We all remember that phrase from childhood, “stick and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” First of all, I’d love to meet the person that coined this phrase and find out what kind of armor he or she is wearing because words definitely hurt me. Even though words can’t break our bones or leave us with visible wounds, they absolutely can break our spirits, our hearts, and our sense of security.
Words are not tangible and therefore shouldn’t be able to cause any pain. Right? Wrong!! No matter how strong our battle armor is, all of us can become emotionally wounded by words. Why? Well words are a verbal manifestation of someone else’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions. When someone else’s feelings aren’t in line with our own, we can feel invalidated which can cause our sense of: self, self-worth, security, values, and beliefs to be disregarded or wrong. This invalidation then quickly morphs into feelings of depression, sadness, anxiety, and/or anger. At this point, the roller coaster of emotions has taken off from the station.
As we ride this roller coaster, we begin to grasp onto anything that we can in hopes of smoothing out the ride, or at least making it less terrifying. These “things” that we grab onto are our defense mechanisms – ways in which we can shield ourselves from feeling and experiencing these “yucky” feelings. The defenses most often used are:
Avoidance: steering clear of anything that will cause any potential pain or discomfort
Denial: trying to believe that nothing is wrong and that nothing has happened
Repression: pushing those negative feelings deep down inside in hopes that they’ll never rear their head again
Displacement: taking all of our hurt feelings and lashing out at or dumping them on someone else
Rationalization: convincing yourself that the words behind that invalidation are actually true
Of course there are other defenses that are used but ultimately the goal is to always avoid and not experience the negative feelings.
So now that we’ve gotten that established, what do we do? As I’ve said in previous blogs, the first step in dealing with the “yuck” is to acknowledge and embrace that the “yuck” is present. Give yourself permission to feel down and not pretend that it doesn’t exist. Take a look at how you’re dealing with that hurt and what you’re doing to try and fight it. Are you avoiding the person, isolating yourself, throwing dirt right back at the other person, or trying to justify the other person’s statement? The next is taking ownership of your feelings – you are your best advocate. Support and validate you’re feelings. “That hurt and now I feel crappy”. Finally, if possible, communicate with the other person. Yes, this can be the hardest step because we’re allowing our vulnerability to show through our shell, but it is essential in combating that hurt. (Keep your eye out for future blogs where I will speak to effective communication). Remain dedicated to talking to the other person about your feelings and how his or her words have made you feel. Remember to use those good old ‘I statements’. “I feel ____ when you ___”.
Through it all, remain authentic – your true self. Understand and appreciate that it is your authentic self that has been hurt by words and it is your authentic self that wants that “yuck” to go away. We know how to deal with a broken arm and a scraped knee, but healing the wounds inflicted by harmful words isn’t always so cut and dry. Just as our broken bones need attention and care, so do our feelings and emotions. By identifying and embracing your feelings and effectively communicating your feelings, those wounds can and will be mended. Words can hurt but they also can heal.