What to Do and What to Say When Someone Insults You

There are several ways on how to respond when someone insults or offends you. Some choose to ignore the person and walk away; some will try to resolve it with calm words, while others might get physical in return which is not always an effective response.

According to experts, here’s what to do and what to say when someone insults you.

Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD

Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios

Certified Psychiatrist, TheMindFool

The solution depends upon who insulted you, the social situation you’re in, and how you felt

Someone must have annoyed you with their harsh talks and backbiting spree at some point in your life. Right?

At times you may have reacted instantly by showing your anger or disappointment, while in some other situation, you kept silent to show that you did not like what they said or did just now. These are very common social situations that we all come across quite frequently in our daily lives.

The solution depends upon:

  • who insulted you
  • the exact social situation you’re in
  • how you felt at that particular moment

If someone close to you insults you, a family member, or a dear friend, it is advisable not to react instantly and start a fight with them. It is better to stay calm for the time being and see whether similar insults are happening again or not.

If it happens once in a while, you can let it go, but if it becomes a regular affair, you need to do something to stop its occurrence again.

It is harder to deal with the insults coming from family members because you share a deep emotional connection with them. Even if you do not like what they said or did, you may find it hard to handle these insults in the first go.

If some unknown person or just an acquaintance insults you, you may retaliate instantly and show your displeasure and disgust easily. How to do it then?

Some self-help tips can help:

  • Let the person know that they have crossed the boundary and you did not like it. You can use humor and defend your opinion in the best possible way. Tell them calmly that you will not tolerate this same behavior going ahead.
  • If it is a close family member or a good friend of yours, you can ask them whether they could have used some other word or did something else to tell you what they have said just now. This is an indirect attack letting them know that you’re annoyed.
  • Avoid showing anger, fights, bad mouth while dealing with insults, no matter with whom you are confronting. Anger can seem to be an easy reaction in such situations, but it will do more harm than good. Anger can lead to verbal fights and squabbling and end relationships forever.
  • Stop making instant reactions. Be calm and composed and try to handle situations peacefully.
  • If you come across someone who has a habit of insulting others, it is desirable to avoid such people because they are by nature toxic, and no matter how well you explain them, they will never change and will repeat the same abusive patterns in the future as well.
  • Directly talk to the person and tell them to stop it right away. These are for people who are nagging and derives pleasure from hurting others. If you do not like it, just communicate clearly that you want them to stop it right away. You will not tolerate it any further.
  • Another direct way is by insulting and hurting them directly by saying harsh things or mocking them about their weak points in front of others. It helps them to know that what they did with you was not right. Use the same level of intense insult if you’re following this tip. The immediate result will be they will stop instantly because they were not prepared for such a response from you. They were not expecting it from you.
  • Sometimes you need to think twice before you backfire because they may have insulted you for a good reason. Ask yourself whether you are at fault somewhere:
    • Why did they insult you?
    • Was it a constructive insult been delivered for a good purpose?
    • Maybe to change some bad habits of yours?
    • Use your own analogy before reacting to the situation immediately. If the insult comes from parents, relatives, well-wishers, teachers, then you need to analyze the situation closely before reacting to the insult.
  • Be positive and never become too emotional at the moment. Rather try to understand their mind as well. If it is an unknown person, you may show your immediate displeasure, but if it is someone close to you, be collected and listen to their logic about why they insulted you. Good communication can go a long way to settle disputes and negate negative feelings that crop from being insulted by others.
  • You need to pay less attention to the words that they said, rather look for the feelings that led to such sayings. Then only will you be able to handle things peacefully.

Cheri Timko, M.S., LPC

Cheri Timko

Relationship Coach, Synergy Coaching

Don’t let them bait you into saying or doing things that you won’t be proud of the next day

Relationships are hard. It is so easy to say the wrong thing. You can be an expert communicator, and you will still have trouble communicating sometimes.

Being in a relationship with anyone, even causally, means that you are at risk of getting hurt by what the other person says. This risk is unavoidable. You can’t be close to another person without possibly getting hurt by them.

