Sticks and Stones Break Bones: But words can utterly ruin me
I was four years old, sitting at my grandmother’s dining room table chowing down on an orange when I accidentally swallowed a seed. Having been taught to spit those out, panic immediately set in as I looked to someone for guidance in this unfamiliar circumstance. But in witty response, a family member informed me that an orange tree would likely grow out of my head. And then I started to cry. Now this may seem like a silly example on the impact of words; but for some reason, I never forgot that moment!
Growing up in the 90s, I remember chanting that cliche mantra: “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me!” Everyone knows that isn’t true, but how many of us tried to convince ourselves of it?!
As a therapist, I have seen the SEVERE effects of unrestrained words. No exaggeration. I recall a high school junior, failing all of his classes, depressed and barely motivated with no plan for the future. After exploring his past, he revealed a significantly painful memory: his second grade teacher told him he was a failure and would never amount to anything in life. He then internalized and believed that one negative (FALSE) statement; and as a result- all those years later, he had failed class after class because he barely even tried. He didn’t believe in himself!
Sadly, in family session after family session, I have also witnessed parents in frustration tell their children they were a mistake; comments like “I’m so done with you,” “you’re so crazy,” “there’s something wrong with you,” and even “I can’t live like this anymore, how can I put him in foster care?” I completely understand the exhaustion and frustration of parenting (parenting is a marathon, not a sprint!)- but no matter what your child has done, these statements destroy; they RUIN children. Anger and depression are the frequent sum of this equation. Parents who also require perfection from their children, and discipline them for receiving an A- instead of an A+ can create anxiety, obsessional perfectionism, or deep-seated, debilitating fears of failure in their children. It is the same with words in marriage and intimate relationships. Accusatory statements like “you can never get this right!” and “how can you be so dumb?” or even snarky sarcastic remarks like “wow THAT was a great idea,” can wound and not only deteriorate a relationship, but they can severely handicap that person from ever realizing their true potential.
Did you know that according to social psychology, it typically takes between 5 and 20 positive words or statements to counteract the effects of ONE negative statement? That is HUGE! Criticism holds such immense power to crush a spirit! So if we need to give 5-20 praises for every 1 criticism, how many of us are out of balance in communication with those we love?!!!!
I think everyone can relate to receiving the negative comment that stuck; that horridly vile statement that perpetually plays itself like a broken record through the synapses of our mind! If you find yourself in bondage to received hurtful words, talk with someone about it! It may not even be true!! Don’t let your life or your future be ruined by a lie. And likewise, in your own relationships be ever-aware of your thoughts and restrain your tongue when your thoughts are negative! Choose your criticisms wisely; make sure they serve a specific, constructive purpose and share them with a point. Then also, sandwich your criticism between praise! And let your praise be specific: for example, instead of saying “good job Jonny,” explain exactly what he did that was good, “you did a great job cleaning up your toys right when I asked you to!” And if you are out of balance with more criticism than praise, now is the time to make the change! Make a commitment to specifically and effectively praise those you love! You never know how a simple “you can do this,” or an “I believe in you” can propel one to greatness!!