If Words Hurt, It’s Because You Let Them 

If Words Hurt, It’s Because You Let Them 

Welcome back to Mid-Week Meditations, Lifehacker‘s regular dip into the pool of stoic wisdom and a guide to using its waters to reflect on and improve your life.

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Welcome back to Mid-Week Meditations, Lifehacker's regular dip into the pool of stoic wisdom, and a guide to using its waters to reflect on and improve your life.

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This week’s selection comes from Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations, a collection of personal notes he wrote to himself that were never intended to be published. In book four, Aurelius provides us with an example of the power of our perception on the world and the often terrible, vocal people in it:

Take away thy opinion, and then there is taken away the complaint, “I have been harmed.” Take away the complaint, “I have been harmed,” and the harm is taken away. That which does not make a man worse than he was, also does not make his life worse, nor does it harm him either from without or from within.

Or more simply translated as:

Choose not to be harmed – and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed – and you haven’t been.

What It Means

This is basically a Stoic version of “sticks and stones” or “haters gonna hate”. What people say or do cannot harm you unless you let it. You choose to be offended, hurt, embarrassed, angered, or defensive. If you decide what was said or done means nothing to you, you feel nothing, and are thus unchanged.

What to Take From It

Random people in your world have no power over your mind and emotions. Those things are in your control, or at least they should be. If some stranger says something uncouth or does something with the intention of putting you down, they aren’t doing anything to you at all.

They are only feeding into their own anger and lack of control in their own lives. Don’t be like them. Let their words and actions bounce off. Choose to not be affected by other people and you won’t be.

Yes, people can harm us physically, and those close to us can abuse us mentally. Those things are out of your control and must be dealt with as they come. But for everything else – the petty remarks, the insults, the lies, the attacks on our character – you are protected if you choose to be.

As Aurelius puts it, “That which does not make a man worse than he was, also does not make his life worse…” Most of the time, there’s no reason someone else’s negative words or actions should have any effect on you at all.

You can read the entirety of Meditations for free here.


  • I get where the advice is coming from but sadly, 90% of the times I hear this kind of advice, it comes from the lips of those who want to abuse verbally with impunity, especially those that attack that way whole groups of people (i.e racists, etc).

    Yes, you are responsible to preserve your own peace of mind but by no means that should come at the cost of allowing the abusers free rein.

  • Wow what an irresponsible piece of ‘advice’.
    I would love to hear you tell that to an African American when someone calls them the N word, or a jew when someone tells them the holocaust never happened, or a homosexual when someone tells them that it’s a choice and they’re going to hell.

    No, no. Sometimes if words hurt, it’s because the person who said them is an asshole.

    • I don’t get how this advice is ‘irresponsible’. Nobody is saying that people should go around being assholes.
      The stoic philosophy is about controlling what you can, ultimately ending with what’s within your own head. In this mode of thinking, you have control over what hurt words can have on you – it’s not always easy (or necessarily for everybody), but it’s possible.
      Asshole or not (and in your examples the person saying those words is an asshole, for sure), you do get some choice as to how those words affect you.
      Saying you could or should ignore negative words doesn’t mean that they should have been said, either.

  • Viktor Emil Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor.

    “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

    “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

    “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.”

    • I really like that he established first that such is a defense one must resort to only when it is impossible to change the causes.

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