So what happens when they say something that feels insulting or hurts you?
How do you stand up for yourself and preserve the relationship if it is important to you?

Tips for handling when someone insults you:

  • Ask yourself how important this relationship is to you. If they are a stranger, you will probably respond differently than if they are a close friend.
  • Ask yourself what the impact of responding will be. You might choose a different response if they will listen rather than ignore you or blow you off. There is nothing worse than trying to address an issue with a friend who then blames you for the situation.
  • Ask yourself how much you will regret staying quiet or speaking up. Sometimes the way to respond depends much more on what we will regret doing or not doing rather than other factors.
  • Ask yourself how you will feel about this in the future. If this is something you won’t care about in an hour, a week, or a month, it probably doesn’t warrant much attention now.
  • If you know the person well, ask yourself what their likely intent was. Did they mean to insult you?

Sometimes we hear comments as more critical than the other person meant. You can still address what they said even if you can see that they didn’t mean to be insulting. But, it is good to remember that they might not have to have hurt you.

After checking in with yourself with these questions, there are several options to respond:

  • You might address the issue with the other person in hopes that they will clarify what they meant or apologize for hurting you.
  • You might decide to let this go because the other person will not respond in a helpful way or because you can see that their intent was not as harsh as their statement.
  • You might limit your relationship with them if you believe they are not emotionally safe to interact with.

All of these are viable choices, and each is likely to have a different outcome. If you decide to speak up, consider these tips:

  • Address the issue soon after it happened.
  • Take deep breaths or remind yourself that you are going to be okay, so you remain calm.
  • Consider asking for clarification before reacting to the insult.
  • Focus on how it impacted you rather than criticize or blame the other person even if they were completely in the wrong.
  • Set a clear boundary about where you stand on this kind of statement.
  • Keep the conversation short unless the other person is willing to engage in a deeper conversation about the issue.

It is hard to deal with other people’s bad behavior. It is just as hard to stay within your integrity when addressing it. Don’t let someone else bait you into saying or doing things that you won’t be proud of the next day.

If they can’t hear your complaint, you might need to resort to distancing yourself from them. Emotionally, if not also physically.

Howard Rankin Ph.D.

Howard Rankin

Communication and Cognitive Neuroscience Expert | Host, How Not to Think Podcast | Author, ”I Think Therefore I Am Wrong

Remember that someone yelling insults is bankrupt: emotionally, logically, and spiritually

Emotional intelligence is an essential life skill critical to success, health, performance, and many other positive aspects of life, like happiness. However, it is a lesson that is not taught in schools unless you are in a performance-based activity, like sports, where managing emotions is essential and, ideally, taught by the coach.

Emotional intelligence affects every aspect of your life and especially your relationships and interactions. It requires the ability to recognize that emotions are important signals about events that are happening.

Unfortunately, many people see these emotional alarms as stressful and annoying and will do anything to turn them off rather than deal with the issues that they are highlighting. This is especially true when dealing with anger.

Anger comes on the perception that you have been treated unfairly, and without emotional control, it leads to yelling, screaming, and even physical abuse.

Freud detailed different types of defense mechanisms and these were subsequently organized into four categories.

  • Insults are what might be called “immature” defense mechanisms, ineffective ways of dealing with emotional discomfort.
  • Other ineffective defenses include “pathological” and “psychotic” defenses. These are all signs of lack of emotional control and basically show that the person has no rational basis or argument. The only way they can succeed in this situation is to incite the other person to be similarly “immature” (or “pathological” or “psychotic”).
  • However, if the other person refuses to be drawn into this way of interacting, they are showing much greater personal control, self-awareness, and emotional regulation. They might demonstrate some of the other “mature” defenses, like humor.

Many of the mature defenses are based on virtue, like respect, kindness, and humility, none of which are displayed by the out-of-control person yelling insults. Such emotional control is the basis of wisdom.

An insult says less about you and more about them.

I have an autistic son, and one day during the Christmas holiday season, when he was a child, we were in a Toys R Us store. At one point, he sat in the middle of the aisle, surrounded by wonderful, spectacular gifts. But he was in his own world, flapping his fingers and staring off into space, oblivious of the treasures that surrounded him.

