Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may break my heart

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may never hurt me!"
Uh, yeah...that's great in theory and all, but really...?

I remember hearing this saying numerous times growing up, and the times in which I heard it were the times in which I was hurting the most because of something a classmate had said. Usually, I would nod in agreement, but the pain would still be there. The only difference upon hearing this saying was that I would try to conceal my pain. I would deny my feelings and pretend to be tough. Why is it that we teach this saying to young children starting at such an early age? Is this saying really sending the best message?

As a child, I don't remember any crazy or devastating repercussions due to learning this saying.  It may have even saved me a time or two from humiliation on the playground by providing me a quick comeback to a classmate's bullying words. However, now as a 29-year-old, I do see how this message can play out negatively in one's life. The truth is words can hurt. Words can hurt really, really badly!

Now that I am finally dealing with my rape, I have garnered a better understanding for just how hurtful words can be. Even well-intentioned words can leave long-lasting, negative residue in one's psyche. And it is work (hard freaking work!) to go back and scrub away the dirt left behind by unkind, not-well-thought-out words. Yes, words - not sticks and stones - W.O.R.D.S.

Wouldn't it better to convey the message that it is okay, and a good thing, to feel emotions - even the unpleasant ones? That emotions are a healthy part of the human experience and that denying ourselves this part of the experience can further harm us?

The past few months I have been attempting to identify triggers and pay close attention to the psychological, emotional, and physiological responses (now say that five times fast! ;) that follow one. I have noticed that following a trigger (which come in many different forms), I get the surge of unpleasant emotions. Before I had begun learning effective coping strategies, the emotional surge would quickly overwhelm me. I would hear in my mind: "what's wrong with you?" "you're so weak" "get it together already" "you're completely crazy" "why can't you just get it together" "you're losing your mind" and so forth. Needless to say, this negative internal dialogue did nothing to help me combat my overwhelming feelings of self-doubt, self-blame, and fear of losing all control.

As I try to face my negative internal dialogue head-on, past memories rush into my awareness. The memories do not involve supportive individuals cheering me along in my journey, but they do provide me snapshots of the harsh words that led me to bury my experience with rape and the pain it caused.

  • Being told by an OBGYN that "I don't know when you girls are going to learn to stop putting yourselves in these situations" (my psychiatrist had provided her with background information prior to my coming in because I had missed several appointments due to anxiety and required a special prescription of "happy drugs" as I have joked in the past, just to get me in the waiting room).
  • Being asked by my mother, "how could he have known that what he was doing was wrong based on your behavior," because after all, "ladies do not conduct themselves that way."
  • Being told numerous times "oh, don't be ridiculous" and "you just need to make up your mind and get over this"

These judgmental words, no matter how well disguised, did not help me dismantle my self-doubt and self-blame, which would have helped me process my rape in a healthier way; instead, they provided me a springboard to further distance myself from my emotions. Minimization and accusations can be pretty "effective" tools for convincing yourself that you're over something. Until it comes back to bite you in the butt years later...

So here I am, years later, dealing with the unpleasant, hardened residue left behind not only by the physical act of rape, but also by the painful words of others. It's been 10 years, and I am truly confronting my past for the first time but now with a suspected diagnosis of Complex PTSD. Had I received the support I needed during the immediate aftermath of my rape, perhaps my initial PTSD reaction would not have evolved into Complex PTSD. So there you have it - it appears the phrase "words may never hurt me" cannot be defended even in terms of physical pain!

Perhaps a better rendition would be:
"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may never hurt me...that is, if I allow myself to acknowledge and feel the pain caused by them instead of burying it and internalizing it to the point that it slowly and excruciatingly erodes my mind and body from the inside out..."

Imagine the look on the bully's face when my future kid spits that phrase out on the playground one day...I'm totally kidding :)


  1. Ohhh Lord, another set of words written that I can place myself smack in the middle of. I was bullied and belittled all my school years, I felt like a husk of a thing, totally invisible. I'd lay on my mother's couch, wishing to God I could be invisible, that they'd just leave me alone, not acknowledge me at all, let me alone in my reverie in my "secret hiding place" right in the middle of the living room. I can remember to this day the hurtful words those rotten little snots would say to me, and their NAMES as well! I'm 57! How bad did it have to be to endure with me all these years?? REAL bad. I love you, Darlene, for putting what I have always felt into words.

    1. Hi Anonymous, thank you so much for visiting my blog and commenting. I am so sorry to hear that you had to endure so much pain as a child and that their painful words still echo in your mind today. You were only a child and deserved only loving words. Wishing you the best and hoping that one day their nasty comments will no longer reside in your mind.

      I noticed that you referred to me as Darlene, but I just wanted to clarify that I am not Darlene; she posted this blog entry on her facebook page, so I'm assuming it led you here. Anyway, welcome!

  2. I am so very sorry for the negative and insensitive words that were said to you. My mum does this too. She thinks she is helping. But in reality she is judging. How I have tried to handle her criticism is that she does this because of her own issues. It is NOT about me. But about her and her stuff. Still, at times it hurts and angers me.

    I was labeled in school as the dumb one. I was off in my la-la-land and did not pay attention in order to survive. Kids would make fun of me. Call me names. Point and laugh at me.

    We are survivors!!!

    Safe hugs to you dear one.

    1. Thanks so much, JBR - you are right, we are survivors! Great point you make about the criticism, etc. being a reflection NOT of ourselves but of the individual making the comments. Hard lesson to understand and accept as a youngster (well, even still difficult today!), but so very true. I am sorry for the pain you endured as a child. You are tough!

    2. Hugs to you dear one. Hope your day is a good one? Blessings.