How Words Hurt

“Sticks and stones can only cut my skin and break my bones, but words can hurt me to the very core of my being.”

You may not remember it said that way when you were in grade school, but that’s probably because your parents, your teachers, and any other authority figure who told you that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” were dead wrong. In fact, I’m going to teach my children that if an adult tells them that, to look them straight in the eye and respond with something like, “Well that certainly is a relief you pompous, self-righteous windbag; and while we’re on the topic, you look like somebody beat you nearly to death with an ugly-stick and then dropped a stupid-stone on you.” (and if they get angry, follow up with something really clever, like “so you admit you were lying?”)

The fact of the matter is that words hurt, and those are the hurts that we feel for years and years. Cuts heal. Broken bones mend. But I’m willing to bet that if we take an inventory of the things that have hurt us the most in our lives, most of us will not remember the time we hit our thumb with a hammer. But you may have a crystal clear memory of someone telling you a phrase like:

“You’ll never be good enough for the team, you might as well give up.”

“You can’t win that election, you don’t have enough friends.”

“Maybe she would go out with you if you weren’t so ugly.”

“You’re not smart enough.”

“You’re not thin enough.”

“I don’t love you anymore.”

“I wish you were never born.”

The words don’t have to be intentionally malicious. The speaker may be well-meaning. The speaker may just be joking around. But it really doesn’t matter. Because once spoken, you can’t snatch them out of the air and re-swallow them. They will leave an indelible mark on someone’s brain (even if it’s just yours). That’s why I try my best not to tease, condemn, or criticize people. Because you never know when a snappy, verbal riposte delivered with impeccable timing could scar someone’s brain for the rest of their life.

And frankly, I used to be very, very good at snappy, verbal ripostes delivered with impeccable timing. If I can give it up, so can you.