Hurtful Words

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” — African Proverb.

Most of us were probably taught that little chant when we were fairly young. Words can’t hurt. Ignore them. Let them slide off your back. Maybe one of your parents repeated them to you when you came home in tears because someone in school called you “fatso,” or “stupid,” or “fag.” Maybe the incident, which may have been one of many, was brushed off as “just kid’s play,” nothing to be concerned about. And so the next time you just hung your head and kept on going, maybe with that little chant playing in your mind.

If you had gone home with scratches and bruises from sticks and stones you might have returned to school the next day accompanied by an indignant parent. The kid who hurt you may have been reprimanded. Your injury wouldn’t have been too trivial to ignore.

And that’s the difference between the damage caused by physical abuse, which leaves visible marks, and verbal abuse, which marks the victim on the inside. Unlike the marks of physical abuse which will heal, the damage from verbal abuse can compound to cause serious emotional damage to its victim. Anger, depression, and low self-esteem can be products of verbal abuse. And they can last a lifetime.

But not every hurtful word will cause the same type of pain. Something said by a stranger won’t have nearly the effect as the same thing said by someone you trust, someone you love, someone you want to please, someone you want to like you?a parent, your spouse, a best friend, an employer.

Because the words come from someone you respect you take them to heart and begin to believe they’re true. You must be worthless. You must be stupid. They’re only words but they’re said by somone who knows just which words to use and in what tone to cause you the most pain. And when you hear them said enough times, it becomes easier to believe they’re true. You’re worthless and stupid.

The most calculating verbal abusers may be friendly and charming to most of the people who know them. Most abusers won’t hurl their hurtful words at you when witnesses are around, they will wait until it’s just the two of you before unleashing yet more words meant to damage.

Living with a verbal abuser keeps you off-balance. They can be extremely pleasant one minute and bitingly vicious the next. They may lash out in anger or refuse to speak to you for days on end until you don’t know which is worse, the words or the silence. Either way, it’s all your fault. You deserved whatever treatment you got. Who could possibly be expected to love someone as insignificant and inferior as you?

Verbal abuse will cause you to doubt yourself, your abilities, your own judgment. Verbal abuse will make you feel insecure and vulnerable, powerless and depressed. No matter how much you try to please, nothing you do will ever be enough to stop the abuse.

If you’re being verbally abused, get help. Call an abuse hotline or join a support group. Get counseling to help uncover and heal the scars. If the wounds are deep enough, they may stay with you for life, but you don’t have to stay in an abusive relationship for life, even if it requires distancing yourself from an abusive parent or divorcing an abusive spouse.

If only healing from verbal abuse was as easy as healing from the damage of sticks and stones.

Take care of yourself.