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How to Handle Being Insulted/Bullied

Has there ever been a time when you felt completely disempowered by someone's remarks, embarassed and awash in negative thoughts and emotions?

No matter who you are, no matter what you've been through in your life, you've probably heard some snide remarks, backhanded compliments, or flat-out rude comments at some point.

That's just the way it goes. There are people out there who have nothing better to do than to try and tear people down to their level. There always have been these people and there always will be. As much as I think it is obviously valuable to raise children into adults who aren't cruel and mean, I can't control how people raise their kids - so I think it is is equally as valuable to help others learn how to handle and cope with the insults that they do recieve.

Someone can insult you in a variety of ways: they can talk about you behind your back, whisper about you when you walk by, point and laugh, mimic you, give you a backhanded compliment ("Wow, you're so brave going out in public with a face full of acne"), or they can do more indirect things like make intimidating facial expressions or stare you down.

How to Cope In the Now

People don't start fights for no reason. Think about what it is that they're hoping to get from you and the insult. Are they trying to intimidate you? Are they trying to make you look stupid / incompetent in front of others? Are they expecting you to cry ? Are they trying to start an argument? Think before you react, since you don't want to give them the satisfaction of doing exactly what they sought to make you do.

If someone is insulting you in a public setting, like at school or work, their goal is obviously to raise their own social status and/or lower yours. If someone is approaching you in private to insult you, it's because they want the upper hand to catch you when they feel you will be most vulnerable.

If you feel the insult is ridiculous and absurd and that the insulter is merely trying to get a rise out of you, you can simply let the insulter wallow in their own misery by doing nothing at all. Do not respond at all. Some bullies will take any response as encouragement to continue. By walking away, this takes away the sting of the insult and the power from the insulter. Also consider if there's any truth to the insult - if there is, you have no reason to be offended, why should the truth hurt? You need to come to terms with whatever that truth is. If there is no truth, then it doesn't deserve a second thought. If you ignore it, and continue to carry on your merry way completely unabashed, what effect does the insult have? There's a quote in the story of Buddha that goes, If someone gives you a gift and you refuse to accept it, to whom does the gift belong? When someone insults you, that is their gift to you, and if you refuse to accept their gift, you refuse to let it affect you.

Sometimes though, walking away or not responding can feel like you're caving in and showing weakness. This is especially true if you ignored the initial insult and the person persists. In this case, you may prefer to respond, without anger, without showing any sadness or intimidation. I personally prefer to call the person out on their actions. Ask them "What's wrong with you?" or tell them "I feel sorry for you, that you need to insult/pick on/intimidate others to feel better about yourself". This can shift the attention from you to them, and it can shame them publicly for their actions. Obviously this response holds more weight in a public setting; bullies generally feel more shame in public than they do on their own. Even if they don't feel remorse for their actions, continuously shifting the attention back to them will likely irritate them because they aren't getting a rise out of you.

In certain situations you may feel like going the other way - being overly friendly. If someone insults your sense of fashion, for example, or comments on your hair style you could throw them off by acknowledging their opinion and asking where they get their clothes/where they get their hair done. Even if you have no intention of changing, it will at the very least throw them off their train of thought and they'll likely walk away from the situation feeling less than satisfied in their efforts. This also shows the insulter that you are capable of being objective and are non-confrontational. This may show them you're not an acceptable "target". It's hard to insult someone who accepts their flaws, acknowledges them, and is willing to work on themselves.

Or maybe you'd prefer to handle the situation with a different kind of good humor. If someone is trying to hurt you with an insult, it can help to imagine that they’re just a child. Because, in reality, insults are childish and that makes the insulter childish (meaning they're too immature to know better, poor things). If you’re out at the mall and a toddler comes up to you and calls you a stinky head, you’re probably not going to take the insult seriously, and you'll brush it off as childish antics. You should do the same for tormentors and bullies. Give them a smug grin; let them know you heard their comment loud and clear, and you're not offended. You can do this with a silent and stoic stare, or you can be verbal - "Are you trying to offend me, because you're failing miserably".

If you notice you're often targeted when you're alone, try enlisting a friend to walk with you or try to stay in crowded or busy areas. If this isn't possible, try to avoid the places you often run into your tormentor to avoid further confrontation. If your friends are the ones that usually tease you, take a step back and evaluate your relationship with them. Do they mean to make you laugh, or make you feel bad about yourself? Are they teasing you in good humor or are they teasing you because they're really a bully and they're only your "friend" because you serve as a pedestal for them? Perhaps if they tease you so much, you should stop being friends with them. Let them know that their remarks are not appreciated, and see what they say.

If this is becoming a regular thing, you should certainly consider seeking real help - either from an authority figure like a teacher, or a boss, or in some cases if the insults are more like threats, or are increasingly violent in nature, the police. Don't feel like you're telling, don't feel like you're going to be ostracized - the ultimate goal is to ensure this person stops tormenting you. And punitive actions may be the way to make that happen. Sometimes people don't see consequences for their actions and when faced with punishment they tend to back down.

How Not to Cope In the Now

The worst way to respond to an insult or a rude remark is to respond with anger. When we respond to these actions with anger or hurt we show the insulter that we have internalized the insult and that we took it to heart. This gives the insulter power. It also lets the insulter believe that there is truth to the insult - why feel angry or hurt by something that isn't true? If someone calls you ugly you're only hurt by it if you believe you're ugly - believe you're beautiful and perfect in your own way, and suddenly being called ugly falls short as an insult. Not to mention when we react with anger, whether or not we believe the insult to be true, it causes us mental anguish that we don't need to deal with.

