How does the saying ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ make you feel?
I was about five, reporting being bullied, when I first heard it.
Two adults who should have known better were the ones who said them.
One was a teacher, the first in a long line who went on to say ‘just keep away from the bullies and they’ll keep away from you’ and went off to have tea in the staff-room. Obviously, that’s exactly what bullies do, isn’t it? They would never think of pursuing you. Of course not. What she meant (I hope) was ‘don’t show them that they are getting to you.’ What I heard was ‘don’t bother me with your problems. I don’t care about you.’
The other was an adult family member, who followed it up with ‘you just have to put up with it, it makes you strong.’ I suspect she was trying to help. What she meant (I think) was ‘don’t let them get to you. Pretend you don’t care.’ What I heard was ‘don’t make a fuss. Good girls keep quiet.’
Either way, I heard, ‘you’re not important.’
Words can undermine.
As I grew up, there was more advice to keep away from the bullies so they’d keep away from me; there was the teacher that called me stupid in front of the whole class; there were the bullies themselves who taunted about short legs, puberty, old fashionedness, nationality, reading too many books, (or not reading the right books); there were great aunts who (in my hearing) compared me unfavourably with my sister and my girl-cousin; there was the grandmother who (again in my hearing) expressed her utter disappointment at all my failings to virtual strangers; there were the teenage friends who criticised my clothes, hair and make-up until I felt strange and out of kilter, leaving them to the lime-light; there were the adult friends that weedled endless favours, getting me to be the one to make a fool of herself but refused to give quite reasonable, unhumiliating favours in return and complained I was being needy by asking.
Words can be the first step to violence.
Professionally, I have had some involvement in raising awareness into domestic violence. Domestic violence almost always starts with a slow undermining of the personality of the victim. ‘You’re not … enough’ (pretty/clever/earning/interesting/sexual/supportive… whatever wounds the most). ‘Your achievements aren’t worth celebrating but let me remind you constantly of your failings.’ ‘Your family is not … your friends are not…’ In the end the victim hears ‘you are nothing. You are less than nothing. You deserve everything you get.’ The victim will end up saying ‘it was my fault I got hit, I shouldn’t have been so….’
Words can devastate.
Recently, I saw a Facebook post in which someone said that she wanted to celebrate how through running she’d had lost a significant amount of weight and got considerably fitter, yet her own mother said she was still fat and lazy. Reply after reply from complete strangers told her not to listen, often providing examples of how they’d overcome similar experiences. I have good friends virtually destroyed by things said by mothers. The words were so cruel and so wounding that they have been carved indelibly into hearts and minds as if with a poisoned dagger. The impact rebounds on the next generation and the toxin seeps into relationships that want to heal.
Many people, even if not suffering the extremes of domestic violence or mental abuse, are scarred by thoughtless or deliberately unkind words.
It is human nature to remember the bad and forget the good. We judge ourselves by the words of people who don’t deserve to be listened to rather than those said by people who love us.
I would like to be charitable to my one grandmother and think that she was trying to toughen me up as she had been. However, I could do nothing right for her. It’s probably as well that I could do nothing wrong for the other grandmother or I’d have reached adulthood with no spirit left at all.
The reality is that all the cruel words I heard, well into adulthood, made me believe that somehow or other I wasn’t worth much. There were plenty of nice things said to me too, but I don’t recall them as clearly. Many of the hurtful things were said by people who were supposed to be friends. I felt I had failed them somehow. But eventually, at some point in the last few years, I realised that I hadn’t deserve to be treated with such disregard.
My mother used to say ‘if you have nothing nice to say, then don’t say it’ but that is not always possible. There is a place for people to be honest, for constructive criticism. None of us is perfect and it doesn’t do us any favours to think we are. But the person who needs to convey that criticism has a choice as to how to express themselves.
If you’re that person, think before you speak. What are you trying to achieve? Do you want the recipient to be the best they can be or do you want to crush them? Do you want them to learn and grow or do you want to make yourself look strong and clever? Your words could make them rebellious or dangerous, broken or even suicidal. Or your words could build them up. Which result do you want to be responsible for?
If you are someone who is wounded by vicious or careless words:
Don’t judge yourself by cruel words people say but turn to the people who truly care.
Please seek help, don’t struggle with the pain on your own.
Repeat to yourself:
They are the ones who are WRONG.
I do NOT deserve to be treated badly.
I AM important.
The world needs ME.
I HAVE INFINITE WORTH.
IF you are affected by any of the issues in this article, here are some helplines. Please seek help. Someone is ready to listen.
Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission