Insults are gifts that we don’t have to accept

by Leah McClellan

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Insults as gifts

It’s been a long time since I realized that how people treat me is one thing, their thing. How I choose to react—or not—is another. My thing.

The two are closely connected, of course, and sometimes seem almost indistinguishable. He gets me so mad. She drives me crazy. My boss drives me up a wall. Say that again and I’ll rip you a new one.

But other people don’t force us to respond in any particular way or even respond at all. Our emotions, our responses, and our reactions are choices, even if the behavior of others triggers them. Sometimes reactions are pleasant.

You make me feel so good. You make me feel like a natural woman… To listen and watch the video on YouTube, click here.

Hard to argue with the likes of Aretha Franklin, but if someone doesn’t have a capacity to feel good or “like a natural woman,” then no one can “make” anyone feel a thing.

The fact that we make choices doesn’t mean it’s always easy to make conscious choices, though, especially when someone “makes” us mad.

Someone in my life recently said unexpectedly hostile, hurtful things.

I was surprised, but I didn’t react in any strong way, not only because I hardly know the person, but also because I wasn’t sure how to understand or interpret what was said.

The person used a light or calm tone—sometimes teasing or just a smiling, wise-ass sort of attitude—which almost always takes me off guard. It’s passive-aggressive, and it’s not intended to be in your face. It’s meant to be subtle.

Some of the smirks, sounds like pffft after repeating a word I’d said, and dismissive shrugs and waves of the hand were a little more obvious. Alone, none of them were very bad, so it took some time for me to put the puzzle together.

My body always registers the hostile energy, though, and I feel it on some level. I’m aware of it, conscious of it even if I continue on with the conversation, taking messages at face value, not taking offense. And I could tell something was up, something I wasn’t comfortable with even though I couldn’t make sense of it on a cognitive level, not right away. It’s almost a sixth sense. I like to call it my Bullshit Detector.

In this particular situation between strangers, any sort of hostility was completely inappropriate.

I discussed it briefly, explained that I needed to be treated with a little more respect, and there was some admission and explanation in return—to an extent. But it continued, and I was completely puzzled.

Clearly, this person had a bug up his ass, and I sure hadn’t put it there.

This was a total stranger, a businessperson, a professional hired, in a sense, in that professional capacity.

I finally ended things in a polite, compassionate way and let it go, but my pesky little brain rehashed everything that was said or done. It seemed so bizarre, almost as if I might have reminded this person of someone in the past.

I gave it a lot of thought, and the more I thought, the angrier I got.

Some of the things that were said and done were downright insulting, and my brain struggled to make sense of each and every one.

Because of my mindfulness practice, I’m able to recognize all this hashing out as simple thoughts and emotional reactions that don’t require any action to resolve. They were the mental itches that I wrote about last time, and I knew that. But it was hard to not scratch them, hard to not think of them, and hard to not respond to them.

I alternated between fantasy revenge schemes (like reporting a rude waiter to a manager), a possible obligation to protect others, and reasons why I shouldn’t do a thing.

I let my thoughts run their course.

In between my work that needed 100% concentration, I let my mind come up with every possible notion, knowing I didn’t actually have to do anything in response. I thought it, I felt it, but I didn’t have to scratch the itch. I knew it would eventually go away, unless there really were some valid reason for calm, compassionate action. And if that were the case, it could wait.

Soon enough, the irritation, annoyance, and anger ran out of fuel. I didn’t mention it to anyone, and I didn’t discuss it. Venting for no purpose other than venting only fans the flames, so I just did my best to be aware of my thoughts and feelings even while looking deeply to see why I would feel that way. And soon enough, since I didn’t feed the anger, my mind did its thing and got it all sorted out and filed away.

Thoughts are like that, anger is like that. When we don’t feed anger, and if we let ourselves reason it out against some solid beliefs about the best way to handle things, it finally fizzles. When we stay steady in our convictions—in our practice or beliefs—we can remain resolute.

Anger isn’t a bad thing, though, and we shouldn’t stuff it away.

It can teach us things, or at least steer us in the right direction. When we pay attention to anger, if we “embrace anger every time it manifests,” as Thich Nhat Hanh likes to say, we can take care of ourselves with compassion.

Where I was or who I was associating with wasn’t a good place for me—my anger told me that—though I took care to evaluate the situation in other, more objective ways (if a restaurant is dirty and soup is always cold, do I want to eat there?). It was also an opportunity to examine myself and see where, when, or how those seeds of anger were planted.

How we choose to handle our anger is the important issue.

And I was reminded that the hurtful words, actions, or insults that this person delivered to me were gifts that I don’t have to accept. As the old Zen story goes

“If someone comes to you with a gift, and you do not accept it, who does the gift belong to?”

Clearly, my arms were reached out toward the gifts as I grappled with them in my mind. Some part of me wanted to accept them, wanted to wrestle with them, wanted to lash back at the bearer. It’s a habit many of us have.

