Remember what we were supposed to say to kids who taunted us: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? I can’t believe how long it took me to realize that this saying simply isn’t true – words do hurt. Maybe they don’t break bones, but they can break spirits and leave scars that take a lifetime to heal. Consider this quote a Facebook friend recently posted regarding the role of language in perpetuating stigma against people with mental illness: “Be sure to taste your words before you spit them out.” During mental health awareness month in May, this is a good reminder of the power of words to hurt, especially those with a mental illness who are often the victims of cruel and thoughtless comments from others.
Of course, people with mental illness aren’t the only ones who are the target of words their speakers should have thought about before they said them. And often the speakers don’t really mean to hurt when they say something; they think they are simply being truthful or helpful. I’ve written over the last several weeks about three of these latter situations:
“She waddles.” When my mother commented on what I looked like after I gained weight as a nine-year-old confined to bed for weeks with rheumatic fever, she didn’t mean to hurt me. She might not have even known I heard what she said. She was simply being descriptive with what she thought was a humorous analogy. But the words hurt and have remained with me and negatively affected my self-image in the decades since.
“Your writing lacks sparkle.” I have no idea what the composition I wrote was about, but I very clearly remember those words written in the margin by a teacher at Beit School in Zambia. The teacher could have explained what I could do to make my writing sparkle, but he didn’t. I could have asked him, but I was too shy. I simply internalized the criticism and his words have echoed in my head for decades, making me doubt myself as a writer over and over again. Of course, it helps that I’ve had enough success and affirmation in the years since to prove that the teacher’s comments weren’t the final word, but the fact is that the first comment I ever received about my writing still affects my perception of myself as a writer.
“You’re the rebel.” When my dad called me the rebel in the family, he was trying to make sense of a daughter he couldn’t quite understand, whose life had perhaps taken a different turn than what he anticipated. I heard the comment as something of an indictment of choices I made that didn’t meet with his approval rather than as acceptance of me as a individual free to make my own choices.
Neither my parents nor my teacher intended to hurt me. The words hurt because I feared the truth in them; they cut a little close to home. I can think of a couple other things that people said to me that illustrate how words hurt because they tap into our insecurities.
“That’s what we do when we serve the church.” Back in the early 1990s, my church denomination was restructuring, resulting among other things in the elimination of my job. Discussions about the structural changes were difficult for me, not only because I was losing a job I loved, but also because of the process by which the changes were being proposed. I especially remember one discussion in a meeting of the board for which I worked as staff. As I expressed some of the frustration I was feeling, a church leader whose job was secure said, “But Harriet, that’s what we do when we serve the church.” His words felt like a slap in the face, as though if I were truly a servant of the church, I wouldn’t care what the church decided to do. He tapped into my insecurities, and he said it without any apparent awareness of how hollow his words sounded given the fact that the changes were not going to affect his job.
“You claim to care about peace but your actions don’t show it.” I’ve often wondered whether the person who said this to me knew his words would hurt, whether he had any idea how deeply they cut to the core of who I am and what I value. We were discussing a situation of conflict where we had disagreed. He believed I had done something in direct opposition to his wishes and had colluded with another person to deliberately undermine him. There are definitely things about that situation I regret, and in the years since I have tried very hard to avoid the same mistakes. However, I was caught in the middle between two people in serious conflict with each other and I was doing my best as a go-between. In the process I failed both people, and prompted this person’s slam on my integrity as someone committed to peacemaking. The words hurt deeply because I feared they might be true, which would have called into question so much of what I had done with my life. I still think the comment was a low blow and beneath the dignity of the person who said it, but I learned things from the experience that have influenced the way I have approached other situations of conflict.
Thinking about words that hurt me makes me wonder how many times I have thoughtlessly said something that hurt someone, whether I said it innocently or jokingly like my mother’s “she waddles” comment, or out of my own anger or frustration with the situation or the person, like the statement questioning my integrity as a peacemaker. In our current environment of incivility and mean-spiritedness in public discourse, where it often seems like nothing is off-limits to say about or to another person, I am even more aware of how important it is to consider my words before writing or speaking them. Words do hurt.
But words can heal as well. Just four words – “it’s all about grace” – spoken to me as I took communion from my pastor one Sunday morning about eight years ago demonstrated that words spoken wisely and kindly can be healing. I was going through a particularly rough patch right then when grace seemed in short supply, and the pastor’s words were just what I needed to hear.
“Be sure to taste your words before you spit them out.” Good advice. Or in the words of Paul in Ephesians 4: “Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them” (New Living Translation).