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Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones, But Words Can

Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones, But Words Can Just About Cripple You

Few of us would passively hold still while being whacked with sticks and pelted with rocks. So how come, when it comes to verbal assaults, so many of us go all deer-in-the-headlights?

Maybe it’s because some of those word missiles have been launched at us so many times, we no longer consciously register them (think of the parent who’s been telling his offspring they’ll never amount to anything for the past, oh, forty years). Other times, we don’t hear the verbal slap for what it is because it comes disguised as “advice” from someone we think we can trust.

But even when verbal attacks are pretty obvious, it’s not always easy to know how to defend against them. Consider the following:

Boss: Yeah, great idea, Jenkins, but for now, let’s just focus on the project, okay? (Jenkins, you’re a moron. Stop thinking and just follow orders.)Spouse: You’re going to eat that second piece of pie? (God, you’re a pig.)In-Law: In my day, we didn’t let children talk back like that. (You’re a wuss of a parent and you’re totally ruining my grandchildren.)PTA parent: What a cute skirt you’re wearing – my teenager has one just like it. (Slut.)Neighbor: What an interesting color to paint your house. (You have the taste of a color-blind orangutan and you just lowered the entire value of the subdivision by 10%.)

No one likes a fight, and most of us don’t want to make waves. So instead of defending ourselves or retreating, as we would from a physical attack, we just stand there under verbal assault and take it. We smile on the outside, and inside, we seethe. We pretend something unacceptable wasn’t just said. But for the rest of the day, our shoulders ride just a bit higher and the acid in our stomachs roils more intensely. That night, when we go to sleep, we grind our teeth.

Sadly, we are often our worst verbal abusers. In fact, most of us keep up a running internal critique pretty much all day long: my butt is as big as a house…God, why did I make that stupid joke?…I have no will power…I am so disorganized…I’m such a procrastinator…I can never think of anything clever to say…I’m no good with money…nothing ever works out the way I want it to… I will never fit in.

These personal attacks can be the most insidious of all, because most of the time, they run on auto-pilot, like subliminal mp3 files that, over time, sap our energy and erode our self esteem. When we allow ourselves-and others-to beat us up with language, we unknowingly take those words into our very core, and make it a part of who we are. Eventually, we can no longer distinguish between abusive, painful thoughts and objective reality.

So how do we defend ourselves against verbal hand grenades? The first step is to acknowledge that words and thoughts can and do hurt us. Labels, judgments, criticisms, and limiting beliefs chip away at us, bruise us, just as other, more visible weapons do.

The next step? Just what you’d do if your home was under attack: fortification. In other words, build your boundaries. Decide what you will allow in your life, what you will let into your head and your heart, what you will and will not believe. Only you know your own truth. Don’t let anyone else’s truth-even a loved one’s-on board unless it resonates with your most essential self.

Finally, if you’re your own abuser, hear the attacks for what they are: fear. Ask yourself if each thought is factually true, and if it isn’t, play with flipping it around, turning it on its head, and redirecting it until you find a thought that feels as true or truer-a better thought, one that feels like a good, deep breath. If the opposite thought is too hard to accept (“My butt is the perfect size for me!”), then go for a slightly better thought you can believe (“My butt is bigger than it used to be, but my husband still loves it.”)

Yes, words are just thoughts. Thoughts are just opinions. But they can, when wielded thoughtlessly, carelessly, unconsciously, do a great deal of damage. So be careful. Don’t believe everything you-or others-think.

Sticks and stones may break your bones. But bones heal. The damage that words can do? Unchecked, it can last a lifetime.