Careless Words

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Sticks and stones may break my
bones but words will
never hurt me

Believe this?

These are the words I remember shouting out at kids in the playground who called me names.  I was taught this rhyme, and at the time I think was probably convinced that it was true, but only because I didn’t understand that harm other than physical harm existed.  I thought that “words would never hurt me” because, well how could a word trip me over and leave me bleeding on the pavement?

Now I know better.  Now I know that words often hurt.  Too often words are spoken (or written) without thought for the possibility of hurt being caused.

In the last few days I’ve been reminded of this over, and over again.  For myself, I have been called names that I’ve never been called before, sparked by my expressing an unpopular opinion.  I’ve been labelled with labels I’d rather not have, and you probably wouldn’t want them either.  I’ve had strips torn off me repeatedly, by many different people, all by words reacting to a comment I made.

For a while I was able to take a ‘healthy approach’, which I admit surprised me because in the past such things would have destroyed me for at least a day.  This time I was actually able to separate myself from what was being said, and I could believe that just because these people (who didn’t know me) were saying these things about me, that didn’t make it true.  That was the difference.  Just because they said it, didn’t make it true.

By the second day of this, the words were starting to hit.  I could still say that their words didn’t make it true, but it was starting to hurt to be thought of that way.  The people expressing these words clearly thought I was the lowest of the low.  The labels they attached to my name weren’t comfortable.  I knew I wasn’t the person they assumed but somehow just their assumptions hurt.  They might not be true but they were digging deep into my insecurities of myself.

I took the best course of action considering the circumstances.  I walked away.  Permanently.  For someone with a history of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) that is actually quite hard to do, and I congratulate myself on that.  You see, not only do we get angry and want to fight back, but also we struggle with our sense of self and have to fight in order to preserve what little there is.  Being told I was all these things was difficult to manage.  I’m learning though that walking away from a fight can actually be the healthiest thing to do, and I’m glad I chose to do that before getting myself more hurt.

What strikes me though is that the words that were slung at me, were never considered in terms of what damage they might do.  They were perhaps just thrown without a thought of how they might be received.

I have seen that in more than just my own personal experience in recent days.  I have seen other people have very harmful words thrown at them recently, much worse than what I encountered.  My own experience simply served to highlight to me what damage could be done.

Words are just thrown like mud.  The only thing is that while mud sticks, it will also wash off.  Words are more like a dirty, serrated knife that cuts deep into the victim.  Then more words are thrown and the knife is twisted.  The damage is immense and long-lasting.  Yes, stick and stones may break my bones but words have the power to destroy me (or you).

“Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall.” 

―    Jodi Picoult,    Salem Falls

It’s a good reminder for me of the power of our words.  Words can be good, they can be encouraging and healing, but it seems that more often words are flung without a thought of how they will land, or what damage they will do.

I am well aware that it was a few words from me that caused the flurry of attack on me this week.  Words, which I knew what they meant, but apparently caused an  emotional trigger reaction in the recipient.  And then it grew from there, as a very fast growing and large mushroom.

There was little way that I could have predicted what reaction my words would have, nor do I believe that I can take responsibility for another’s reaction.  But perhaps I didn’t stop long enough to consider the possibilities for hurt.  Actually in hindsight, I’m sure I probably didn’t although it was a quick comment that I didn’t think about much.  And I guess that’s so often where the problem lies.  We speak before we think.  I can’t take responsibility for how another reacts to my words, but I do believe I have a responsibility to do all I can to ensure my words hopefully avoid hurting another.

What I experienced personally this week was not pleasant, nor was what I saw hurled at others in different circumstances.  But it has made me think about my words and how I use them.  And as a writer that seems an important lesson.  It’s not just how I understand what I am saying, but there are a myriad of possibilities of how my words will be interpreted.  I can’t mind read.  I can’t tell exactly how a person will react, nor am I responsible for their reaction.  But I’m sure I can do my best to show compassion in the words I speak, or write.

Maybe the approach to take is that of kindness.  Are my words kind?  I can still express a different opinion to the masses, but have I done all I can to try to avoid causing unnecessary hurt?  That’s what I’m going to try to work on.  I can’t guarantee the outcome because there is always a recipient of the words who will determine that outcome, as well as onlookers who take the chance to throw in their five cents worth, but I can do my little bit to make this world a better place.

