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How to respond to an insult

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These 3 steps can help you be a person of integrity and strengthen your relationships.

I have a lot of flaws. In the interest of transparency, I’d be happy to write out a list for you, but to paraphrase St. John the Evangelist, there aren’t enough books in the world to contain such a list. I’m starting out with this humble admission because I don’t want to sound too arrogant – arrogance being one of my main flaws, by the way – when I claim that I’m fairly good at responding to insults.

Very little that anyone says gets to me anymore, elicits a rejoinder, or causes me to do or say anything I regret. The sad truth is, most priests are good at being insulted, and I’ve learned how to be sanguine over the years by watching older priests whom I admire. People say so many outlandish things to us that, after a while, we become experts at absorbing emotional blows. It isn’t our parishioners, necessarily. Typically, parishioners are lovely; it’s just that priests are an easy target for random people who are angry at God or who have displaced anger at other people. I’ve seen people say absolutely terrible things to priests, and their response was nothing short of saintliness.

I wasn’t born with this skill. I had to learn it. And if I can learn it, you can too. In a way, it’s a strange fact that life has a way of forcing us to learn how to be insulted; it just kind of happens. A person certainly doesn’t have to be a priest to be insulted. We’ve all been insulted. We’ve probably all delivered an insult. It’s the rash statement we wish we could take back the instant it passes over our lips. It happens so often that it’s incredibly helpful to know how to deal with it; otherwise it can ruin families and friendships.

A real insult — the kind that hits home and does lasting damage — is always personal. It attacks a person’s identity, making them out to be fundamentally flawed at the very core of who they are. This is where my flaws become my strengths. I happen to be an extraordinarily self-confident person. This gets me into trouble sometimes, but it also makes me well-adapted to absorbing insults. I never let the insult define me because I know who I am.

Having the self-confidence not to allow the insult become personal is the first step to responding positively. Instead of giving in to self-pity, firing back an angry rejoinder to cover up the hurt, or agonizing over a spiteful comment, remind yourself that insults are often more about the person who is doing the insulting than they are about you. It’s no excuse, but these people are themselves probably upset, doubtful, and hurt. They may feel powerless because of another situation in their lives and you seem like an easy target to help them reassert a sense of control. Who knows? Maybe the insulter knows exactly what they’re doing to you and, for them, it really is personal. For you, it doesn’t have to be. Know who you are.

The second way to respond to an insult follows from the first. If you’re confident in your identity, you can take the substance of the insult calmly and seriously. It may be nothing more than a personal attack, full of falsity and bile. In this case, best to simply move on without thinking about it for another moment. But, sometimes, the insult may have some hidden substance to it that you can use for personal growth.

A great example of this attitude is St. John Vianney. In the year 1818, he arrived at his first priestly assignment in the country parish of Ars, France. He had barely passed his exams in seminary and was not well regarded by his superiors, so they sent him to a sleepy little village where he wouldn’t be able to do much damage. Not long after he arrived, the neighboring priests complained about him, calling him ignorant. They followed up with a petition to the bishop to have him removed, and when the petition accidentally arrived in Vianney’s rectory, he saw the signatures of his brother priests. He saw the insult. He signed his name and personally mailed the petition to the bishop. Vianney knew that – like all priests – he was unworthy of his calling and was willing to take the substance of the insult seriously. He continued to work at growing in wisdom, and eventually became famous for his wise counsel and teaching abilities. He discarded the insult itself, absorbed the substance of it, and turned his weakness into a strength.

The third important step in responding to an insult is taking time to ponder it before making a response. A quick response will inevitably be a poor one, because it will be far more likely to be motivated by a negative emotion. Whenever I’ve responded quickly to words I’ve found offensive, I’ve always regretted it. I’ve learned the hard way to always take a few seconds – or however much time is needed – to ponder a prudent response.

A wonderful example of this is a well-known incident that occurred in 1997, when Steve Jobs was the recipient of an insulting “question” at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference. During the question and answer period, a man began a statement to Jobs by saying, “It’s sad and clear that on several counts you’ve discussed, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” He then concluded with another insult, “Perhaps you can tell us what you personally have been doing for the last seven years.” In response, Jobs stopped and thought for an uncomfortably long time before speaking. He followed all of the steps outlined above. He didn’t take it personally, he took the underlying content of the insult seriously, and after having taken time to think out an appropriate and reasonable response, he spoke. The manner in which Jobs responded earned the sympathy and respect of everyone who witnessed it.

Life is too short to waste our energy on returning negativity with more negativity. How you respond to an insult really isn’t even about the other person — it’s about you. You get to define yourself, not anyone else. You get to take the opportunity to extract any constructive advice and use the exchange as opportunity for self-improvement. You get to take the time to ponder how to respond positively, to rise above the fray, to be kind and empathetic. We all have flaws, but those flaws don’t have to drag us down into the muck and mire, because each flaw is an opportunity, each insult an invitation to embrace a challenge. We can be better, and even the most negative interactions we experience are full of opportunities.

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