I was a few feet away from him, and as I looked up, I saw two teenagers standing at the end of the aisle, mocking him, laughing, and copying his hand movements. Then before I knew it, a woman came up to me and, in a very sympathetic fashion, and recognizing my son’s condition, consoled me in an extremely supportive and caring way.

At that moment, I realized that my son, like any untypical person, is really a mirror that reflects the souls of people who interact with him.

This inspired me to think of the disabled, or any out-group, as God’s Secret Shoppers, divine examples who have come to test your integrity and virtue. It was one of many wonderful insights my son has given me over the years.

It is important to remember that someone yelling insults is bankrupt: emotionally, logically, and spiritually.

Amy Launder

Amy Launder

Registered Psychotherapist and Counsellor, The Awareness Centre

Take a moment to collect your thoughts and present your case to the other person

It can be really hard to keep a cool head when you feel that someone has insulted you. Your immediate reactions might be to lash out or to turn inwards and take the insults to heart. However, taking a moment to distance yourself from the insult, and the person who has insulted you, can make all the difference.

As Viktor Frankl said, “between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

When we react on instinct, either by lashing out or by internalizing the insult, we lose our sense of control and our sense of self, and, ultimately, the person who insulted you wins. If you are able to take a deep breath and take a step back (literally or cognitively), you are giving yourself that space that Frankl talks about.

In that space, you can start to look at the bigger picture:

  • Was the insult really about you, or is the other person trying to make themselves look or feel better?
  • Is the other person insecure and lashing out?
  • Did they mean for it to be an insult, or did they think they were providing constructive feedback?

When you’ve taken that momentary space, you have more control over how you respond. You can choose to be insulted, or you can choose to rise above it. You can choose to lash back out at the insulter, or you can choose to walk away from that person.

If the person who has insulted you often insults you, it is perhaps time to have a conversation with them about why they are doing this and how it is impacting you. They might not realize that what they are saying is insulting to you – they might think they are providing constructive feedback.

Having this conversation will be beneficial to keep a cool head and try not to get too heated.

Take a moment to collect your thoughts and present your case to the other person. Rather than being accusatory, initially, it is perhaps better to give them the benefit of the doubt and to ask them if they realize they are hurting you.

If you attack someone, they are likely to become defensive and attack back, but if you approach someone calmly, you are more likely to get a proper discussion going.

If you’ve had this conversation and nothing has changed, or it has become apparent that they are indeed insulting you on purpose, it is time to step away from that friendship/relationship to protect your own mental health.

Miriam Ruth Bowers-Abbott, MA

Miriam Abbott

Associate Professor, Communication & Conflict Management, Mount Carmel College of Nursing

Take a moment to understand the context and the speaker’s intent

First and foremost, it’s important to seek clarification. I find that many times, an offense is taken where none is intended. This is especially true in our multicultural world. For example, some international cultures find heft to be an attractive feature.

So a member of that culture might say, “Ooooooh, you’ve gotten so nice and fat!”

In my culture, this statement would be beyond insulting; it would be horrifying to many people. But if we take a moment to understand the context and the speaker’s intent, which was to say that we looked robust and healthy, we can appreciate more humor in the situation.

Truly, haven’t we all said something that was taken the wrong way at some point in time? This often happens in email as well – it’s hard to communicate tone, sarcasm, or intent in text. If we assume positive intent and engage while seeking clarification, we might find that many “insulting” comments weren’t intended as such.

How to clarify intent

It’s not hard to seek clarification in a very neutral, non-combative, non-judgmental way. It’s truly a matter of asking a simple question:

“Can you tell me what you mean when you say (the thing that sounded like an insult)?” This open question works in just about every context.

The best response is a curt statement

Sometimes, though, it’s clear that an insult was delivered with intent.

Asking for clarification can still be helpful, as it may prompt reconsideration and retraction of the insult. But if the insult is intentional, and the speaker doubles down, the best response is a curt statement:

“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Timothy Yen, Psy.D.

