“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me.” Of course, we know that this statement is not true, at least not the second part. Sticks and stones may cause physical harm, sure, but words can also inflict pain and cause lasting hurt. The difference is that one injury is often visible while the other is not.
Like with physical injuries, the hurt caused by words is not always intentional, and its impact may be unexpected. Yet, careless words can be no less hurtful than careless actions. A comment in an emotional moment, an ill-considered observation, or a thoughtless piece of advice can carry more weight and do more harm that we might imagine. They can also have a lasting impact. Many of us can recall comments, observations, or criticisms from people who matter to us that have stuck with us for years, and even decades.
Importantly, the words we say to ourselves can be just as harmful as the words others hurl at us. The impact is even worse when we say negative things to ourselves repeatedly. Our brains use repetition as a key learning process. The brain searches for patterns and looks for consistency to make sense of what is happening to us and what is going on around us. As a result, the truth is less influential than how often we are exposed to a message or theme. This is the power of self-talk. What we say to and about ourselves matters.
Further, negative words can stimulate chemical changes in our bodies. Multiple studies have shown that negative words release stress- and anxiety-producing hormones. They can also contribute to long-term anxiousness and lower levels of self-perception.
Fortunately, there is good news about the words we hear and use, too. Experts advise that positive words and thoughts can change how we feel and how we interact with the world. Focusing on positive thoughts and words stimulates activity in the frontal lobe of the brain. The more we focus on what is positive and adopt an optimistic outlook, the more we “heal” our thinking and shift toward a positive perception of others and the world in general.
Herein lies the power of affirmations to shift our thinking, increase our confidence, and make us happier. The repetition of positive affirmations takes advantage of our brain’s tendency to believe what it hears. The same phenomenon that makes negativity so powerful can be harnessed to make us healthier and happier. The more often we repeat positive affirmations, the more our brains assume them as truth and will shift our thinking and perceptions.
The power of words needs to be heeded as we decide with whom to spend time and form friendships. We may not be able to choose everyone with whom we work and associate, but we can resist allowing their attitudes and perceptions to become ours. Being conscious of negative speaking patterns and themes can help us to take counteraction. We also need to do what we can to minimize the time spent with these negative people and the influence they have on our thinking and perceptions of ourselves.
Further, when we hear words that hurt, we need to respond (at least to ourselves) with countering messages such, “That is not accurate” or “That is not who I am.” Our brains need to hear that what was said is not to be accepted or believed. Allowing the words and the hurt they carry to remain unchallenged risks our giving them more weight and impact than they deserve.
We can find ourselves on both sides of the words hurt-and-heal issue. There will be times when we say things that hurt, things we regret. We need do what is necessary to counter the damage, apologize, and learn from the experience. When we are hurt by the words of others, we need to do what is necessary to avoid allowing ourselves to be caught up in the negativity and push back against it through what we say to ourselves.