By Carlana Charles
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can’t hurt me.
As a child growing up in the Caribbean, those words, followed by the sticking out of my tongue, were my defense when some friend, classmate or cousin said something about my acne-riddled face, my bony frame, my forehead (which they called a five-head), attacked my personality or my hand-me-downs.
At the time, it sounded like a sensible retort. After all, mere words could never cut as much as a stick or a stone. But I knew differently and I always had—even as a shy, clumsy, skinny, acne-riddled and self-conscious girl.
From my time in an abusive marriage, I can honestly say that it was the words that hurt the most. Nasty missives that were meant to diminish me, humiliate and make me feel inconsequential.
Yes, the beatings did hurt, but when the bruises were gone and the physical experience abated, oftentimes it was the things he said and the way in which he said it (dripping with a hate and an anger I could not fathom) that lingered. Of course, you don’t have to live with an abuser to be able to relate to the power of words. Please, let’s dash that notion that they can’t hurt because of their lack of physical-ness.
We know they do, and we know their sting can linger. So barren and useless, lingered long after a punch to my head.
I could kill you now, lingered long after a round of kicking. F%$k you and this marriage, lingered long after he walked away from the room he locked me in. Sure, the physical encounters hurt, but the words made me ponder deep things and questions I could not answer.
They made me cry, and they gave me headaches from the constant replay in my head.
I have a thin scar on my nose from the surgery that resulted from that last beating. It’s probably not going to fade, and likely to be there till the day that I die. I don’t dwell on it, really. It’s now a part of a past that has pushed me to become a better, more centered and intentional person who pursues a fulfilling life with vigor.
The scar did not hurt, but the words that accompanied the beatings did.
My experience with verbal abuse has solidified my belief that words pack a punch, and can change us negatively if we let them. Those words that spewed venomously out of his mouth at that time and during the sour periods of our relationship greatly impacted me. They caused me to really question my self-worth.
I went from being a self-assured woman to one who questioned her worth, her beauty and what she had to offer the world. If this man, who loved me so much that he wanted to spend his life with me, is now so vile towards me, then maybe I’m a trigger? Why does he hate me so much? Why does he say these nasty things?
Maybe there’s something about me that causes such an angry reaction? Questions and more questions would abound, all because of the things he said.
What I came to understand eventually, though I think I always knew, is that what spews from a person’s mouth is often a reflection of their heart, who they are, and how they truly feel. It almost always is about them. Violence is often meant to intimidate and give them a false sense of power, but the words are meant to cut.
So how do we deal with words?
First, we acknowledge their power. We are old enough to recognize that they do hurt and often much more that a physical hurt. I think I always knew this. That’s why I would run home and cry in my room after being teased at school, that’s why I questioned my worth later as an adult in an abusive marriage.
They hurt because we feel they are the truth about who we are and how the world sees us. Let’s stop saying they don’t, because this isn’t going to minimize their effects. We then move from acknowledgement to processing.
What I came to understand and embrace afterwards is that hurting people hurt others. Yes, I know it’s kind of a cliché now, but if you stop to think of it, it really is true. It is often never with the person whom the hurt is inflicted upon. More often than not, it is a reflection of the inner state of the person delivering the hurt.
My ex was a messed up person on the inside. He carried past hurts of rejection, bad choices, secret shame and abandonment into the relationship. His past informed the person who he lived out in the marriage and not who he projected himself to be before. He didn’t love himself, and he certainly didn’t like himself.
Whoever he had a live-in relationship with would have experienced the brunt of his mess — verbally or otherwise. We can’t hide who we really are indefinitely.
If you’re feeling good about yourself, have a healthy self-image and are—for the most part—a happy person on the inside and cool with who you are, you are likely to reflect that in speech and action. It’s not hard to tell who a person is, you know. Look more at what they say, and not so much what they do.
People who are constantly tearing at others with snarky comments all the way to full-scale raging attacks, I’ve found, aren’t truly happy on the inside. I think if we understand that, we will process things differently. It’s their mess, their internal drama. It rarely is about me and you.
Never define yourself by the words and actions of others.
Do so, and you will come up with a false sense of self. You alone can define your worth and value by the life you live, how you treat others, who you are when no one is looking, the thoughts you carry, the intention behind your actions.
For me to take his violence and his cutting words and pull my value from that was erroneous. This has now changed.
Don’t ever, not for a minute, embrace the form of thinking that you are ugly, unworthy, stupid, useless and a host of other negative words simply because someone treated you in a way that was ugly, unworthy, stupid or said you were. It ain’t you, boo-boo.
Remember, you are beautiful, you’re a masterpiece, you’re a designer’s original, and you’ve got loads to offer the world.
To some measure, you may be influenced by the things people have said and done to you, but you are resolute in not letting their projections (because they are often projecting their shit and how they feel on the inside anyway) become the benchmark at which you measure yourself.
Carlana Charles is the Story Midwife at the Birthing Project, where she shows women how they can use words to heal, transform, enrich and birth wonder in their lives. She’s also an advocate for empowering women and the Visionary of FemmePowered, where she blogs and work with women to help them live their best possible lives as they pursue their passions and walk in their divine purpose. She lives in the Caribbean with her dog Ellie, and and enjoys coffee, wine, books, jazz and great conversation.
Editor: Dana Gornall