Dr. Deb’s Mental Health Vitamin: Finding the right words
By Dr. Deb Wade
GCU Vice President, Counseling and Psychological Services
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Do you remember that quote?
Consider this lesser-known quote from Yehuda Berg: “Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.”
From my chair as a therapist, I can tell you that at the root of much pain is often a cache of hurtful words that have wounded and scarred and continued to impact confidence and security.
Words may been spoken directly with the targeted intent of hurting, shaming or condemning, OR they may have been uttered by someone who does not have that intent but wounded anyway. Either way, words can be one of the most destructive forces in one’s life … or one of the most constructive ones.
Consider a young man who shared that his father had been verbally caustic, condemning, belittling and shaming. No matter how hard this young man tried to show his father that he was a “good boy,” his father found reasons to continually berate him.
No surprise that upon presentation in my office he was feeling completely isolated in his life. He had sworn off having any meaningful relationships because he would not allow his heart to be touched by another; he was aware that he had “walls of protection” built around him so that “no one ever again has the power to hurt me.”
Good strategy? Not on your life! Yes, he was walling off negative experiences from reaching him, but he also was walling off all the positives and potential that life has to offer as well.
You see, what seems like a healthy coping mechanism in the moment (erecting a wall to protect one’s heart from the sting and bleeding resulting from denigrating words) can later in life become an unhealthy, maladaptive coping mechanism. It no longer protects you; now, it merely isolates you.
On the other hand, I get to work with some of the most talented, eager, feisty and goal-oriented athletes to be found anywhere.
Often, one will describe to me that early in his life, he was given messages, both verbal and nonverbal, that he was loved, accepted and cherished. He was invested in – with time, with positive words, with intentional interest – and he came to realize that he has tremendous value.
This value is NOT because of what he can do; rather, it is because of who (and Whose) he is. Translation: When one feels this unconditional acceptance, love and investment, one can then take risks and feel good about striving to be the best he or she can be.
We know that early childhood experiences can either nourish or stifle self-worth, self-belief and confidence. Words do hurt. Ridicule, disdain, humiliation and taunting all cause injury and can have very long-lasting and debilitating consequences.
But on the flip side, words that are loving, caring and accepting, even those that may be disciplinary in nature, can set one up for all the positive and possible that life has to offer.
Let’s all pledge to be acutely aware of the words we use. Let’s be willing to repair a hurt heart because past words may have been unfair or ugly.
And, most important, if you are suffering from wounds that have bled profusely because of harsh treatment in the past, take it to the Father, who we know creates only masterpieces!
Why? One final and most important quote:
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” — Psalm 139:13-14