Mind Matters — Words Matter

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” So goes the childhood ditty of defense against the bully. Actually, words do hurt and they do matter.

This column has addressed bullying previously. Hence, the foray into words here will take a different tack—not only how we use words towards and about others but towards ourselves as well.

No Pollyanna of positive psychology am I, yet I concur with cognitive behavioral therapists about how we can be negative with our words. We may “generalize” when something we don’t like happens and say, “it’s always like this,” or we may “awfulize” and perceive even a minor disturbance as a horrific one. Family therapists talk about rephrasing a situation or message—how to speak affirmatively instead of negatively.

Now with the birth of my first grandchild, I am even more cognizant of how words matter—what we say and how we say it is creating an imprint on that young, absorbent mind.

What does she hear us say, not only to her but to each other that will influence not only her speech development but also her outlook on life? Recently, I needed my own reframe when I developed a very painful neck, shoulder, and arm. What did I say? “My neck and arm are killing me.” A colleague and friend urged the rephrase! Okay, my arm and neck hurt, but they are not “killing me.” Why add that violent image to what already hurts? So I changed the message to self. Also note that there are also psychological components to our aches, as well as muscular issues. Who is the “pain in the neck”? Are they really “killing you”?

We bandy about all sorts of words that convey much violence and negativity.

We label ourselves and others cruelly, often internalizing the negative refrains of a verbally abusive authority figure from childhood. Some of us go beyond chastising ourselves with these inner voices that chide us with “you’re stupid” or “bad” (or whatever words demean us) and externalize the labels onto others. Who hasn’t cursed at a driver in “our way”?

Think too about the words we use to describe another derogatorily that are our and their body parts! Ever reflect on how there really is no part of the body that should be so defamed? From head to toe, mouth to -----, we are one whole body. We need all the parts to work in unison.

I am reflecting on my words about myself and others a lot these days. Might you do the same?