Why were we never taught how creative and yet potentially damaging and possibly fatal our words can be? For words can save lives yet words can start wars. Words can enroll others into one’s life and words can expel someone forever.
The spoken and written word is probably the most powerful tool that any human being will ever have in their lifetime. As the English novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote in 1839 “The pen is mightier than the sword”. Unfortunately the other old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me,” could not be further from the truth. It’s easy to see the impact of nasty words in the school playground or coming from the mouth of a stressed out mother screaming at her child in the supermarket. However, sometimes the right words said at the wrong time, in the wrong place or context, or even words said in jest, can be more dangerous than the nastiest comment.
I wonder if people have any idea of the potential harm they could inflict when they open their mouth, put pen to paper or post something on the Internet. I recall the wise words of a mature lady I met in my teens: “If you can’t say something nice, best just talk about the weather,” she said. This prominently sits alongside several other supportive comments in my memory under the title of “Wise words worth recalling.” Next to that sits another list of negatively impacting phrases, which I call “Platitudes of Punishment”: –
- Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.
- Eat up your dinner. There are millions of people around the world starving while you sit there playing with your food.
- Oh it wasn’t that bad.
- Why are you doing it that way?
- Stop complaining, you’re making yourself a victim.
- If you can’t do it properly then don’t bother.
That last phrase, which may have been said off the cuff or out of anger and frustration, had a resounding negative impact on me as a child and stayed imprinted inside my head into adult life. Subsequently, chasing perfection in every endeavor became a torment of monumental size, making perfection the only acceptable passing grade in my life. Understandably life had, for much of the time, been scored and scared with numerous failures.
Now it may need to be mentioned that for some people the words of another are nothing more than just that, another’s words. While for those who crave love, acceptance and approval, these words might be a major component in the making of a tormented soul. Although we have both aspects in our character, in that we want to please in some situations and control in others, most will predominately lean one way or the other. Therefore the reaction or response to these words will be profoundly different for the pleaser than the controller. While the controller will ignore or neutralise the statement by concluding “Oh she’s just off on one again”, the pleaser will attempt at whatever cost to follow the words to the letter. It’s a shame that words, like food in the supermarket, don’t have a sell by date. Then after a short period of time things said to us would be erased, no longer carrying a charge and as a result the need to continue to adhere to such words in any form would cease.
I read and hear on social media words and platitudes from people trying to give help and guidance. In the name of science, spirituality, self-help or personal growth, much is said that may be true for some, but is touted as truth for all. The words of an acclaimed and respected author telling them not to complain can topple the reader. Statements sold as fact, that lack acceptance or compassion for the position that some reading their words may find themselves in and their newly found voice which finally dared to complain is once again silenced by the sea of shame that rises up to drown not only their voice but possibly so much more. Those who protest the innocence of such words through their endorsement leave me perplexed as to why anyone could endorse such criticism, loosely masked as help and guidance. Over many years, people have shared what others have said under the guise of trying to be helpful and I have been deeply shocked. I conclude that “Help, is only help, if it’s helpful.” How can trying to be supportive through judgment, criticism and protesting ultimate truth, really be helpful? Making someone feel wrong or bad might make them change, but motivating a person by dunking them in a sea of shame will ultimately create more damage than good, doing the recipient a massive disservice.
There is obvious connection between word and action. “Please can you close the window?” is hopefully followed with the window being shut. Yet many don’t understand the connection that words have to our feeling world. I knew someone who would spontaneously name out loud the feeling he was having. He said it helped him to move on from a particular feeling he wanted to transition through. It first occurred before he had explained this process and came as a surprise to some of us around him. We were driving down the road when unprovoked a word popped out of his mouth. ”Fear” he said, in a slightly raised voice. Now you may think that his response does not make any sense and you may be correct. We need to realise that as we step into the realm of our feeling world we may need to leave logic behind. A client told me he spent a long time tormented by guilt around his girl friend’s parents. They were hard to deal with and spending time together was very difficult, to say the least. One day she came into the bedroom to find him head in hands. He was again feeling bad about having to go and pretend to play happy families. She enquired as to how he was, since his stance obviously said something was wrong. For once he was unable to say the “right thing” and in a voice of submission and failure expressed his truth. He was surprised, as she not only agreed but also suggested he not go this time, but rather go and hang out with his friends. As he stopped to ponder her suggestion he noticed the intensity of his feeling change. It seemed, he said later, that all he needed was to voice how he felt. Once expressed, his feelings seemed to transform. As a result he was able to accompany her from a loving openhearted place in himself, rather than a shut down resentful one.
In other situations just voicing may not be enough and action may be required. Until you go through the stage of voicing the feeling i.e. “I Feel…” you won’t know if that’s enough, or if another stage is needed for resolution. Most of us in our formative years have had our relationship with our feeling world confused and complicated by the way others have either tried to control or misguidedly support us. Then as adults we may have been bombarded by “Help” that turned out not to be very helpful. There may be many reasons why we have learnt not to name and voice what we feel. For some, as children, it was not ok to be anything other than “Fine” or “OK”. How many remember being told “don’t upset your mother, she’s got enough on her plate,” so we bite our lip or swallow our feelings?
In conversation with clients I have often been asked what good would it do to talk about certain things with me, since they already think about this stuff a lot. This is another situation where our feeling world leaves the road of logic. Perhaps the person listening may only be needed to bear witness, not to judge or comment on what is being said. The potency in such an exchange may come from a person hearing their own words, as if one aspect of them selves needs to inform another.
I remember as a child feeling the disappointment of a broken promise, how ever small or insignificant the subject matter might have been. Once said, I took it as given that whatever had been promised would occur, so the fact they just forgot never made up for the disappointment. I have always been shocked at hearing what some people say in front of their children as if they were not even there or at least deaf. Children don’t miss a thing especially the words coming out of their parent’s mouth. Potentially those words stay imprinted for a lifetime. I always thought it ironic how parents would spend so much time teaching their children to talk and understand only subsequently to convey, “Children should be seen and not heard”.
I know many would say that we live in different times and that so much has changed, that there has been a “Paradigm shift in the consciousness of mankind”. Well I have to say I’m not really quite sure what people mean by that, and therein lies one of the biggest problems. It is important to understand what is being said to you and make sure that others understand what it is that you are trying to convey. When a conjuror does a trick it is in the slight of hand that the illusion is created. If you could get them to slow down the trick, you possibly could see how it was done. If only we could do the same with what people say. Rewind the tape and replay what they had just said, except slowly enough to ask for conformation and validation of what they mean. There are often many assumptions woven into the fabric of what a person is trying to convey to another. Apart from the unspoken compliance that is often presumed in the silence of the listener one surely needs to enquire as to the intention and motivation of the speaker in order to be engaged in the conversation. But, is there really a conversation going on? Or is one person “holding court”, giving a speech while the other nods and smiles in the appropriate places including a random word here and there, so the speaker knows the other is still paying attention?
Maybe life would be much simpler if we were all programmed to “Say what we mean and mean what we say” And if that don’t work, best stick to the weather…