Words can never hurt me. Or can they? How can we recover from the long lasting pain and hurt that can be caused by a few harsh words?
Words are powerful. They enable us to communicate in sophisticated ways. Words can be uplifting, inspiring, kind, loving, encouraging. They can also be deflating, cruel, hurtful, critical, discouraging. There is a saying often used by children which you may have heard. ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.’ According to the Cambridge Dictionary online, this is a child’s expression ‘said in order to show that people cannot be hurt by unpleasant things that are said to them.’ (Cambridge Dictionary, 2017) People do say unkind things to each other. I have said this phrase myself as a schoolchild, in an attempt to show that I wasn’t upset by the name-calling I was receiving. On the outside I hoped to seem brave and indifferent to the cruel words, but inside I was hurt, scared and ashamed.
So words can indeed hurt, and hurt deeply. Words cut like a knife. Words wound so deeply it seems almost impossible to forget the pain they cause. The pain caused by words is invisible which makes it harder to accept. On the outside there is no evidence of the pain, but on the inside you are hurting, suffering, racked with pain, guilt or anguish. This invisible pain is also easier to dismiss by people who don’t know how much you’re hurting. So you may find yourself being told ‘pull yourself together’ or ‘I don’t know what you’re so worried about’ or ‘just forget it’ or even ‘stop being so dramatic’.
I don’t mean to dismiss physical pain. While bruises or broken bones will heal, the memory of how the injury happened can linger in the mind. Even when a scar heals, the emotional pain can stay with you for a long time. Somehow, the emotional pain caused by cruel words lingers even longer. This scar just doesn’t seem to heal.
Another phrase that comes to mind is ‘if you hear bad things said about you enough, you start to believe it’. It‘s a saying that rings true for me, and some of my clients. In the film ‘Pretty Woman’ when talking about her past and how she came to be in New York, Julia Roberts’ character says ‘the bad stuff is easier to believe’. So you come to believe that you are stupid, or boring, or hopeless, or careless, or rubbish, or any of the things you were told you are.
I often find clients will say that there are other people much worse off than they are. They have learnt to dismiss or bury their anger and hurt feelings because they have come to believe the bad things said to them. Perhaps this is true for you too. It leaves you feeling worthless, invisible and that your feelings are insignificant. You begin to bury any feelings you have. You come to believe that you don’t deserve to be cared about, or valued, or happy, or believed, or simply listened to. Perhaps you have noticed a change in how you behave with other people; you may become introverted, quiet, putting other people first. Or you may do the opposite and act like you don’t care, trying to mask how you really feel. This can then lead to anxiety, fear, confusion and shame. In her book ‘Daring Greatly’ Brené Brown explains this well: ‘we all have shame. We all have good and bad, dark and light inside of us. But if we don’t come to terms with our shame, our struggles, we start believing there’s something wrong with us – that we’re bad, flawed, not good enough – and even worse, we start acting on those beliefs.’ (Brown, B. 2012, p. 61)
So how can we recover from this pain and hurt caused by cruel words? How do we come to terms with our shame and our struggles? One of the first steps is to accept what has happened and accept that no-one was to blame. It’s part of your past, and yes it has made you angry, ashamed, fearful, hurt, BUT it doesn’t have to define you. Although that’s easier said than done, right? It has taken me years of talking to friends, many hours of personal therapy and a lot of reflection, but I am finally accepting that my past is a darker part of who I am today and I’m kinder and stronger for it. For a long time I hid behind a mask of perfectionism, thinking that if I could just make things (and myself) ‘perfect’, and please people, they might not criticise me or judge me, or believe the things about me that I thought they believed.
However, trying to be something you’re not doesn’t work and it’s also exhausting. In her research for ‘Daring Greatly’ Brown found that most people are on a continuum of perfectionism. We’re all hiding some flaw or flaws. She writes ‘if we want freedom from perfectionism, we have to make the long journey from “what will people think?” to “I am enough.” We have to be willing to give ourselves a break and appreciate the beauty of our cracks or imperfections.’ (Brown, B. 2012, p. 131)
Just as important in this recovery, and to ‘give yourself a break,’ is to accept your feelings, all of them. It’s ok to feel hurt, angry, or sad. Often clients try to deny their feelings, telling themselves they should be over it by now. I encourage them to think that ‘it’s ok to feel like this, something bad did happen. It’s part of your past, it’s part of you and will always be there, but it is one part along with all the other parts of you. It’s ok to give yourself a break.’ ‘Be kind to yourself’ is a phrase that I often hear and also something that can be hard to do when you are used to putting other people first. Another researcher, Dr Kristin Neff, studies how people develop self-compassion. She describes one of the ways to be kind to yourself as ‘self-kindness: being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.’ (Neff, K. 2011, cited in Brown, B. 2012, p. 131)
Recently I was walking my dogs along the beach. The sun was shining and it was very windy, but the wind blowing the warm sun onto my face made me feel exhilarated. I suddenly felt that I wanted to, and could, leave all the pain from those cruel words behind. I lifted up my arms and stood leaning into the wind, smiling as I felt the wind blow my pain away through my outstretched fingertips. Finally I felt like I was letting it go. I was being kind to myself, and giving myself a break. Finally I can say that ‘I am enough.’
Brown, B. (2012) Daring Greatly, New York and London: Penguin Life