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Responding to Insult with Wisdom

February 22, 2019

Click here to watch a short video synopsis of the following post

Does a week go by when we don’t experience some sort of insult, snide comment, or disapproving glare from family members, friends, or coworkers? The question is: how do we stand up tall and with integrity in the face of such abuse?

A preeminent ethicist, Luzzatto stated: “I’m not coming to teach you novel ideas and concepts that you’ve never heard of before, but rather I’m coming to remind you of what you already know. However, the more you review them, the more they will become a part of your nature and behavior.” I echo this sentiment as I present my 6-step formula for responding to insult with wisdom. I use this in my own life and I encourage my clients to use it too.

Sleep on It

When we experience any form of verbal abuse, the fight-flight-fright-fawn mechanism of the mammalian/emotional brain kicks in. While these automatic responses do serve their purpose, they are not mindful or wise. Our goal is to respond with good sense, not merely react. One antidote is to sleep on it. I call it the 24-hour rule. Or at the very least to commit to waiting an amount of time to allow our emotional energy to dissipate and to think more wisely about what the person said or did. To quote the famous 20th century psychologist, Viktor E. Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” What can that growth and freedom be?

Give the Benefit of the Doubt

Aside from the obvious mishearing or misconstruing of what was said, oftentimes a person’s words or actions, while feeling malicious, are in fact an outgrowth of stress or sadness they may be experiencing in their own lives. The way we ourselves are feeling too can contribute to how a person’s words “land” on us; if we’re feeling happy and positive, the more chance we’ll interpret them in a positive light.  If we’re feeling bitter and disgruntled, then the greater likelihood that we’ll read into them insult and rejection.  The goal is to use the 24-hr space to think about all of the above to re-frame what was said or done in a way that may be less negative or denigrating.

Here’s a useful ABCD exercise that may help. Identify:

A = Activating Event
This refers to the initial situation or “trigger” to your strong emotion

B = Beliefs
How you interpret the trigger; what you say to yourself about it

C = Consequences
This is how you feel and what you do in response to your belief system; the emotional and behavioral consequences that result from A + B

D = Dispute
Examine your beliefs and expectations. Are they unrealistic or irrational?  If so, what may be alternative ways to relate to the situation? Understandably all this isn’t always possible and plenty of times people are indeed callous with their words and mean what they say.  What then?

Express Yourself

Yes, it’s important to express how the comment hurt you. Aside from your own self-esteem, and not allowing yourself to be a doormat for others’ anger and disgruntlement about life, it’s also important to afford them the opportunity to own their mistakes and make amends. The big proviso is that you express yourself respectfully in a way that evokes the response you are seeking. There’s much said in psychology about the concept of primary and secondary emotions. Many thinkers state that sadness and fear are primary emotions as opposed to anger and rage which are secondary.  Therefore, when sharing your hurt with another, it’s far more effective to identify these deeper, softer emotions and to express them using “I” statements such as “I’m sad”, “I’m scared” or “I’m in pain.” They can evoke a much more sensitive response from a perpetrator, as opposed to using angry, accusatory, blaming statements such as “you did this” or “you did that” which make people feel defensive and “add gasoline to the fire.”

Sounds great, but life doesn’t always go according to plan. So what recourse is there when you’ve already expressed yourself in the ideal way and you haven’t received the response you hope for?  Stomp off with anger and resentment? It doesn’t have to be that way, for built into the magic of human connection is the concept of…



While a perpetrator bears a responsibility to apologize, to make amends and unburden himself of guilt, the victim possesses a unique power of forgiveness with which to unburden himself of the yoke of resentment. Remembering what we said earlier about people’s own internal turmoil frequently driving their interactions, this can be a starting point to access our understanding and forgiveness. Granted, it may be a tall order in many circumstances but those who have practiced this art even in the face of severe hurt and abuse will attest to its value. However, even if you have triumphed in the art of forgiveness, you may still owe it to yourself to…


Keep Safe Distance

We have to be smart about knowing what kind of people and interactions carry toxic energy. While keeping away permanently is most of the time not an option, we can be mindful of the kinds of interactions and situations that can easily trigger negative results, and steer away from them. A definition of wisdom is the ability to project forward and see the outcome of one’s present action, to know whether to avoid it or engage in it.  This is how to keep safe distance. And finally, keep in mind that…

Peace Is Oftentimes Better Than Being Right

While our sense of justice may drive us to right a wrongful situation, it may be worthwhile to ask yourself whether in this circumstance the value of peace between you and others carries greater weight.


DISCLAIMER: this article and accompanying video does not address severe or complex abuse. 

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