight from a friend.

This is great advice if one is expected to go around anticipating insults that don't matter or that don't truly hurt. I think one can read as many articles as one wants on the proper way to respond to insults, but in the heat of the moment, no matter what the response, one will beat him/herself up for saying the wrong thing or for not saying enough.

I pride myself on my quick wit, yet when recently faced with an unexpected insult, even though I was armed with this advice, I went with the knee jerk anger. Weeks later, I'm still ruminating and kicking myself and thinking what I should've said.

It would be interesting to see an article on how to deal with the emotions of reacting poorly and how to stop ruminating. I have always advised others to not let another "steal their energy", but it's easier said than done when in the situation!

I always learn from and enjoy your articles. Keep sharing the interesting, relevant, and intellectually stimulating information.

The difference between Insult & Assault is negligible.

Both these words are verb-based/associated.

In note, previously in this commentary stream, there is the prospect for legislation to 'collar' verbal abusers (insulters) in line with the acts of physical abusers (assaulters). An insult may be particularly, an assault on the senses. Insults, can lead to psychological distress and even psychiatric disorder. These then, in turn, can cause physical complications if left unaddressed, usually counselling or intensive personal caring, may be required.

Regardless how the distressing experience/event may appear on the surface or even, how the individual has dealt with the 'trauma', it remains locked in the persons (all parties) memory and cannot be extinguished.

Insults locked in memory

For years I have been verbally insulted by my spouse. Called words like "stupid" half baked potato or comments like "I cannot organise a piss up in a brewery!That I am lazy and with my attitude we would be as poor as we were 20 years ago!I cannot confront him with his comments as we would end up arguing and be more bitter with each other. I have been married for 36 years and have become stressed and lacking in confidence as a person.I have chosen to remain in my marriage as I want to be this amazing role model to my children and grand children. Never give up! I remind myself that it is his opinion and NOT A FACT! I can see that I have chosen to accept this quiet road nevertheless, I feel crushed, insulted and belittled.
My only strength is having faith in God and myself. I find that i will struggle with new comments for weeks and as time goes by I just let his insults drift away into the back ground.
I found reading "how to deal with insults" an eye opener. The one most helpful for me was to IGNORE the insults. So Thank you.

To Sumaty

I was verbally and physically abused for 36 years and then found the book that saved my life: The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans. You aren't being a good role model for your children; you are teaching them that abuse is okay...More often than not children of abuse become abusers or marry and abuser. I hope you will consider therapy and read the aforementioned book. Did you know that verbal abuse alone affects your physical health? Every time we are under stress, our bodies release cortisol. Cortisol damages the immune system. I have yet to speak to an abused woman who didn't have a myriad of physical problems. You are being "crushed, insulted and belittled." That isn't a marriage or love. Verbal abuse is soul murder. I am the moderator of an abused survivors' group...i you wish to speak privately....carleton@oakland.edu

To Sumaty

I was verbally and physically abused for 36 years and then found the book that saved my life: The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans. You aren't being a good role model for your children; you are teaching them that abuse is okay...More often than not children of abuse become abusers or marry and abuser. I hope you will consider therapy and read the aforementioned book. Did you know that verbal abuse alone affects your physical health? Every time we are under stress, our bodies release cortisol. Cortisol damages the immune system. I have yet to speak to an abused woman who didn't have a myriad of physical problems. You are being "crushed, insulted and belittled." That isn't a marriage or love. Verbal abuse is soul murder. I am the moderator of an abused survivors' group...i you wish to speak privately....carleton@oakland.edu

Good adice +

Anger is a reaction. Reacting is not responding. Humor is considered a higher level defense, but I agree it doesn't deal with the problem. It deflects it. If it's not someone you're close with, ignoring the comment is probably the best and easiest response, but in an intimate or personal relationship, addressing it directly I think is more effective. It doesn't have to be immediate. You can agree with part of the insult that's true without agreeing to the judgmental part, or saying something simple, like,"I disagree," or "I don't like it when you criticize me," AND LEAVE the conversation. This sends a clear message. It may have to be done repeatedly to retrain the other person. Think about the insult, evaluate it's truth and what sort of boundaries or possible consequences you want to establish. Later you can bring this up in a calm, assertive manner. When you have low self-esteem to begin with, it's hard not to react, because you believe negative things about yourself and don't feel entitled to respect. Taking abuse further undermines your self-worth. Raising your self-esteem and learning to be assertive (they go together) are your best tools to deal with abuse. Why I wrote, 10 Steps to Self-Esteem and How to Speak Your Mind - Become Assertive and Set Limits
Darlene Lancer, MFT
Author of Codependency for Dummies