Timothy Yen

Licensed Clinical Psychologist | Author, “Choose Better: The Optimal Decision-Making Framework

Take a curious and somewhat non-defensive posture

In therapy, this kind of response is called a “process comment.” You are simply sharing what is happening without any judgment. For example, let’s say that someone said, “I think you have terrible taste in fashion.”

Instead of getting defensive and either fighting back, “well, I think you are ugly,” or being passive by saying, “yeah, I suppose you are right,” a process comment would sound something like, “It seems like you are trying to insult me. Is that right?”

You can pile on a little more guilt by adding, “That comment was really mean. Are you trying to hurt me on purpose?” These process comments force people to pause and do a further evaluation of their words. If you are lucky, it may even help people become more decent human beings.

Jephtha Tausig, PhD

Jephtha Tausig

Licensed Clinical Psychologist | Clinical Instructor at Mt. Sinai Medical Center

This depends upon whether you want to make an issue of the insult or not

Sometimes, not taking an insult seriously is the most effective way to respond (i.e., “oh, you know he/she/they always say silly things”). It allows you to assign less or no weight to the insult, possibly even the person themselves.

However, if you decide that it is important to take up the insult (i.e., it is worthy of a response), then consider what sort of response you want to make. Do you want to use humor, sarcasm, factual evidence, etc.?

This may depend upon the person who has made the insult, as well as any audience you or they may have. It’s also important to consider the likely reaction(s) you may get from the person themselves and any others.

Robin Stebbins, R.N.

Robin Stebbins

Psychiatric R.N. | MBA Certified Wellness Coach, PurifyWithin

Do not respond verbally until you feel safe to respond from the heart and not in rage or anger

First, and foremost when you are insulted, stay calm. If you feel fight or flight within your body, do not respond verbally until you feel safe to respond from the heart and not in rage or anger, as this will only serve to solidify their conviction in the insult.

Second, see if you can find some truth in it. Did they say you are lazy or late? Are you late?

If the insult was egregious, take a deep breath, look the person directly in the eyes and ask them if their intention was to insult you. If not, explain how their words affected you and see if you can come to a better understanding.

However, if it was meant to be cruel or mean-spirited, you can simply say, “I’m sorry you feel so bad about yourself that this is how you see others. That must be very difficult to see the world with such a negative view. I chose to see the good in others, and I forgive you, but your words say more about you than me. I wish you peace.”

Dara Connolly

Dara Connolly

Confidence Coach | TEDx Speaker | Author

Remain calm and unemotional

Use the “DIS” acronym. As in, don’t let that person “dis” you.

  • D– stands for being direct with them. Whenever someone insults you, you want to respond with a short, unemotional phrase while stating their name to show confidence. For example, “John, when you call me a btch…”
  • I– follow the next sentence with a short, non-dramatic “I feel” statement without expressing emotion. For example, “…I feel disrespected– especially after all I have done for you.”
  • S– finish your statement by telling the person the action step you want them to take. “…From now on, I would like for you to only say my name and refrain from the name-calling.”

The most important way of responding to any negative comment is to remain calm and unemotional. If you get upset, you simply gave that person (the jerk) all of your power.

In some cases, it’s best to ignore the comment entirely and walk away– and refrain from giving a rude hand gesture.

For example, if you are in a situation where someone is in your face very angry, yelling at you, and you feel threatened they may hurt you, it is not a good idea to address the situation at that time. Tell them you will speak to them later after they calm down and get away from the scene if you can.

A dangerous or out-of-control person is not going to listen to what you say at that moment, so it’s best to avoid the conversation until later.

Sabrina Victoria

Sabrina Victoria

Certified Mentor | CEO and Owner, Human Better 365

Enduring a 13-year narcissistic relationship, I became really good at deflecting insults since that was 50% of our conversations (if we can even call them that).

First, I would like to notate that the worst thing to do is to let the insult offend or create any sort of negative energy within you. People who insult others are purposefully looking for a reaction. Giving the insulter a reaction gives them joy.

