More Than Sticks and Stones: Words Hurt

Here’s a big fat lie: Stick and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.

Words slice to the bone.

When we explode, we’re not out of control—we’re using our anger to control and shut people down.

I freeze at yelling, I’m silenced by harsh words, and I wither each time someone criticizes me with cruelty. Perhaps it’s that I grew up in a home filled with slaps, screams, and insults, or maybe I am as over-sensitive as some have suggested. Either way, is it my job to control my sensitivity, or the job of others to control their mean?

We all have a harsh side, inside thoughts that, released, would devastate. Sometimes we convince ourselves that we’re just helping. Hey, we’re only telling them they’re getting fat for health reasons.

Sure, because people never know if they’ve gained weight without outside counsel.

The injurious power of words shouldn’t be forgotten. When I worked with batterers, they insisted that calling their wives fat ugly bitches was just honesty. “Hey, don’t I gotta right to my opinion?” they’d ask. The more sophisticated stuck to the idea that their cutting words were meant to teach and improve the members of their family. The very last thing any clients wanted to give up was their right to belligerence.

“Listen up!” My client stuck out his chin, ready to prove me wrong. “My father blasted me until his eyes popped out.” This said with pride—as though eye-popping bellowing was proof of his father’s love.

Perhaps we end up adopting the very thing that once hurt us to prove our own pain wasn’t suffered in vain. Or perhaps it’s simply laziness.

To help the men (at the educational violence-intervention program) consider not using words to terrify their children—just rent the idea, we’d say—I’d stand at the blackboard and ask them to let loose with words describing how they felt when they were yelled at and hit as kids.

Humiliated. Terrified. Stomach pain. Scared. Sad. Nauseated. Embarrassed. Shamed. Disgraced. Wanted to kill myself. Wanted to run away. Wanted to die. Wanted my father/mother/sister/brother to die. Hated them. Hated myself. Small. Invisible.

Look at those words, I’d say.  Read them quietly to yourselves.

Not one of those words defined learning or improving.

Are those the feeling you want to engender in your children? If you think so, then I guess you should keep on screaming. If not, perhaps it’s time to use control.

The thing about yelling and insults and mean jokes is this—it’s not usually about the other person. It’s about our own frustration, our own unhappiness, and our inability to withstand our own pain. So we pass it on. Sadly, when we take the rage and fear out of our own heads in this manner, we’re placing it smack into our loved one.

My children were in high school when I started working with violent men. I look back at the times when I threw my own anger tantrums and all I can do is close my eyes and thank God that I still have giving and loving children. I look at my daughter and her husband, raising their small daughter, and see that the sins of the mother do not always get passed down. Perhaps if we’re lucky, each generation can water down the worst of their traits until only a trickle of mean is left.

Control exists. When’s the last time you hauled off and screamed at your boss because she mocked your ideas? Sounds almost ridiculous, right?

How recently did you turn to a stranger and bellow because he took up too much seat room? Most of us want to—few of us would.

Do you spend much time buttonholing your neighbors to enumerate their most annoying traits, or do you swallow hard, take a minute and move on?

Do we love our bosses, strangers or neighbors more than our husbands, wives, children, girlfriends or boyfriends? Of course not, but it’s easy to use them as sponges for our anger, disappointment and frustration.

Next time you feel the mean, try these tools:

1) Use Self-talk:

Replace the negative thoughts with calming ones. Do you actually want to hurt someone you love?

2) Recognize Your Intents & Effects:

Think of your goals before you use ugly words. Will screaming insults help you reach that goal, or simply make some one feel awful? Goals versus outcomes are often eons apart.

3) Bite your tongue:

Really. Literally. Try it. Maybe hurting oneself a tiny bit is better than hurting a loved one a whole lot.

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  1. Posted November 3, 2010 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Excellent post, Randy. I think that a lot of people assume that within
    their own families they should be able to relax and “let
    their hair down”. To many people this means that they can
    feel free to let loose with all the things they could never
    say to the person who’s taking up too much space on the subway.
    But that’s probably the opposite of what makes sense. I don’t
    advocate hurling insults to strangers – meanness is never helpful –
    but people should try to be more attentive to and careful of the feelings
    of their loved ones,not less.

  2. Posted November 3, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    So thoughtful, so true. “The thing about yelling and insults and mean jokes is this—it’s not usually about the other person. It’s about our own frustration, our own unhappiness, and our inability to withstand our own pain. So we pass it on.”

  3. Posted November 4, 2010 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

    I came from a home that was a “yelling” home and I am desperately trying to break the cycle. It IS absolutely about our own frustrations and nothing to do with teaching the child.

    It is a horrible way to grow up and want my kids to look back on their youth differently than I do mine. Thank you for keeping on this topic. I don’t think we can hear it enough…

  4. Posted October 13, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    This is so, so powerful. I grew up in a screaming household with a mother who ranted and raved and a father who would hold it down and then explode. It was not unusual for my younger brother to take refuge in room during one of these indiscriminate shout-fests. No way to grow up. We grew up scared.

  5. Sue Williams
    Posted January 6, 2013 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    I was married to a verbally abusive man for 33 years, my self esteem couldnt get any lower. I am newly divorced and struggling everyday to tell myself I am a good person and it wasnt my fault.He wasnt just verbally abusive, he was intimidating and a bully, we had 3 sons together and i worry about them everyday they are adults, and choose not to be in my life right now, I hope in time we will all heel. During the divorce mess my middle son said how do people let their lives get like this, not in a nice way. He thinks he was a wonderful father but he was verbally abusive to them also calling your so a loser over and over again does not make him father of the year, words hurt!!!!!!!! thanks for listening.

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