LOL. "Good adice". I think

LOL. "Good adice". I think you wanted to say "Good advice" xD

Reply to comment | Psychology Today

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Insulting friends

I have this 'friend' of ours, which I do not in any way respect, but he makes a huge fuss about me interrupting other's conversation. When I say interrupt, I mean I ask one of the people in the conversation whether I can add something to their conversation. With another person I would not take offence. But this person, he always seems to get high moral ground when he makes these kind of 'complaints'/comments when all of my other friends know that he is simply doing it to undermine whoever he is doing it to. He does this by keeping his tone of voice under control, either in a matter-of-fact voice or a faked exasperated voice. He is careful to always have some sort of explanation behind the indirect insult, and this is made worse because it is hard to explain to anybody as I have seen before in similar situations, that he just says something along the lines of "I am simply enforcing a rule". Worst of all, when I say absolutely anything back to him, he puts a finger in one ear. One ear. Not both, just one ear, to just say how he wants me to shut up.
At that point I feel absolutely pointless. What should I do?


I’d recommend the book “Feeling Good Together” by David Burns, which will have some tips. I’m sure Burns would recommend techniques such as “disarming”, "empathy", “stroking”, and "I feel" statements.

A difficult to accept, but profound idea in Burns' book is this: "We often cause the very problems in our relationships that we complain about."

How this works: John says something irritating, so I dismiss him as a jerk. So I say something irritable to him, and he decides that *I'm* a jerk. So he says something back that is fairly nasty, and I conclude, "See? John really is a jerk."

But is he? No. In reality, my own words triggered his reactions, just as his words triggered my reactions.

Through our actions, we can often break this vicious cycle. Burns cites 5 main techniques, but notes they all require practice, and may not work in one single interaction. (1) "Disarming" is agreeing with a critic -- genuinely finding truth in what he says. (2)"Stroking" is finding genuine reasons to like, respect, and/or admire the other person. (3) "Empathy" is viewing things from the other person's point of view. (4)"I Feel" statements are expressing your feelings. (5) "Inquiry" is asking the other person for feedback or some contribution.

Note that, in some cases, ignoring the comment, or making a joke, works fine. If someone says something rude about the suit you’re wearing, you can use self-deprecation, as in, “Wow--if that’s how you feel about this suit, I hate to imagine what you’d have said about the one I was *going* to wear.” Make light of it. The subtle message is: “I don’t take your criticism seriously.” This technique might work for you, depending on how often you run into this person. The idea is to keep your sense of humor about it.

Anyway, Burns advises you to write down a number of sample responses, and rewrite them till they sound natural and effective. Then anticipate a negative response from the other person, and use the same techniques to imagine how you handle that.

One thing will come across clearly: you will seem a rational, sincere, good-hearted, friendly individual, communicating intelligently. The other person will seem childish -- though remember, hurting him is not your goal.

A sample of how the techniques sound put together, with numbers next to some techniques used: “You’re right [1], I’m often too quick to interrupt when someone is talking, and I’m glad you pointed that out[2]. I'm sure it must be frustrating when you feel I'm interrupting when I shouldn't. [3] It’s not easy to say this[4], but though I make mistakes, I really think I’ve gotten better as a conversationalist because of you.[2] That's why I'm glad to have you as a friend: I always feel I learn something when I talk to you [2]. Anyway, if there are any other mistakes you feel I’m making in conversation you would like to mention, I’d really enjoy getting your feedback.[5]”

This is just an example. Your own response would be unique to you and your situation. And you'd continue using these techniques -- they would not instantly transform your relationship with just one remark.

Note that if his behavior continued, you might have to have a more difficult conversation in which you confronted this person about your intention to interrupt people when you feel it's reasonable and appropriate, and regret that you and he don't agree on this point.

Hope this response is useful to you, or someone with a conflict to resolve.

Fantastically helpful

Thanks for this! I found the advice in the article patently useless in terms of personal or family relationships. We're supposed to ignore and humor people are so stressed they fling insults at us? Sure that works with someone at work, but with your spouse or family? Do this repeatedly, you become a punching bag and reinforce the behavior. But responding in a way that 1) sets clear boundaries for how you want to be treated and 2) doesn't hurt the person who is already feeling insecure - this is a challenge. Thanks for sharing these useful suggestions - they were helpful to me.

