How to Deal Assertively with Insults

All of us have had the experience of being insulted, and it is most uncomfortable. An insult can easily mess up your day, if not your week. Insulting another person is a form of aggression (unless, of course, it can clearly be defined as banter between trusted friends). When you are insulted, you may silently punish yourself for leaving yourself open to the put-down. Or you may even agree with the insult as if it had validity (“Yes, I should take the tape off these glasses”). Some of us simply cringe occasionally when we remember the put-down and think of it as one of our bad memories. A few lucky people seem to be able to let it go and move on.

Let’s say that someone gives you a verbal insult. In some ways, this type of insult, though painful, is the easiest to deal with because everything is out in the open. For example, you accidentally step on someone’s foot in a crowd, and, to your horror, you hear in an angry voice, “You jerk, can’t you watch where you’re walking?” What is the best way to handle this? First, let the person vent. They are probably having a hard time, and they might be phobic in crowds. So give the person that much. Then, verbally acknowledge the person’s feelings – “Oh, I’m sorry. You must have felt as if I did that on purpose and it upset you.” Admit when you have done something wrong if you receive an insult, even if it is accidental. Now it’s time to be assertive. In a calm voice and with good eye contact, say, “I would appreciate it, however, if you would not call me names in front of other people or shout at me, even if you are upset. I can understand your point without that kind of behavior.” And then bring the encounter to an end.

Sometimes insults are nonverbal. This can be seen with the rolling of the eyes, the silent chuckle as you are talking, pouting, obscene gestures, staring off into space, sighing. This type of insult is more difficult to handle because it is easily denied or it could simply be a mannerism of the other person. The aim in this case is to bring the nonverbal communication into the verbal realm. “Did I say something to offend you?” “I am having difficulty understanding your gesture. Could you please explain what you mean?” It is fair to you to get feedback if you have indeed said or done something to offend the other person. But now the confrontation is in the verbal realm, and the assertive responses appropriate to verbal insults can be applied.

Dr. Baya Mebarek, Psy.D., LMFT

San Diego Couples and Family Therapy serves the surrounding areas of Sorrento Valley Road as La Jolla, UTC San Diego, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Penasquitos, Poway, University City and Escondido.