A partial transcript from a therapeutic session around being insulted, the ‘insult game,’ and how to best respond to such verbal assaults.
Client:…So the argument got a little heated and one person in the group looked at me straight on and said you’re really very stupid, you know…and…I was dumbstruck…I didn’t know what to say…
Counselor: How did you feel?
Client: Not good. It was a bit embarrassing. All that afternoon I thought of nothing but punching them out, throwing them out the window, stomping them on the ground. I didn’t do that of course, but I was…angry. At one point, to try and overcome this feeling, I was telling myself that ‘sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’ But, it didn’t really help.
Counselor: Yeah, well it’s more like ‘sticks and stones can break my bones and words can break my heart.’ Words have power. But, the problem as I hear it is not so much what they said to you and how that made you feel, but that you were not able to respond to them at the moment, to counter what they said to you at that time. You internalized what they said and that was disruptive to you.
Client: Well, what does one say at a time like that, what could I have said?
Counselor: There are lots of ways to respond. In a sense, if you are frozen at the time, from shock, which can easily happen when you are insulted like that, especially with others present, you are not able to respond. You lose your response-abilities. You would need to have some shock resistance, and then a repertoire of comebacks. Being insulted is not uncommon. It can be a form of bullying, of one-upmanship and it can become kind of a game to play, if you know how to play it.
Client: Okay, so how do I play it?
Counselor: The first thing you need to understand is that just because somebody says something to you that is negative or derogatory, that doesn’t mean its true, accurate or factual. Do you think you are stupid?
Counselor: If a little 5-year-old kid came up to you and said you were stupid, would you get angry with them and want to throw them out the window?
Client: No, of course not, they’re just a kid
Counselor: And so, if an adult, a peer, says you are stupid you take it more seriously?
Client: Yeah, I guess so
Counselor: It’s pretty common for us to give over our authority to others. Its something we learn growing up. As children, we almost have to defer to the adults, to the ‘other,’ as an authority. That can carry over into adulthood and, even though we are grown up, we may still tend to defer authority to the other person.
Client: Like thinking they know more than I do?
Counselor: Yes. But, of course, they may not. Now, in the case of being stupid, there are criteria, which determines stupidity. You can objectively determine whether or not a person is stupid. Stupid is not the politically correct term to use these days. It’s more appropriate to use terms such as ‘learning disabled’ or ‘mentally handicapped.” When someone calls you stupid, they are not saying you meet the objective criteria for being learning disabled. They are just trying to put you down, and in so doing, appear to raise themselves up. It’s mean. And, it happens. So, its worth some time learning how to respond to insults.
Client: Okay. I’m game…
Counselor: Well, let’s replay what happened. Let’s say were in a group of people and I look over to you and say ‘you sure are stupid.’ Respond to that, what would you say?
Client: ummm…I would say ‘no, I am not.’
Counselor: And they then say ‘yes, you are!”
Client: ummm…I don’t know what I would say back to them then.
Counselor: Okay. Don’t feel badly; we are not educated in how to respond effectively to insults. But, we can learn. The first thing is to not shy away but to look straight at the person and know that just because they said it does not mean it is true or factual. This is very important. What we hear from others may not be factual, or accurate. You need to remember this because the foundation of the strategy I’m going to suggest is based on the idea that what you hear is not factual or accurate and must be proved to be so. From there, you can begin to take the offensive by asking questions to clarify the statement, which will begin to prove that it is not so. Let’s reverse roles so I can give you an idea of what I’m talking about. You tell me that I’m stupid. I will be you and you will be this person who said you are stupid. Okay?
Client: Okay. So….ummm…’you sure are stupid.’
Counselor: How did you come to that conclusion?
Client: ummm…’you just are.’
Counselor: You have no evidence?
Counselor: ‘If you are saying that I am stupid, I want to hear you prove it. Anybody can say anything but that does not make it so without evidence. What is your evidence?’
Client: Ummm…I don’t know how to respond to that.
Counselor: Okay. I think you can see how you begin to turn this around by taking the offensive and asking specific questions. This is based on what is called ‘evidence-based thinking.’ You take the offensive, and in so doing defend yourself, by being very rational and logical, and calm about it. You ask questions to understand how they arrived at that conclusion, that you are stupid. They won’t be able to and it will become obvious that the statement is groundless, baseless. Another advantage to this approach is that you are not directly defying them. If you were to say ‘no I am not’ they would come back with more force. What we fight against can become even stronger. But, what we accept loses its force. So, by accepting their statement and then inquiring about it, we prevent them from escalating and getting stronger or more insulting.
Counselor: You can frame this kind of question for evidence in different ways. For example, you can ask something like ‘how stupid? On a scale of 1-10, ten being the most stupidest person in the universe, where am I on this scale, according to you?’ Let’s pretend they say ’10,’ which of course is absurd. You then ask, what is the difference between ’10’ and ‘4’? At this point, they might be getting upset because you now have the upper hand. You have asked a question which they likely cannot answer. From your side, it’s all about inquiring about the details, as if you are a detective, and you actually want to understand. You want evidence. You are not opposing what they have said, you are accepting it, and inquiring about it. And, in that strategy will be the demise of the insult.
Client: I see…that will take some practice.
