“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

We said this as children, when we didn’t have anything clever enough to retort back to our playground bullies, those big, mean, ugly kids who called us names but, end of day, didn’t matter because they were stupid.

We said this to ourselves to nurse the wound that words caused us, to tell ourselves that it didn’t hurt, that we were fine. That it didn’t matter because they were stupid and we were awesome and they just didn’t understand. That words bounced right off our skin, tough as armour, and we never thought about them again. And if we did feel any pain, then that was stupid; they were just words after all.

Then we got a little bit older, and we stopped saying this, because, slowly but surely, we learned that words did hurt. And yet, we still had a little bit of that old mentality – “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words should never hurt me”. They’re just words, they don’t mean anything. If that person telling me that I’m fat and ugly hurts me, then that’s my problem, I’m too sensitive. I mean, yeah, end of day, maybe that person is a little bit of a jerk for saying that, but that’s just the nature of the world. There are jerks everywhere, and I’m going to have to get used to dealing with them. I have to suck it up, learn how to accept it, move on and stop dwelling.

And yet, we got ever older, and we dwelled. We remembered that person that called us fat, that told us we wouldn’t ever be able to do anything, that we were stupid and lazy and useless and wrong. They may have stopped saying those things, we may even have stopped knowing them, but we heard their voice nonetheless every day. We heard their voice when we looked in the mirror. We heard their voice when we considered applying for our dream job. We heard their voice when we were faced with any disappointment or struggle, and their voices began to mingle with our thoughts. They began to define how we saw ourselves – they told us enough times who we were, and in our own minds, that’s who we became. We were stupid and lazy and ugly, not because of who we were as people, but because that was what they made us see in ourselves. And we didn’t really stop to question who it was that they had defined us as.

But, even saying that, these are not the only voices that we can hear. It is human nature to look in the mirror and hear the voice of that one man who told you that you were “too fat to be attractive”, but you can also look in the mirror and hear the voice of the woman at that party who gushed on and on about how pretty your hair is. When applying for your dream job, chances are, you will hear the voice of the teacher who told you that you won’t be able to do it, but it is the voice of the friend who told you that you were really talented and you really had a shot at doing it that will make you truly go through with it.

You just need to be able to shift your focus from the negative comments to the positive ones, and more than that, you need to seek out and surround yourself with people who will give you these positive comments in the first place.

And maybe one of the first steps in doing this is being one of those people who gives positive comments, who compliments and lifts up and tries to focus on the positive (even when the positive may be really hard to find; in fact, especially then). And we can do this both toward other people, lifting them up and helping them see the beauty in themselves, as well as toward ourselves.

Because when we were kids, we got it completely wrong; sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will hurt us worse. Words will change who we are as human beings, or at least change the way that we see ourselves. Words will attempt to define us, to trap us in boxes and low self-esteem. And, similarly, words have the power to break us out of our traps, whether these be the words that we speak to ourselves – the words that we use to challenge the way that we see ourselves and how we have been defined – or the kind words that others speak to us.

Words are immensely powerful – more so than we seem to want to realize. So let’s utilize that power. Let’s use them for good instead of harm, and let’s do this for ourselves as well as for those around us.

Published by Ciara Hall