If you choose to practice stoicism be prepared to be laughed at, sneered at, criticised, pulled down and even resented by other people. That’s the price of working on yourself. Those who choose not to do the same work sometimes decide to use you as a target.
- If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things
(Epictetus – The Enchiridion)
Always remember that the insults spring from the other person’s opinion – and opinion is thought. Your private thoughts are your own. The other person’s private thoughts are theirs to manage too. If they choose to make their thoughts public then so be it – they expose their own lack of judgement to the world.
“I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong.”
But in doing so they have exposed nothing of you. Your dignity remains intact – unless you choose to damage it yourself.
“Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”
Others’ judgements of us spring from their thoughts – they are outside our control and therefore not a proper subject to concern us. We can only focus upon doing what is right – let others judge us how they might.
“This above all: To thine own self be true.
And it must follow as the night, the day.
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
(Polonious, Hamlet, Shakespeare)
This is more than just a nice way to remind ourselves not to be troubled by those who would put us down – it’s vital to our emotional and psychological health.
- If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?
(Epictetus – The Enchiridion)
What matters to the stoic is not that he is never ridiculed – but that he is able to think and behave well himself in the face of misfortune, including insult and animosity. Many people find insult and rejection by others almost impossible to bear. This is because they cannot accept the idea that someone might think badly of them. In truth this tendency to dislike insult is probably a trait developed deep in our evolutionary past when rejection from the group almost certainly meant death. So it’s difficult to overcome because it’s something of a default in our species. However that doesn’t mean it can’t be overcome.
The first thing to do when dealing with insult is to decide whether or not what the insulter has said might be true. Sometimes the other person is correct and we really have behaved badly. In that case the proper course of action is to acknowledge the truth, apologise and attempt to make amends if possible.
I recently had occasion to speak to a social worker colleague of mine who I hadn’t seen for 17 years. At our last meeting my attitude was much less professional than I would normally demand of myself. I was dismissive and rude. It’s true that I was experiencing some difficulty myself at the time but that’s no excuse – my problems weren’t her doing and I shouldn’t have inflicted them on to her.
So- at the end of our recent meeting I took her to one side, reminded her of our last meeting and apologised unreservedly. I didn’t explain about my circumstances at the time because that wasn’t relevant. An apology followed by an excuse is only half an apology at best. I had wronged her and she deserved an acknowledgement of that – even after 17 years.
As it happened I didn’t need to remind her – she’d remembered too. That’s the thing about insults or other wrongdoings. People remember so it’s important to put things right when we can.
I made my remarks about our last meeting just before leaving. We both had other places to be and hurried off so I genuinely don’t know whether or not she accepted my apology. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I said it. That’s within my power and, quite frankly, 17 years on it’s all that’s in my power. How the other person reacts is her business – not mine.
The second way to deal with insult is to ‘consider the source’. You can learn a lot about an insult by understanding the person who delivers it. Some people will attempt to bring you down not because of any particular fault in you but because that’s the only way they know to find their way through life. It’s not necessarily appropriate to write off everything such people say but it is worth understanding that, in the case of untrue insults, they have merely done what they have to do to survive given their own limited coping skills. They are only able to feel good by putting others down – it just happens to be your turn to be the target.
It’s not necessary for us to feel aggrieved because other people have poor coping skills. If anything the appropriate response would be to help them if we can. Remember….
It could have been worse for you – you could have been them
Instead – be yourself – indeed, be the best version of yourself you can aspire to. Let others do what they do and say what they will. You have no control over that.
Your task is to take charge of the things you can control and acquit yourself as well as you are able, regardless of the judgements of others.
“Be like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm and round it the seething waters are laid to rest.”
(Marcus Aurelius – Meditations)
“35. When you do anything from a clear judgment that it ought to be done, never shun the being seen to do it, even though the world should make a wrong supposition about it; for, if you don’t act right, shun the action itself; but, if you do, why are you afraid of those who censure you wrongly?”
(Epictetus – The Enchiridion)
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