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


Growing up in rural Ohio, I heard those words a lot. They were supposed to “toughen you up” so that mean words would just roll off your back, like water off the back of a duck. If only it were that easy. This column is about the power of words, how they can hurt us and how we can use words differently, to make ourselves and others feel better, not worse.

Over the past twenty years, as a therapist, I’ve learned to pay careful attention to how people use their words. Some words are particularly hurtful. Here are three phrases that are quite destructive, although, on the surface, they appear benign:

“I should…”

“I have to…”

“I need to…”

These words are all about self-manipulation and self-punishment. They’re guilt trips, telling us: “You’re doing it wrong. What’s wrong with you? You better change or you’ll be sorry. If you don’t do (whatever), something bad is gonna happen.”

You may think that these words aren’t so bad, in fact, you use them all the time. But, think about the cumulative effect of manipulating yourself and forcing yourself to do things you don’t want to do, and then punishing yourself if your self-manipulation isn’t successful. Maybe you’re very familiar with feeling the guilt and shame that these words bring, maybe you were raised that way: your mama and papa used these words, so you use them too. “No big deal”, you may be saying.

If that’s the case, just notice how different these words sound and feel:

“I could…”

“I’d like to…”

“I prefer to…”

These words evoke very different emotions. When we use them, we remind ourselves that we always have a choice, that no one has the right to manipulate or guilt-trip us into doing or saying something that isn’t right for us. “Could” lets you know that you have a choice. “Like” reminds you of what makes you happy. “Prefer” is even more subtle: it tells you that you have a preference for one option over another. Notice how – when you use words like this – you feel empowered and free, free to choose for yourself. No one can manipulate you now.

Unspoken words hurt too: All those mean words you use to punish/yell at yourself when you make a “mistake”. I call it “self-talk”: the things you say to yourself that no one else can hear. How kind or unkind is your self-talk? I invite you to notice the things you say to yourself, how you treat yourself. For example, when you try to do something difficult and fail, do you say, “You’re such a loser. You never do anything right.” It’s not hard to see where self-talk like that leads you: it discourages you from ever trying to do anything new/hard/challenging again. It encourages you to give up, stay small and play safe.

On the other hand, if your self-talk is more like: “That’s okay, you gave it your best shot. Maybe next time you can do it even better”, you’re much more likely to keep growing, trying new things, and comforting yourself when you fall on your face (which we all do, repeatedly, no matter how sophisticated or competent we appear to be).

The words we use – with ourselves and others – have a long-lasting power to help or hurt. Take a moment and recall something kind or loving that someone once said to you: doesn’t it lift your spirits every time you think about it?

Cruel words can wound you forever. I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to forget when someone says just the most perfectly-cutting, mean words when I’m at my most vulnerable. Even if the person who said them honestly loves you, the words cut deep…and are not easy to “move past”. Maybe we can forgive (if we really want to), but can we ever completely forget cruel words that were spoken to us?

Whenever I talk about the power of words, I like to quote my wise friend Marie from Vegas (that’s her in the photo, above) who, years ago, told me, “Don’t should on yourself.”

I invite you to do the same.