But if I had acted in an equally angry fashion and tried to punish this person for the hurt I felt (which really has nothing to do with that person), then I would be accepting the gifts. Anger delivered with hurtful words or actions is usually meant to incite anger, to dominate and control another, or to punish someone—to get the person to accept the gift and react in some way. But my practice is to not accept gifts like these and not return them.

So I stepped back. I didn’t accept the gifts.

What about you? Has anyone offered you gifts of insults recently?

If you’re in the US, you might have had some “gifts” going around during recent family get togethers over the Thanksgiving holiday. And during the upcoming winter holidays, gifts of more than one kind will be flying around for many of us.

Do you accept gifts of insults? Do you offer any? Think about it.

Comments are always welcome.

Photo credit: stevendepolo



Vicki Casal

Wow . . . I wonder if you had a visit from the same person I did? I unfortunately, was not able to control my reaction in as mindful way as you did. Looking back at it I think I feel most hurt (and maybe a little angry) that I allowed this person to get the best of me.

Leah McClellan

Hi Vicki,

Might have been the same person! It has taken a lot of practice–years–for me to get to this point of not telling people exactly which cliff to jump off of, though I’ve usually reserved it for only the worst scenarios :) But it doesn’t feel any better to get totally sucked into someone else’s suffering and fling it back…one of these days I hope to not even have the angry (even if just annoyed) thoughts..or envision printing this post out and sending it lol (it’s just a thought, it’s just a thought…:)

Ken G

I have a different way of seeing insults as gifts. Erich Fromm wrote in ‘The Art of Loving,” that we always accuse another of our own short comings. Communication is sharing so if somebody insults me or I insult them it ends up sharing our own short comings. It’s a gift in that it gives clues what is in the minds of ourselves and others that can help with what is to be shared.

It’s hard to put something in a closed fist but with understanding there’s more of a possibility of opening a closed fist, especially when given clues of insults telling us of our own and other’s short comings.

Scott Peck wrote that love is doing for another those things we’d prefer not to do. That might not be the best definition of love but it’s sure common sense thinking for me when it comes to dealing with insults. I generally make humor out of this sort of thing. A neighbor once told me, when I told him to turn his radio down, that the whole neighborhood thinks I’m an asshole. My reply was they think that because I am one and I’m damn good at it and I added, “Now turn your radio down.”

Insults are gifts in my thinking.

Leah McClellan

Hi Ken,

I know what you mean, that we often see our own faults in other people, and that’s why we get upset with them. But it can also be a reflection of our wounds or old hurts–things bother us for a reason. Why does a radio bother you, for example? Is that a shortcoming of your own, in some way? A wound–an old hurt–of some sort? I’ve had hassles with neighbors and loud music and all that but–long story–I’ve got pretty peaceful about it (I wasn’t always!) I learned to be at peace with it and feel happy for the neighbors enjoying their music so it doesn’t bother me anymore (and amazingly, me current neighbors rarely play it so loud anymore–it’s been a long time). A few blocks over, though, someone plays AM radio and sports etc really (really!) loud outside–that would be much harder for me than just music!

Insults can be gifts in many different ways, definitely!

Ken G

Gender difference comes into play here with the radio noise. I’m a male who has been in the role of being a husband and father plus I have been self employed most of my life. For me my male role has meant that it’s like dancing. It’s up to me to learn to lead the dance well enough so whoever I dance with can trust and respect me to lead the dance well enough so they can feel secure dancing with me. With the radio noise, it’s the neighborhood well-being and direction that had the importance. If I didn’t speak up for what I considered would be wrong for our neighborhood I would have enabled the noise. This, to me, is earning trust and respect. My mindset is that it’s not my neighborhood. It’s not the noise makers neighborhood. It’s our neighborhood and somebody has to take the lead in making that a priority.

Cathy | Treatment Talk

Hi Leah,

Accepting gifts as insults, I like that wording. When you think of insults that way you then have to option to accept or not, even better. So many, especially younger teens, etc. feel that an insult cannot be given without the giver receiving some kind of response. There is no option on this, no choice.

This holiday season was ok in that department for me. No insults were given to me, and when you think of them as gifts you can package the little gift up and choose to send it back, possibly with new packaging or set it aside and move on. It’s not always easy, but I try for the second option.
Cathy | Treatment Talk´s last [type] ..Monthly Message – November 2011

Leah McClellan

Hi Cathy,

Yep, always an option, and it can be hard to realize that we don’t have to respond, at least not in an angry way. I wouldn’t want to ever suggest giving someone the silent treatment, either. Silence and ignoring someone can also be a form of insult….depends on the situation. In the case I wrote about, I let the person know there was a problem and what I needed instead of what I was receiving–I was pretty specific. So I gave the person an opportunity to stop the offensive behavior–that seems fair, to me. Then it seemed fair to fire the person/quit using that particular business since the behavior didn’t stop (I’m being vague intentionally so as to not publicly defame anyone–I’m sure you can see that).

Glad your holiday season was good!


I do agree in your point Leah, in some point insult can be constructive or something that you may able to know on your side that can be changes. The inner part of yours that you forget to reflect and sometimes many individual who are tactless persons.
Vernon´s last [type] ..Brainwave Entrainment Using Binaural Beats

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