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April 2, 2012

Trigger warning for discussing the potential feelings of a failed dieter.

Whoever came up with the expression, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me,” probably had really good intentions. I can picture the person, maybe a mom, consoling her child on the playground after being teased or called a name. Inside she is trying to repress her rage and the maternal urge to pummel the offender and make the little twerp suffer for what he or she did. Outwardly she is the epitome of cool, having learned in her parenting classes how to capitalize on teachable moments such as these, and help bolster the self-esteem of her child while not encouraging physical retaliation.

I understand the reasoning, but as well meaning as the saying might be, I think it is a total crock of rot.

Words can hurt.

Mean words can really hurt.  And while scars from a fist, rock, or willow-whip may eventually fade to invisible, the aggression behind the assault leaves a wound that lingers long after the stone, or word, has been cast.

There are some people who have a way with words. They know just which words to use to get under your skin and elicit the intended reaction. When I am giggling uncontrollably while reading a David Sedaris story, for example, it is because Sedaris has found just the “write” combination of words to tickle my funny bone.

Of course the opposite is also true: words can hurt.

In an inpatient drama therapy group I led, one of my patients was working on a collage. This was years before those cool refrigerator word magnets, but imagine cutting out words from magazines in tiny rectangles and pasting them on a piece of paper. The theme of the activity was “AWAY WITH WORDS” and one step of the activity was to identify words from the patient’s past that had impacted them both positively and negatively.

It was no surprise to me that most of the people working on the art directive had a teeny tiny collection of positive words in their collages. Even less surprising was that the majority of negative words they identified were about their bodies.

The one patient I am remembering cut the words out in the shapes of arrows:  “fat ugly house horse whale lazy pig fatnstupid lazyandfat” and pasted them on the paper around the silhouette of her body as if they were piercing her from head to toe, inside and out.

It was a powerful piece of art work and, in the discussion that ensued, I spoke about how the words from their lives had poked holes into their self-esteem and now, like the words pasted on the paper, those words stuck to their core and became integrated as part of their self-worth. It was the beginning of working on ways to get away from the words.

I believe that we are born with a healthy sense of self and an innate ability to appreciate the amazingness of our body and its ability to navigate the challenges inherent in living. Our self-confidence and self-esteem are held in a giant bowl somewhere deep inside of us and, for many of us, somewhere along the way that bowl slowly transforms into a colander.

Little holes get poked all around the bowl and our confidence leaks out. Bullying, teasing and mean words are some of the primary tools used to punch holes. We get criticized, we get teased, we are told we’re not good enough, we are held up to unattainable standards.

Eventually, when we do something we feel good about, we can hold on to it for a moment and then it is gone. It has slipped through what has become an emotional colander and we are left needing a new pat on the back, kind word, or “you are OK” in order to regain our equilibrium.

This insatiable need for recognition and approval, this voracious appetite to be perfect, validated and praised, is frequently intertwined with body image issues and problematic relationships with food.

It is sometimes experienced as an all-or-nothing event. You miss one day of exercise and everything goes out the window and you are bad. You drink one less 8-ounce serving of water and you have blown your entire program.  You gained two pounds and you are a hideous horrible failure. Every student in the class is hanging on your every word, but the one student who falls asleep or seems distracted is the one student you become obsessed with. Never mind that the student may have just pulled an all-nighter or is grappling with who knows what college crisis, somehow it has to be about you not being a good enough teacher or a good enough student or a good enough dieter or a good enough person.

So when we talk about improving our self-esteem and self-acceptance, part of that work is repairing the holes in the bowl of our soul so we can once again hold on to our positive sense of self.  We need to spackle the cracks with our own set of standards for what makes us OK and find a way not to internalize the mean words that may still, from time to be time, be aimed and fired at us by others and by ourselves.

Words can hurt, but words can also heal.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. April 2, 2012 10:39 am

    Fantastic post!!!

    What I find both interesting and frustrating is that, while the words come from the outside, we can only heal from the inside. You speak of an “insatiable need for recognition and approval, this voracious appetite to be perfect, validated and praised” and while you–rightly–link it to body image issues, it goes far beyond that.

    In my own life, I am grappling with learning to find that strength inside myself. It is truly a herculean effort. Many’s the time I just don’t know how to nourish myself with self-esteem rather than begging for it constantly from others.