“I always surprise myself on my ability to turn a phrase. Words are, in my not so humble opinion, the most inexhaustible source of magic; capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.”

―    J.K. Rowling


17 thoughts on “Careless Words

  1. John Richardson

    Words don’t get the consideration they deserve. Most folks that use facebook regulary have probably already learned that the printed word is flat. That is, many times it leaves no shadow so you are not clear as to its meaning. It can be taken a a jest or as severe criticism. That’s why lawyers don’t want their clients engaging in humor when they are being deposed. When we talk to one another face to face some of the same dangers are present even though you have body language to help you muddle through. Many of the statements we make to each other can be interperted as either yes or no. It’s bad enough to have to deal with folks that are intentionally trying to hurt you, but it many ways the consequences can be much worse if you misinterpert something that’s said when nobody was trying to hurt you at all. It looks to me like the danger of that happening would be increased if a person has areas that they are sensitive to and especially when they are already expecting to be attacked. I think you have the right of it Cate. I think it’s important to think about what being said before you react. Don’t take it personally until you understand the meaning and many times the best thing you can do is to walk away. Mark Twain said, “Never argue with a fool; onlookers might not be able to tell the difference.” And never forget the power of forgiveness, both for yourself and others.

  2. Write4Publish

    I believe that, when you struggle against mental health issues, you are taking steps along a spiritual trajectory, as well as an emotional one, at the end of which, you will be stronger than ever before, and able to help others in destigmatising mental illness. It’s just a word, not a lifelong sentence. Keep going!

  3. You make a good point John. I am often frustrated by now being able to see the person I am talking to, and it just reminds me that I need to be extra careful. And Mark Twain made a very wise statement there. 🙂

  4. Tallulah "Lulu" Stark

    You’re absolutely right. People exercise their freedoms of speech with too much carelessness. I know it’s everyone’s right (in the Western World), but there is a such thing as tact and respect. There are such things like manners.

    And there’s another old addage: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Paired together, those two work well. But one can’t seem to stand alone. They weren’t meant to.

      1. It’s hard to go between thinking that people say hurtful things by accident and then thinking that people say those things on purpose to insult or harm another person. I realize that both are true. But, I don’t think the ones that do it on purpose are aware of the potential damages that it can cause. Maybe just because they can take it, doesn’t mean someone else can.

        And I don’t think it’s a bad thing for a person to be sensitive to criticism. The way we apply it to ourselves is the most important part. Rather than have it be destructive, like people want us to, we can make it constructive. (In most cases, anyway).

      2. I think you’re quite right but I also think a lot of people just don’t stop to think how it would be to be on the receiving end. And I know I haven’t plenty of times unfortunately. Time to change.

  5. Along with the chant you mentioned, which I, too, learned to hurl back at others on the playground, was the one that said, “I’m rubber. You’re glue. Anything you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” Even if I said these words to others, putting a brave face on, the words did hurt and they did stick. I refused, as a child, to admit it to anyone else and barely allowed myself to recognize it. I probably did this using the only coping mechanism I could at that young age. Yet later on as I grew up and the others around me grew older, they still hurled hateful and hurtful words. Unless they caught me in a certain mood or at a certain time or in defense of others where I’d immediately respond back, I usually just held my head high, kept my mouth shut and trapped the pain inside until I was able to be alone with God and/or with another human with whom I could safely let the barriers down.

    I’ve been guilty myself by saying something off-hand that I never imagined would be taken the wrong way. Also in writing, where you cannot hear the person’s tone of voice or see their face or watch their body language, people can easily misconstrue and misunderstand thereby taking offense when none was intended.

    It’s amazing how powerful words are. I think it’s in Proverbs where it says, “Life and death are in the power of the tongue.” I also think of the Tower of Babble where the language was “confounded” because I often think of how confounded we become when trying to communicate with each other and all the confusion that can occur, the offense that can be taken, even the wars that can break out between family, friends and countries. All because of the words coming out of our mouths or typed by our fingers!!

    1. It’s scary how powerful words can be sometimes. BUt then I also realise that words can be powerful in terms of healing too. And for that I’m thankful. I’m going to try and concentrat on those words.

  6. You summed it up so well in your comment that words are said without thought first. I know that words spoken to me as a child stuck with me through to adulthood and it took so long to be rid of their effect.
    We all get it wrong sometimes and when we do there is a powerful word that can start the healing ‘Sorry.’

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