“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Today I overheard a child rattle this off in the grocery store and it struck a chord. I am curious — is it just an empty little limerick we parrot mindlessly? Or do we believe it? Or, maybe, do we say it as a mantra, willing it to be true?
In my experience, words hurt. I have been fortunate to have never broken any bones, although I have experienced a serious sprain, stress fractures, and other physical injuries. These experiences were challenging in how they impacted the way I conduct my daily life — for example, I developed the stress fractures when I was running 7 days a week…and obviously, they forced me to stop running for a time, to heal. Mentally giving up that daily habit (and admittedly, addiction) was hard — a lot harder than the actual pain.
But I rarely dwell or even think about that time. It was a short, acute “blip” in my life. The injury healed, the pain receded and I was able to continue running. Although it was only 2 years ago last month, when I started writing this post just now, I had completely forgotten about it. I wrote “I have been fortunate to have never broken any bones” and fully intended to add a period, and move on with my point. Well, my point is this — these injuries do cause physical pain..for a defined period of time (I won’t be getting into chronic injuries and pain today because that is a whole different can of worms, with chronic effects on our psyche and mental state). They happen, and then they pass and we can move on.
I have never forgotten the time that I was 19, getting ready to attend a wedding. I was wearing a dress I loved, and feeling beautiful — and made an off-hand comment about how maybe one day I’d wear my Nana’s wedding dress for my wedding, as my Mom had. The person to whom I’d spoken replied that it was likely too small for me.
I was blindsided. I didn’t see myself as large — and I’d never felt large in comparison to my Mom’s body type (albeit, a couple inches taller…actually, woah. Maybe that is what was meant. My Nana is even shorter than my Mom. Maybe I have completely misunderstood all these years. But regardless–). Those words hurt. I have not forgotten them. I internalized them. I felt large and awkward, and imperfect. I felt…like I was doing something wrong, to be bigger than supposedly my Nana had been, to be clearly so off-the mark from what was “ideal.” I felt like I was wrong.
“Words leave scars.”
Let me just say that I don’t blame anyone for this casual comment — we are all a product of our generation and of society, and we say things unthinkingly. I think too that we also believe some things unthinkingly (such as the notion that a 24-inch waist is “how a woman should be).” I once sat at a table with someone very dear to me — it was an antique with edges that came down very, very low such that I could not comfortably cross my legs under it. This person matter-of-factly told me that it was because of my big thighs, which were so much larger than his (he could cross). Just as with that wedding exchange, there was (and I know this for certain in my heart) no intent to harm. However, even those who love us, and with no malicious agenda, have the power to cause pain with a simple statement. I filed that moment away as a part of my identity, added it to my slowly growing fodder of self-dislike, and never forgot it.
I take issue with the “Sticks and stones” rhyme, not only because it is inherently untrue but because there is a connotation that words should not hurt us. That if they do, we are “too sensitive” (something I have been hearing my entire life), too weak. If words hurt us, we are doing something wrong and are to blame. In all honesty, since my first real exposure to sarcastic (and often vicious) humour in the 7th grade, developing an immunity to the power of words has been a necessary mechanism of survival — something I have managed, generally, to create the appearance of. Inside however, words have always pierced me. In society, it is a failing to react to something that is said to us…and so, if we are shamed by a comment, we then experience further shame for not being “strong” enough to be unaffected. I know firsthand the destructive effects that this cycle can have over the years.
I think it is time to put that tired, old adage to bed — and with that, to reclaim our sensitivity. “Sensitive” is not a dirty word. To feel emotions of any kind is not weakness. In fact, it is my believe that to allow ourselves to experience hurt and sadness is an act of courage. These sensations are not easy and the safer course often appears to be the one in which we build walls to shut them out, or to run away. It takes guts and practice to let discomfort in, to accept that as humans we are meant to feel. As humans, we are highly affected by the information and the world around us.
Hi. My name is Haven and I am vulnerable. I am sensitive.
My name is Haven, and I am human.
I’d like to propose that we all perform a mini self-experiment. First ask — what words have stuck with you throughout your life? Perhaps it was a comment about your body/appearance, as with my two examples. Perhaps, when you were about to get on a stage to claim an award for the highest overall average in your grade for the second year in a row, your Physics teacher told you that you were clearly in the wrong spot…and you felt shame, and embarrassment. Perhaps, although you joke about it now, you have never quite let go of how it made you feel, and every time since that you did not perform to your highest academic standards (hello 1st year University)!, those words taunted you: “he was right about you.”
Recognize these experiences. Start to unravel the impact that they have had in your life. Understand that we are all right there with you. Accept: words leave scars.
My second experiment is to be more thoughtful with our language. Very few of the life-altering and hurtful comments I have held onto in my life were anything more than an offhand remark. “You have little gremlin hands” (yes I spent years ashamed of my hands. Hands)! “He’s so cool…Wait, you’re his sister? You don’t seem anything like him…” (My brother was kind of a big deal in high school. At the time, 6 years younger, I was apparently not). Practice pausing, even just a moment longer than usual, to make sure that you do want to say what you are about to say. We have all felt the effects of words — so let us begin to be mindful in not perpetuating their damage in others. Let’s practice making the choice not to set the foundation for our peers and loved ones to construct destructive stories about themselves.
Sticks and stones can break my bones…but words? Words have done so, so much worse than that.