If you can’t joke about it, you have some work to do.

Have you ever found yourself in a social situation where someone makes an off-hand comment, a vaguely critical observation, that is so hurtful to you that you feel instantly shattered? One stupid sentence, and it feels like someone knocked all the wind out of you? Of course you have, we all have. It’s been happening since the dawn of time.

In the Stoic school of philosophy, the masters taught that the best way to handle a specific criticism in a social setting, is to accept it, and respond by turning it into a self-deprecating joke. Like this:

Criticism: “Boy, you’ve really gained a few pounds since I last saw you.

Response: “Oh please, you have no idea. I’ve turned into a human vacuum, been eating everything in sight. If you think this is bad, you should see the cellulitic nightmare happening on my thighs. It’s atrocious.

By taking in the seemingly negative comment, and turning it into a joke, said the masters, you’ve taken back power over your own emotional state (from “insulted victim” to “in on the joke”). You’re not vulnerable to their insult, you own this ugly truth. And subtly you’re letting the other person know their negative comment doesn’t affect you. If they were trying to put you down, it didn’t work. 

While on the surface this seems like a silly social power play, under the surface, it’s so much more. But it can be really hard to joke about something, when you feel legitimately victimized by it. The trick here is to actually go in and “do the work,” so to speak, on the negative judgment. This isn’t something you can do on the spot, but something you work on afterwards.

Take the criticism, and investigate for yourself why it affects you. Why do you have an emotional reaction to such a statement? Why in this case is gaining weight a negative thing?

Because we all need to be thin and mainstream beautiful? Because if you’ve gained weight, you’re not attractive or loveable? Because your physical appearance determines your self-worth, and how much love and acceptance you get from others? These are the typical false beliefs that get triggered by weight issues. But that’s all they are, false beliefs. They aren’t really true. So go in and turn those beliefs around. Question those false beliefs. Recognize that they aren’t true. And then (this is the best part!) come up with real reasons why the weight you’ve gained is a good thing. Perhaps you’ve allowed yourself to eat and enjoy delicious things, and savor food without feeling guilty. Perhaps you’ve stopped dieting and feeling hungry (and angry) all the time. Perhaps you had a difficult time, and the food you ate was really comforting and necessary. Perhaps the people in your life continue to love you just the same, even with those extra pounds. Perhaps you’ve avoided attracting people into your life who objectify you, and only want to be friends with you if you’re thin and beautiful by their standards. This list of loving compassionate positives is really endless… Come up with as many as you can!

And when you do this process, when you turn around those negative judgments inside yourself, what happens is that you actually become immune to the external criticism. It really doesn’t trigger you anymore. You aren’t insulted by other people’s negative judgments. You don’t need to internalize what they’ve said.

You can recognize it’s just their own projected negative opinions. And then you feel lighter and freer, and you have the emotional resilience to make light of someone else’s negativity (and perhaps even encourage them to drop their silly judgments), exactly like the Stoics suggested.

I spent years and years cringing at each and every family function, as my fluctuating weight always somehow became everyone’s favorite topic of conversation. According to them, either I had gained so much weight (usually about 10-15lbs) that they shook their heads in dismay, or I had lost so much weight (same 10-15lbs) that they found me utterly unrecognizable. “You were so fat before,” they’d say, “that now, I wouldn’t even recognize you on the street if I ran into you.” Their hurtful and thoughtless comments usually made me squirm and want to hide under the table. But as I started practicing this technique, I really started to notice a difference within, which I was able to test out quite often in my own life. Now I teach this to people all the time. It’s an incredibly empowering technique! Try it, and see how it feels for you.