Related: How to Not Let Things Bother You

When you refuse to give a reaction to the insult giver, you are winning. Remember, you always have a choice to react or not react.

Laugh and pretend like the insult was supposed to be a joke

There are a few ways that worked for my situation. One of the best ways was to laugh and pretend like the insult was supposed to be a joke. Many times, the insult giver is so confused the incident diffuses.

Depending on the person, you might be able to even jokingly say something back to the insult giver to poke at them.

Say “I know” no matter what they say

The second way I would use is to simply say, ‘I know,’ no matter what they say.

When you give in to their insult and agree with it, you are doing the exact opposite of what they are expecting. People who shoot insults are looking to hurt feelings and strike up emotions. If you show no emotion and agree with the individual, the insult giver can do nothing.

If you continue to stand strong using these tactics, the insult giver will eventually give up and find an easier target.

Kate Chapman

Kate Chapman

Broadway Veteran and Life Coach

“I know you are, but what am I?”

Insulting someone is emotionally childish, so depending on the childishness of the insult, I’m known as a 51-year-old to retort, “I know you are, but what am I?” It’s a classic childhood phrase of mine that I think is more spot-on than I ever could grasp as a kid.

When we start picking someone apart, what we’re really doing is looking at the mirror image of a human being displaying something we don’t like about ourselves.

Rather than address it on our own (because, let’s be honest, what fun is that?), we project our issues with ourselves onto another. So, when someone insults me, even if I don’t say it out loud, “I know you are, but what am I?” is always running through my brain.

That phrase helps me not to take an insult personally. It’s really just information from the other person about what they don’t like about themselves.

Related: How to Not Take Things Personally

“I’m curious. Can you please say more about your opinion of…?

Most of the time, my response to an insult is to say, “I’m curious. Can you please say more about your opinion of…?” For example, if someone insults an outfit I choose to wear, I might also say:

“For starters, what did you specifically mean when you called me a “bag lady?” I want to know where I’m succeeding and where there is a need for improvement. I’m reaching for Bag Lady Chic. So, please, say more.”

There is something about asking someone to expand on their meanness that causes an understanding in them about what they’ve just said.

DEI trainings are currently educating people on “First Thought, Second Thought,” an idea that states that we are not responsible for the First thought that comes into our head. It is a programmed response that regurgitates itself as it was taught by society.

However, the Second thought we have is actually the one we need to regard. Second thoughts are the thoughts that actually define who you are at your core. Those are the thoughts you have about the First thoughts.

Second thoughts allow us to decide which action to take, based upon our actual inner values, not the ones foisted upon us by society. Teaching one another to allow the First Thought to remain unvoiced is an incredibly kind gift to give.

“Think before you speak” is an oldy but a goody, and it needs to come into fashion today.

Say “ouch” while looking directly into the insulter’s eyes

Sometimes, when I am able, I simply say, “ouch!” while looking directly into the insulter’s eyes. To be honest, this usually is met with a defensive response like, “I’m just joking! Can’t you take a joke?”

So then, I can say, “I’m sorry, where’s the punchline? I love jokes. Can you please explain this one to me? You’re right, I didn’t get it.”

This is usually where the conversation ends, with the insulter slinking away. They know there isn’t any “joke” to get. They also know they weren’t being funny; they were being mean.

When meanness gets pointed out in a diffused, non-combative way, it usually leaves a lasting impression – for both parties. The power dynamic completely shifts for the recipient of the insult, too. Rather than being the victim of another’s bullying, they are in the driver’s seat, illuminating the aggressor’s inability to back up their words with any meaningful exchange.

“Are you calling me fat?”

And, when all else fails, in my circle, we say, “Are you calling me fat?” It works every time. That question, asked with an earnest face by any woman in Western culture, causes a rip in the Time/Space continuum. Instantly.

My friends and I have been doing this for years. To each other, even. And it’s always effective.

These techniques all need a Second Thought response from me. My impulse, when assaulted by an insult, is to attack back in some way. But there’s no power there. And there certainly isn’t a space for learning.