Another poor way to respond to an insult is with backlash (although this usually stems from a place of hurt and anger). Even if someone makes a snide remark about your acne and you think of a quick and clever remark about their weight or their hair, it's really just going to open up the flood gates and again, will show the insulter that you have internalized their remark. This will only serve as a reward, or worse, as fuel, for them. Even though you may feel momentarily good, especially if your remark was particularly clever, and especially if you get some kind of applause from your peers, it will at the very least, serve to equalize you with your insulter - this will only bring you down to their level. Clever remarks like these are only reserved in good humor between friends.

Do you really want to stoop to their level? Is that something you can be comfortable with?

How to Cope: Aftermath

It’s certainly normal to replay events in your mind to get a handle on them. Done right, introspection is valuable for personal growth and empowerment. But you need to evaluate whether you're looking back constructively or destructively.

Sometimes we may have handled a situation perfectly well with someone who insulted us. The whole thing went over smoothly and you walked away seemingly unscathed. But the aftermath isn't always as neat. What may not have bothered us at the moment can come back to haunt us later on, where it can do the most damage. We sit and marinate in the things they said, and we begin to feel down on ourselves. We may be good at appearing unscathed by an insult, while in reality we are shaken to our very core. This is not good.

Sometimes in the heat of the moment we don't have time to contemplate whether there's any truth to an insult, and this contemplation comes later when we are alone.

Sometimes we find ourselves taken aback by insults because there’s some truth to them, because they poke at our own insecurities. For example, if you’re losing your hair and someone makes a bald joke, your reaction says more about your insecurities than it does about the insult. If you have a solid foundation of self-assurance and are comfortable with your appearance, you won’t take offense. You need to have that confidence in yourself. If you’re really sensitive about your hair loss, or your weight, or your acne, that’s your issue to deal with. Instead of wishing people would stop mentioning your hair loss, your acne, or your weight (what people do and say is unfortunately out of your control), you need to learn to be comfortable with yourself, with your body (which is within your control). If someone calls me fat and I get offended, this simply means that I am not comfortable with my weight and I should use that insult as a way to explore how I feel about myself, and how to improve my health and my own self image.

Pay attention to your enemies, for they are the first to discover your mistakes. Sometimes insults are tidbits of truth, a truth we may be trying to avoid. We need to stop avoiding truths because they are inconvenient. And once we stop avoiding them, and start accepting them, they lose any sting as an insult. "You're fat" - "Yeah, so what?".

Use these insults you find truth in - you do have acne, you do have a receding hairline, you are overweight - as a positive experience, one you can use to your advantage. This will help you acknolwedge that none of us are perfect and there may be parts of you that you want to work on - and it will also help you handle future criticism more constructively. This will also mean when people insult you, you won't get offended.

Remember, acknolwedging that you need to work on yourself, on a part of yourself you're unhappy with, either your behaviour or your appearance, is not an admission of failure. You do not fail because you need to grow - but you will fail if you refuse to grow. Pain can change you, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a bad change. Take that pain and turn it into wisdom.

Why Do People Insult Others

Although you’ll never know for sure why someone gains pleasure from dishing out verbal abuse, you can make some educated guesses.

Generally speaking, people insult others to feel better about themselves. These are the people who are intentionally malicious, who seek you out to comment on something menial. These people often have a low self esteem but may act confident and cocky in front of others. They may be victims of bullying themselves, and they have internalized that to feel badly about themselves. Somehow they think it is easier to feel better about themselves if they try to bring others to their level - but it never works that way. Our light doesn't shine any brighter by blowing someone else's out. Help them see that.

There are also people who are just plain thoughtless, or unfortunately outspoken. This can stem from cultural differences, as well as different upbringings. I spent some time in Cuba, and it wasn't uncommon for the natives to make a nonchalant remark about how much weight someone has gained. No offense meant, and none taken - it was just a comment that they made as a statement of fact. A comment like that made in North America would be seen as rude, uncalled for, and people would go off on a tandem about how it's nobody's business and so on and so forth. And while it may not be their business, we have to understand that they sincerely may not have intended it to be taken as an insult. It's just the way things are done in their culture.

Sometimes jealousy can play a part. This is especially true of people who are successful; even people we find to be "flawless" like Beyonce are subject to a lot of hate. No matter how much success we have, how beautiful we are, how perfect in every way, how funny and how nice, there will always be someone who doesn't like us. This is something we need to come to terms with very early in life to make ourselves resilient and unoffendable. You'll soon learn that people will always hold grudges against people for seemingly no reason. Someone with red hair stole their dog when they were little so they hate all people with red hair; someone wants a new designer purse but can't afford it so they hate everyone with a designer purse; someone is single and unhappy so they find ways to try and bring happy couples down to their level.

In conclusion, we need never take offense at an insult. Offense exists not in the insult but in our reaction to it, and our reactions are completely within our control. We can't expect someone who is cruel to their core to be anything but cruel, and it is our fault if we take offense to the things they say. Even if you find yourself in a cruel and unfair situation, you still get to choose your response. Nobody can take away that power from you, but too often we surrender it ourselves. Don't surrender your power, your ability to choose how you react to a situation.

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