  2. vesta44 permalink
    April 2, 2012 10:46 am

    I wish we could give kids the benefit of our experience, but for me, at least, I didn’t get the help I needed until my son was an adult, so I couldn’t help him with the bullying he got any better than I was helped with the bullying I got (and considering that a lot of my bullying/abuse came from my mother……………). I try to help my grandchildren when they talk about being bullied, but I don’t see them often enough to be a big influence 😦
    What we all need to remember – and this is the hardest part – is that those slings and arrows from others that wound us say a lot more about the people wielding them than they do about us. It took me a lot of years to realize that every time someone told me I was stupid/unattractive/lazy/whatever negative thing they had to call me, it wasn’t because I was really any of those things, it was because they were afraid they were those things and by calling me names, it deflected attention from their lacks. And while I don’t like having lived through all that crap or having the scars from it, I have learned from it, it has made me a stronger person, and I wouldn’t be who I am today without having lived through it – and damn it, I like who I am today, finally, after all these years of hating myself, I really like myself. It wasn’t easy, it took a lot of years of therapy to get to this point (and a lot of years of Prozac), but that journey has gotten me to the point where I can tell people who throw those arrows at me that they can eat shit and bark at the moon, I could give a rat’s ass what they think about me anymore – the only opinion of me that matters is mine – if I’m meeting my expectations, then I’ll meet the expectations of the people that care about me and that I care about, and that’s what matters, not what some bully says.

  3. April 2, 2012 11:01 am

    Wonderful post. And your final comment, words heal, is absolutely true. I endured a lot of bullying growing up and the only reason I have any semblance of self-worth left today is because of two people, my mom and the priest at one of my schools, both of whom reminded me on a regular basis of what an incredible and special person I am. They put the words of others into perspective and provided me with an alternative way to look at them, and myself. Because just two adults chose to reinforce my self-worth, I began to understand that the cruelty of others were just opinions, not objective facts, and that I had a choice of either accepting those opinions or the opinions of those whom I actually respected and admired.

    This is what I will carry with me as a parent, and as our children grow older and begin to face the bullies and jerks who will attempt to cut them down: I do have a way to help them, and that is to balance whatever negativity they receive at school with an undaunting positivity that can give them hope in times of despair.

    Thank you so much for writing this, Deah.


  4. Mulberry permalink
    April 2, 2012 12:35 pm

    Really? Mothers are supposed to get angry at the other kid?
    Mine often said to me, “What did you do to make them mad?”

    • LittleBigGirl permalink
      April 2, 2012 12:55 pm

      That is so sad.

      Once when I complained to my Dad that a boy at school was teasing me, he said “Oh, that just means he likes you.” O_o
      Luckily I figured out (years later unfortunately) that if people are being a dick to you it actually means…that they are being a dick to you.
      Imagine if I had taken my father’s misguided advice to heart – I could have grown up to be the girl sitting in the police precinct with a black eye and busted lip, saying “No I don’t want to press charges…he didn’t mean to because he really *loves* me!”
      But the message damaged me enough so that for years I suffered my bullying in silence because I learned that no one, not even the parents who are supposed to care for and protect you, really cares about your victimization and if you are being treated badly you probably deserve it…because if you didn’t they would help you wouldn’t they?

    • April 2, 2012 2:19 pm

      Mulberry – I was really confused when girls at school said ‘My mum says I’m beautiful but I know she’s just being nice’ – my mother told me that if other people complimented me, they were ‘just being nice’, which was why she had to criticise me non-stop about my appearance because ‘nobody else will tell you the truth’.

      If it hadn’t been for the fact that nobody else, bar a few girls at ballet class, harrassed me about my weight or looks, I’d have probably ended up completely screwed. I was, however, bullied for my (possibly Asperger related) social awkwardness (for which my mother’s solution was ‘Just make yourself look nicer and they’ll like you more’). It’s taken a long, long time, a bunch of counselling and a concerted effort to appreciate myself as a whole person, to try and deal with the fallout of all this. I’m still a little mistrusting of anyone who compliments me on my appearance – especially family members; I know some of them think they’re ‘making it up’ to me somehow, but all I can hear is that my outside is still all that matters. I have yet to fix the holes in that colander.

    • April 2, 2012 3:40 pm

      My mother said “What did you do to them?”

      I wasn’t an aggressive kid. I’m inclined to think that she just didn’t like me, and I leave the possibility open that she was a bully when she was a kid.

      • neverdietagainuk permalink
        April 2, 2012 6:21 pm

        This is all so sad. I have one story where I did actually lash out at somebody (he deserved it), but when he went to complain to my mother, she said “That doesn’t sound like her. What did you do to her?”

        God bless ya mum!

    • The Real Cie permalink
      April 2, 2012 9:05 pm

      Mine usually said that to me too. “What did you do to cause this?”
      I existed.

      • April 2, 2012 9:43 pm

        ouch…ouch ouch…how strong you must be to now know that the world is a different and more unique and most likely a better place BECAUSE you exist!!!

  5. April 2, 2012 2:24 pm

    What a juicy discussion and we are just a teeny tiny representation of all of the folks out there who clearly share a similar experience. I hope that with enough people like us, there will be a time when these damaging judgments become extinct. (Or at least very very very very rare).

  6. April 2, 2012 4:45 pm

    I love this post! I used collage as a therapy tool quite often too–with teenage boys. It was always an eye-opener.

    One lesson I learned early was that words are confusing–they never seemed to mean what they should by definition. There was always a hidden meaning that someone else had to explain to me–usually in a negative way. I’m glad I’m older and learning that words are words…and I can react to them how I like!