If I am practicing my own ability to filter out what’s Culture and what’s Nature speaking, I can be more kind-hearted. Sometimes an “insult” is just someone’s way of trying to make a connection, but they’ve done it really poorly.

If I can recognize the behavior rather than the ignorance of the person in front of me who doesn’t understand how thoughts work, in that case, I can stay kind, open, and perhaps teach another about finding their way to an actual connection.

Joseph Hoelscher

Joseph Hoelscher

Managing Attorney, Hoelscher Gebbia Cepeda PLLC

Smile a big smile and move on while the other guy melts down

Studies show that when people are accused of something, failing to respond or denying the accusation will both make listeners more likely to believe the accuser.

A person who defends themselves has a tremendous disadvantage, more so in a situation where insults are flying, and reason has been left on the runway. Instead, the best response is one I learned from a genteel Southern lady.

As she put it, “Honey, the more they hate you, the more it kills them inside to see you smile.” This takes advantage of another principle of communication. Audiences perceive people as losing an argument when they lose control of their emotions.

So, when I get insulted, I just smile a big smile and move on while the other guy melts down.

Janette Novak

Janette Novak

Confidence Coach | Founder, Believe and Create Blog

Pause, take a deep breath, and remember who you really are

When someone insults you, the first thing you want to do is take a pause and a deep breath. This “mental timeout” gives you the space to process the insulting remark in light of what it was; someone’s thoughtlessness or an attack meant to provoke a reaction.

Your timeout also allows you to ground yourself in the truth; you are a talented, confident, amazing human being, and there’s nothing anyone can think or say about you that could ever change that.

The next best step depends on the situation. Does the insult need a response? More often than not, it doesn’t, which means you can let it roll off you into the abyss where you never think of it again.

If you feel a response is warranted, respond knowing that the insulting person may or may not ever see things from your perspective, but you know the truth of who you are, so their words really don’t matter.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an insult?

An insult is a remark or action intended to cause offense, humiliation, or emotional pain. Insults can take many forms, from name-calling to passive-aggressive comments. They can be directed at individuals, groups of people, or even things.

Insults can be hurtful and damaging and have a negative impact on the self-esteem and well-being of the person being insulted.

If you’re the target of an insult, it’s important to remember that it’s not your fault. Insults say more about the person delivering them than they do about you. Don’t internalize the insult or let it define you. Instead, try to brush it off and move on.

How can insults affect my self-esteem?

Insults can significantly impact your self-esteem, especially if you hear them often or from someone you care about. They can make you feel worthless, inadequate, or powerless. Over time, repeated insults can erode your self-confidence and make you doubt yourself.

If you find that insults are having a negative impact on your self-esteem, it’s important to take steps to protect yourself.

This may mean setting boundaries with people who are prone to insulting you, surrounding yourself with supportive friends and family members, or seeking help from a therapist or counselor.

Remember that you deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Don’t let insults define you or bring you down.

Can insults ever be constructive criticism?

Insults and constructive criticism aren’t the same things. While constructive criticism is intended to help someone improve, insults are intended to hurt or demean.

When someone gives you feedback that feels hurtful or insulting, it’s important to distinguish between the two. Constructive criticism is specific and actionable, while insults are general and aimed at attacking the person, not their behavior.

If you’re unsure whether the feedback you’re receiving is constructive or insulting, try asking for clarification. Ask the person to be more specific about what they’re saying and how you can improve.

If the person is unable to give you specific feedback or continues to make insulting remarks, it’s okay to disengage and seek feedback from someone else.

How can I prevent myself from insulting others?

To prevent yourself from insulting others, you need self-awareness and empathy. Take a moment to consider how your words or actions might impact the other person.

Ask yourself if your comment is necessary or helpful or if it’s just an attempt to hurt or belittle them.

If you find yourself saying something insulting, take a deep breath and pause for a moment. Think about how you’d feel if someone said the same thing to you. If you’re not sure if your comment is appropriate, ask a trusted friend or family member for their opinion.

Remember that treating others with respect and kindness is a reflection of your own character. It’s okay to disagree with someone or express frustration but do so constructively and respectfully.

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