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December 21, 2020
by Ruth Gordon, MA, MSW, LCSW

Insults — Why They Hurt

December 21, 2020 19:38 by Ruth Gordon, MA, MSW, LCSW  [About the Author]

Even if someone that we do not know insults us, it is likely that our feelings get hurt.  Why?  That individual doesn’t even know you.  Why grant creditability to strangers? 

Some of that has to do with the way people are raised.  As a rule, caretakers instruct young mortals to be nice, fit in, always continue your efforts to gather increasing numbers of friends  (“the right kind”) into your group.  This works for some, but not for all.  While it would be imprudent to counsel someone to intentionally antagonize others, it is also poor judgement to believe that the judgment of others define an individual’s worth.

A herd mentality can be useful in certain settings.  But, how to find one’s own bliss?,which philosopher, Joseph Campbell, instructs us to seek out and follow.  How does one do that when one’s reactions and beliefs are tied to rules defined solely by others.  Basing one’s value system only on the expectations of others,  the individual’s right to plan his/her own destiny is abrogated and the crucial and essential ability to think for oneself is wiped out. 

It appears that those who live lives that they, themselves, believe have been full and satisfying, have managed to question the rules of commonality and to pick, for themselves what is useful, comfortable, and inspirational.  The  flexibility to embrace or reject outside experiences and trends is alive in the people who are able to accomplish this.

To be sure, those who are especially creative in their approach to life, pay a price.  Always.  The “one that is not like the others” stirs up longings in many who stick by the rule book.  One must decide for oneself how far to embrace the position of an outlier.  Whichever road one follows will bring both delight and pain — the sojourn through life consistently provides obstacles and rewards.  Even those who are most cocksure about the “rules’ to follow and which to discard, find disappointment, and what looks like failure and loss, along the way.

Given the nature of human beings it is not surprising that much attention is paid to the appraisal of others.  But, suppose the opinions of others is cruel, wrong, or irrelevant?  Why would a ballerina take cues from a banana?

The point of all of this is that regardless of the strength and expanse of those who do not agree with one on an ideological basis, one need only to follow one’s own beliefs, to live a life that feels like the right fit.

So, what’s the big deal when insults are hurled? If an individual is, intentionally, attempting you make you feel less than, you can discount much, or all, of what that person has to say.

Zeno of Citium, a philosopher in the 3rd century B.C., founded the society of Stoicism.  Basically, the philosophy was that as long as one lived a life of virtue, outside influences were irrelevant.  Stoicism, virtually, protected one from insults and misdeeds that others hurled.

The belief was that learning to deal with those who are difficult teaches an individual how to avoid anger. Executing deeds one is afraid of teaches courage.They concluded that the world is an unjust place.  They postulated that the world was divided into two parts:  What can be controlled and what cannot.  Followers are schooled, when criticized,  that it is often helpful to shrug off said insult.

Stoics emphasized that one always has a choice to regard oneself either as a target or a victim.  Clearly, the target may more easily be able to avoid the onslaught. The interpretation of the situation is paramount To live a peaceful life, an individual must examine his/her own values and strategies and choose the path that minimizes harm.

At times an insult can feel especially painful.  Often one is rendered speechless.  That is not so bad.  It allows the receiver to think about his/her desired response.  Take the time to evaluate the attempts aimed at invoking shame before retaliating. Is it worth it?  Sometime yay and sometimes nay. It is acceptable to mentally erase what was said if it leads to genuine peace of mind. The choice to walk away is not an indication of weakness. Try to remember that bullies operate from a position of pain. 

When emotions flood an individual it is just about impossible to think clearly.  Despite what one has been taught, no one is liked by everyone.  Evaluate if those who harass are important in your life.  Take time to figure this out.  If an angry individual attempts to get under your skin, why give that person the satisfaction of an intense reaction?  

The objective on the part of the bully is to reduce your confidence in your social status within a group.  The bully believes his/her status rises as yours falls.  Why surrender to these desperate attempts?

Many who have studied the effects of social media on the individual, have concluded that a lot of thoughtless and malicious verbiage is hurled at those considered to be vulnerable.  There have been numerous suicides among teens, especially, who have been intentionally chosen to receive these insults. 

An opinion is simply that — an opinion.  Just because someone says or believes something doesn’t mean it is true.  When one can clearly recognize the absurdity of the insult, and laugh at it, it will deflate the disrespect that has been thrown your way.  Remember, If you give no credence to the remark or the antagonizer, you will deflate his/her balloon.

At the end of the day, maintaining your sense of self-respect and worth is far more important than an engagement with the offender. Learning how to deal with difficult people will serve you well throughout your lifetime.  It may be a boss, a teacher, a significant other, or a peer.  Collect some strategies, so that if you are taken by surprise, your will feel confident with your response.

If you don’t buy into what is being said, the insult will have no meaning.  If you do think part of it is true, figure out if that is correct and if there is something you can do.  No one is all good or all bad. The world, mostly, operates in shades of grey.







Barber, N, Ph.D. (11/21/16) “The Psychology of Insults” psychology


Irvine, W ((03/08/13)  “Why Insults Hurt — Andy Why They Shouldn’t”


Irvine, W. (11/19/16) “Insult Pacifism: a Reply to Eric O. Schott”


Jafri, S.  “Why Mentally Strong People Seldom Respond to Insult” lifehack.crg


Ketan, P. What to do When Someone Insults You:  10 Powerful Ways”


Still, A.  “Dealing With Verbal Attacks:  6 Ways to Take The Sting Out of an Insult”  

About the Author

Ruth Gordon Ruth Gordon, MA/MSW/LCSW

I bring with me +30 years of experience as a clinician. My Masters degrees are from: Assumption College, Worcester, MA, Master of Arts in Psychology & Counseling/ and Boston University School of Social Work, Boston, MA, an MSW in Clinical Social Work. This is the 11th year I have written a monthly newsletter that is sent to approximately 500 individuals. The archive can be found on my website,

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