Counselor: yes, it will and you can work with friends; you can play the insult game where you take turns insulting each other and practicing this kind of response which asks specific questions seeking details and evidence as to the validity of the statement as the response to an insult.
Counselor: And remember that underlying this whole topic is the issue of how you perceive others to be an authority. Everybody has opinions and views on things; everybody has beliefs and perceptions. When those opinions, views, beliefs and perceptions are imposed upon you, you don’t have to agree with them. You can question them and then determine if they are valid or not. Consider this quote from American journalist Russell Baker, “An educated person is one who has learned that information almost always turns out to be at best incomplete and very often false, misleading, fictitious, mendacious – just dead wrong.” Throughout our school years, we are rarely taught to think critically. But, that is exactly what is needed to respond effectively to insults, along with a good dose of self-esteem. Stand up for yourself. Do not accept what others say without investigation into the facts, the evidence. For your homework, I’d like you to practice responding to insults. You can write them out as if in a script. Let’s have you do this with two insults. Let’s say somebody calls you ugly, and let’s say somebody calls you fat. How would you respond to those? We will work on that at our next session. Okay?
Client: Okay. Thanks.
Counselor: Did you get a chance to practice responding to insults?
Client: Yeah, with my brother and sister. We actually had a fun time doing it, we were laughing a lot. They are both in sales and have some experience with being insulted, and having to deal with objections a lot so I got a lot of good ideas from them.
Counselor: Excellent. Once you get a handle on this approach, it can be fun and it can be empowering because you really do take control of the situation without fighting against it. You take the energy coming at you and you use it to your advantage. Okay, so let’s play. I will insult you and you will respond as you have practiced. Ready?
Client: Yes, let me have it.
Counselor: ‘You are one of the ugliest people I have ever seen!’
Client: Are you sure about that?
Client: Would you be willing to change your mind if I showed you somebody more ugly than me?
Counselor: There is nobody more ugly than you
Client: How do you know that?
Counselor: I just know
Client: I want proof, give me some evidence; otherwise, I will conclude that you really don’t’ know what you are talking about.
Counselor: You want me to prove that you are ugly?
Client: Exactly, with substantial evidence.
Counselor: Well, I just think you are ugly; I don’t need proof
Client: Well, all that tells me is what you think, not what I am. You can think whatever you want, but that doesn’t make it so.
Counselor: Okay; that is really very good. How do you feel taking that position?
Client: Strong, confident. I feel free and light-hearted, like nothing can get me down. It took a lot of work though, we practiced for hours.
Counselor: Very good. Okay; let’s take the next one. Ready?
Client: Go for it
Counselor: You sure are fat; maybe I should start calling you fatso
Client: Hmmm…well, on a scale of 1-10, ten being the fattest person in the world, where am I on that scale?
Counselor: You’re a 9, fatso
Client: And how did you determine that I am a 9 and not a 6?
Counselor: I just know you are a 9
Client: Who is a 10?
Counselor: Your mother
Client: When did you last see my mother?
Client: Well, you seem to think she’s fatter than me, by one point, when did you see her last to make that determination?
Counselor: All right. I can see you have a handle on this approach. By this time, anybody who is insulting you would stop; they would have nowhere to go; they would be befuddled, and frustrated, and probably leave. You won. You did well.
Client: Thanks. I really got into this idea of evidence-based thinking and the idea of scaling.
Counselor: Good. But, what you really got into was standing up for yourself, not accepting what somebody else says as valid right off the bat, and questioning them. You now have a few tools to question them with. And, I’d like to suggest that for homework you now practice using this approach with compliments.
Counselor: Practice with your brother and sister giving compliments such as ‘you are very beautiful’ or ‘you are so smart.’
Counselor: Consider; we feel great when we get compliments and terrible when we get insults. But, just as insults may not be factual and are based on the perception of another person, to whom we have given some authority, so it is with compliments as well. There is a saying that goes ‘credit and blame smell the same’ meaning that both insults and compliments are the same thing in that they come from outside ourselves. A compliment may be as untrue as an insult, but we like hearing it and it makes us feel good, even if it is not true. So, just for the fun of it, and to get some more practice, use your evidence based thinking approach on compliments. In real life, the best response to a compliment is a sincere ‘thank you.’ And, the best response to an insult is the inquiry as to its validity. But, ultimately, both insult and compliment, are coming from an external source and, in that regard, suspect. Make sense?
Counselor: You are your own authority. What others may say, positive or negative, can be accepted, rejected or questioned. Questioning is a very good practice. It is an intelligent thing to do. As the saying goes, ‘question authority;’ and you can do that in a rational and diplomatic fashion with this approach to evidence-based thinking. As an aside, I can also mention that this insult game can be a particularly healthy thing to do with couples, especially in the earlier stages of a relationship. During that time the compliments are plentiful, and they are important. But, it can also be fun to insult each other, in a playful fashion, and counter them in this way. This can become a kind of inoculation. That is, it can really hurt when somebody with whom we are in a relationship insults us. By playing this insult game with a partner or spouse, we can take the sting out of it, turn it into something more lighthearted. There are times when we are frustrated or angry at our partner or spouse and what better way to express this than to set up a mock insult scene and play it out as we have done here. If done well, it can help resolve tensions and might even bring about laughter.
Client: Interesting. I will definitely keep this stuff in mind. It has been quite helpful. Thanks.
Counselor: You are welcome.