  7. April 2, 2012 4:47 pm

    PS You need buttons for sharing because I want to send this everywhere! 😉

    • April 2, 2012 9:41 pm

      awww thanks susie! you can always send them the link, I also tweeted it.

    • April 2, 2012 10:04 pm

      I could be the worst webmaster in the history of webmastery. I know there are basic things, like sharing buttons, to help promote your site, but I don’t have time to even figure it out. I just sort of like what we have and I haven’t been too terribly worried about the promotional aspects. I’ll see if I can figure out how to add a share button.

      Thanks Susie!


  8. H.D. permalink
    April 2, 2012 6:49 pm

    “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me,” was my mother’s favourite saying. I was a sensitive child, and my mother was not, or at least, that was my take on it. I was well aware that even though she tried to be nice to me, she was always trying to tell me also that I needed to grow a thicker skin in order to survive in the world. I was always aware that I was not good enough for my mother, she didn’t love my father or me. She always complained about my body from the time I developed hips; which she did not have. She was like an annorexic who loved sweets. When I saw pictures of her thin body when she was young, I thought they were poor, but I found out later from my Aunt that they were well to do, so they must have been annorexic. Well, that makes sense, because her mother was also a perfectionist and did not show her much love either. So I got called “fat” by my brothers and mother, even though I was not near fat at the time in my teens. Now I am truely fat, over 300lbs. Words really do hurt. Recently a little kid who previously ran into my backside hard, and laughted at me, also stuck out his hand to grab my breast with a devilish grin on his face. I reacted by shaking his hand, and patting him on the head. Am I turning into a victim of fat prejudice, like the beaten wives, who feel that their husband who just beat them up still loves them??? That’s how I feel right now, like someone who is putting up with a lot of fat prejudice, and saying that people who hate me are correct, and ignore me as being totally normal, so that I feel like I would rather be dead. Is that perfectionistic? I need to move. How do I feel that bowl of love, even if it exists???

  9. jenincanada permalink
    April 2, 2012 8:21 pm

    Funny, I’ve only ever been hit in anger once in my entire life, but I’ve been hurt/harmed plenty of times by the words of friends, family and kids at school. Sticks and stones at least I can defend against. I can’t make someone shut up if they insist on speaking badly to me; only walk away (and sometimes you can’t).

    • H.D. permalink
      April 2, 2012 8:35 pm

      Hi Jen, I am Canadian too, but moved out, to a land of tiny people. I have been hit physically plenty of times, but funny, I can’t or don’t think about those times at all; but I do remember words, and more importantly, the feelings of being not wanted around. Those feelings can come from my being fat and or thinking differently than others; and they can also come from size, language and cultural differences. But what do you do if you can’t walk away???

      • JeninCanada permalink
        April 3, 2012 12:50 am

        Not being able to walk away from a verbal fight is rare, thankfully. Whether you’re in a coffee shop, your house, the mall or at a friend’s, unless the other person is willing to physically stop you from leaving, if you have the inner fortitude you can get up and leave. If they follow you, just keep going until you find somewhere safe.

        If you really cannot walk away and telling/asking the person to just please stop and/or shut up isnt’ working, I’m not sure what to tell you, especially if there’s a risk that their words could escalate to physical violence. I hope you’re in a safe place, H.D and that this question was only hypothetical.

        • April 3, 2012 1:17 am

          I agree with Jenin, and am also assuming you are not in imminent danger!

          • H.D. permalink
            April 3, 2012 7:05 pm

            Dear Dr. Deah, No, I am not in physical danger, although I have been knocked around when I was growing up, and the analogy of physical abuse and words was interesting. Nobody is hitting me with fists, or hurting me physically; just attitudes, and some words, here and there are painful, and I don’t know how do deal with them. If it was physical danger, I might take more action. Then again, radiation is a physical danger, and we are just living with it, aren’t we? Some times there is not much one can do about things. I guess from what you advised, I need to get more verbally healing words. I don’t think I have gotten enough of them, or else, I couldn’t remember them, or absorb them when I did. Thank you for pointing this out. I must agree with this point. I always wondered how a woman could put up with physical abuse from a spouse; I have known a few of them; but eventually they got out of their marriages. I don’t think I could put up with that, but the words, the words and negative actions, not from a spouse, but from other people, are my problem as a large person now.

  10. April 2, 2012 9:50 pm

    This is wonderful, Deah, one of your best (of which there are many many many).

  11. April 2, 2012 9:53 pm

    Susan, you just plugged up another hole in my colander! 😉 Thank you so much!!!

  12. April 4, 2012 12:06 am

    H.D. Thank you for your clarification and whether you know it or not, you sound strong in your commitment to healing yourself and finding ways to love yourself for who you are now. That is wonderful!!!

    • H.D. permalink
      April 4, 2012 12:16 am

      Dear Dr. Deah, Thanks. Keep giving us some good advice!

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