A WEIGH WITH WORDS
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 maternal urge to go pummel the offender and make the little twerp suffer for what s/he 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 up the self esteem of her child while not encouraging physical retaliation.
I understand the reasoning, and as well meaning as the saying may 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 fade and eventually become invisible, the aggression behind the assault leaves a wound that lingers whether it was a word or a stone 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 reaction they are hoping for. 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. And of course the opposite is also true.
Words can hurt.
In an inpatient drama therapy group I was leading, one of my patients was working on a collage. This was years before those cool refrigerator word magnets were on the market, 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 their 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 fatnstuipid, 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, were sticking to their core and have become 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; an innate ability to appreciate the amazingness of our bodies and its ability to navigate the challenges inherent in just living our lives. 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 do the hole-punching. We get criticized, we get teased, we are told we are not good enough, we are held up to standards that are unattainable. 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 and the one student who is falling 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.