The most effective defense of

The most effective defense of all is missing from this article; to simply point out that the abuser is insulting you and why they are insulting you. if you ignore the person, they may just keep doing it, and if you insult them back you are only making yourself equal as the article says. I think that the best way to respond to someone being cruel is simply to ask them "why are you being cruel?" "why are you being mean?" pointing out that someone is spending their time and energy insulting someone they don't like (you) shows the person to be petty, as well as not having much else to do with their time.
it is important not to point out that they are being petty or wasting their time dealing with someone they don't like, or else you are only trading insults. instead make their pettiness apparent to all simply by asking them questions and questioning their motives.

Do not suffer in silence

Do not suffer in silence. Abusers get a kick out of their power. They feel inadequate themselves. It makes them feel better about themselves when they humiliate another person. The so-called powerful people are really small and nervous, but they've become actors who get a kick out of humiliating another person. The abuser has to live with their thoughts when they lie on the pillow at night. While the abused person has real thoughts that can bring tears, the abuser makes plans to continue the humiliation.

Planet Earth is not a nice place at times. I think you can say to yourself "This too shall pass". But do not suffer in silence.

Evidence of Not Reacting

I can't help but disagree with the article. In fact, I was just at a medical clinic. I've been going to the clinic for awhile now. A couple of the staff said some very hurtful things about me. They were just joking around but there were other patients around who I'm sure heard it, too. At the same time, I was hooked up to a blood pressure cuff that monitored my blood pressure every half hour automatically. After the insult, my blood pressure ran high, even after taking some medication. I was mad and the bp stayed high. Over the next few hours, I lobbed out insults targeted at the guys. I know it hurt them because they got quiet. And my blood pressure reading went down. I know from experience that taking insults doesn't work. You have to get them back, somehow, or it will lead to problems.

The trouble with Ignoring the Insults

I agree in a sense that if you react to a mischievous or aggressive insult that they have got reaction that they wanted, these people won't change, they are who they are and our version of "that’s not right (fair)", can and will hurt our feelings and there lies the problem. It's our feelings of self-worth that they are damaging, under minding etc. and that isn't good, it can drive you to distraction, cause sleepless nights or arguments with your loved ones, real friends or family because you are embarrassed by being the victim, being bullied the feeling of helplessness etc. In my experience these people have either have large ego's that need topping up or have low self-esteem and as they are no good at in-depth talk or have any real feelings, they live for this chaotic world they create which feeds them by verbally attacking their victims, generally people whom they have little or no respect for in life, it makes them feel good. I agree some people you could ask why are you so nasty etc. but this gives them another opportunity to have the floor, centre of attention, to argue and to try and put you down as you are on your heels and they've got a result. I think it is best to treat it as a mind game or exercise, to treat this person with the contempt they deserve and pay them no credence what so ever, and think why are you allowing them into your life, surround yourself with people that like you for who you are, and practice at loudly ignoring these people. One tip I found useful is, that whenever these people talk, immediately they finish change the subject totally, as though what they have just said was of no importance, this sends out a strong message of to use the latest phrase "hmm that was interesting, NOT", and making them feel unimportant, i.e. you’re not really listening to them or their opinions etc. You can change this back at anytime when they are starting to respect you. This to me is a coping strategy and helps you deal with these people if you have to interact with them, but if their attitude does carry on, it will erode your feeling of self-worth and makes life a constant battle of which it is already hard enough, in other words try to time limit these people in your life as they NEED YOU more than you need or want them, ask yourself what are you getting out of this friendship, and if nothing, move on, as life’s too short to have these type of people in your life, and you deserve better.

Reply to comment | Psychology Today

At this time I am going away to do my breakfast, after having
my breakfast coming yet again to read additional news.


My first thought is that we need to be in a place of self-actualization prior to not being affected long-term by an insult. I think it is dehumanizing for someone to verbally insult another so that, in itself, takes us back a moment when we are on the receiving end of the insult.

Also, I think most insults are conducted by individuals to serve a selfish purpose...most notably, to draw attention to themselves. "Aren't I witty" or "I'm feeling like crap today so am going to verbally attack another...(because I can't maturely express my emotions or just haven't learned)".

In either case, do you want to be around someone who is dehumanizing and/or immature (assuming they are not a child)? How can we then grow? How can an organization with a team member as such grow?

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Neel Burton, M.D., is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England.


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