Updated: Apr 4, 2020
Most of you know that childhood rhyme, "Sticks and stones may break my bones – but words will never hurt me." Some of you are also familiar with the quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
And while I agree with both sentiments to some degree, I also know that words have the power to hurt people – especially when they come from someone whose opinion matters deeply to us, even if we hold a high level of self-esteem.
Along the same lines, words can unite or divide us, comfort or frighten us, enlighten us or keep us in ignorance. Words create impressions, images and expectations and impact how we subconsciously perceive and consciously think. Since thoughts extend into actions, there's a powerful correlation between the words we use and the impact they have as what we say ripples out and away from us, influencing people we don't even know.
Also, one must also note that what we don't say is deeply affecting to others, as well as what people hear we say – and very often, what people hear is not what we intended at all. Each of us has our filters through which everything we take in – words, body language, biases, another person's silence, etc. – determines our interpretation. It is no surprise how easy it can be for any communication to be horribly mistaken by the receiver(s). And if the other party is not listening, not being fully present to what we are saying verbally or writing in an email, the odds are that our message will not be comprehended in the way we intended, and worse, may be totally ignored.
On the flip side, sometimes it is actually better if we don't take the words directed toward us to heart if they are being used to tear us down, maliciously manipulate our values and beliefs, discourage us, instill fear, cling to false hopes, or create within us a variety of mental or emotional states that can harm us.
Here's a little story that illustrates that both a) Encouraging words offered to someone who is struggling can help inspire them to keep going, and b) Destructive words cast toward someone who is struggling can definitely have negative effects if they allow those words to penetrate deeply:
A group of frogs were traveling through the woods, and two of them fell into a deep pit. All the other frogs gathered around the pit. When they saw how deep the pit was, they told the two frogs that they were as good as dead.
The two frogs ignored the comments and tried to jump up out of the pit with all of their might. The other frogs kept telling them to stop, that they were as good as dead. Finally, one of the frogs took heed to what the other frogs were saying and gave up. He fell down and died.
The other frog continued to jump as hard as he could. Once again, the crowd of frogs yelled at him to stop the pain and just die. He jumped even harder and finally made it out.
When he got out, the other frogs said, "Did you not hear us?" The frog explained to them in froggy sign language that he was deaf. He thought their passionate yelling and waving of their little froggy arms was actually cheering him on the entire time (story author unknown.)
As writer and storyteller M. Scott Momaday said: "Words are intrinsically powerful. They are magical. By means of words can one bring about physical change in the universe. By means of words can one quiet the raging weather, bring forth the harvest, ward off evil, rid the body of sickness and pain, subdue an enemy, capture the heart of a lover, live in the proper way, and venture beyond death."
As a fellow writer, I have a natural fascination with words and the use of language to communicate. I know some people are hasty with their choice of verbiage, while others are extremely precise and will consciously calculate the response they want their words to elicit. Emotional appeals, "spin," misdirection, lies, gaslighting, propaganda, "alternative facts" and similar control tactics via the use of words can override our common sense, trigger us, and cause us to behave in ways that may even be opposite to our basic nature. Teenagers and adults alike can fall into gossiping about others, which can be extremely mean-spirited, and yet also can make them feel like they belong, which is one of the most basic human needs.
The power words have to affect all sorts of people has been documented scientifically, so this isn't just applicable to "hyper-sensitive" people. For example, scientists discovered that simply hearing sentences about elderly people led research subjects to walk more slowly. In other research, when individuals read words that express loving-kindness their actions expressed increased compassion, improved mood, and greater overall calmness. That's a positive benefit. But what about the negative impact of all the divisive rhetoric, crazy conspiracy theories, and untruths we now hear on a daily basis?
Much of what we may not consciously notice is subtle, purposely-crafted, divisive communication that actually causes more separation than we realize. I cannot encourage you enough to listen deeply to what is being said by others and question what does not make logical sense to you, as well as what your "gut" is telling you, and to use your critical thinking skills to consider what may be the agenda of the person saying them. Also take into account the basic human need to belong and any approval you are seeking from others, for whatever reason you may be doing so (love, money, survival, a job, etc.).
From your side, choose to always think before you speak.
Social media in particular has made many people much more impulsive and recklessly fearless when speaking out, especially in highly-charged "Us vs. Them" interactions, or via knee-jerk reactions to things we read. Pause and take a few breaths if you find you are being triggered by what others say, to create some space and not put something out there you may regret.
Owning the Power of Your Own Words goes hand-in-hand with Owning Your Own Mind.
Playwright Tom Stoppard once said, “Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.” I couldn't agree more. Yet I have also seen how words – and the way we order them – can make us come off as elitist in the way we think the world should be nudged. Even if we are right, and our arguments for our causes are impeccable, if we have in any way come off as arrogant, intolerant, isolating or condescending to whom we feel is an opponent we want to win over to "our" side, then our words may indeed have power – but the wrong kind of power.
I wrote in a column years ago titled "Authenticity" how "buzzwords" that are common within a particular peer group or community can be very harmful, even if that is not the conscious intention.
Quoting from what I wrote in that column:
"Although we generally mean well when using them, some buzzwords and phrases can be weapons of mass spiritual self-destruction when used by the oh-so-clever ego to make us feel superior over another whom we smugly feel "just hasn't gotten it."
When we use language as a weapon to wound or deflate someone we feel superior to, our words can have a boomerang effect, and once spoken you can never "un-speak" them. It’s over and done. You can only try and repair the damage you created after the fact. Words that foster separation between you and others can come back to haunt you and make you feel regret – although not consciously unless you begin to live with increased conscious awareness, compassion and humanity toward all human beings 24/7/365, not just the ones you feel are those who "get it" – because, to be bluntly honest, if you (or anyone you hang with) adopts a superior attitude over your fellow imperfect human beings in any way, for any reason, you have so not "gotten it" on a spiritual level. That's not a judgment - it's reality.
As the result of my own broader and clearer observations about the power and impact of words, language and communication, I looked deeply at the use of the word "spiritual." This particular word has been part of my vocabulary ever since I can remember, and yet I have come to really see that it is a term that is highly interpretive, and often misunderstood between the intention extended and the reception of the person on the other end of the communication after passing through their various filters. I've also watched how, over recent years in particular, when I used the word "spiritual" I could feel people judging me as though they thought I was some sort of New Age cosmic wacko, and not simply someone who was interested in what I consider (obviously for lack of a better term) the "spiritual" part of what I feel is an aspect of every human being's makeup. And to top it off, I also began to see how much people recoiled from the word "etiquette" as though they thought I was some frenzied high and mighty moralist who was just itching to smack them over the head! The reality behind my long-held passion about "spiritual etiquette" is actually a) based on the principle of "The Golden Rule" - to treat others in the manner you wish to be treated yourself. It is a humanitarian-based sentiment and reaches beyond the boundaries of religious and spiritual ideals, gender, race and political alliances and socio-economic variances, and b) about fearlessly talking about the elephants and naked emperors in the middle of the room that so many in the vast "spiritual" community would rather deny (especially if someone has deemed that elephant sacred – or worse, if they are the naked emperor being disrobed), pour phoney "love and light" glitter over (while they act in the complete opposite manner), ignore, or merely pretend isn't there.
Since originally writing that column, because the Power of Our Words matters, and inclusiveness is so important to me in a world that is heartbreakingly being pulled apart by intolerance and non-acceptance of our differences, my writing and teaching around this area of human behavior has evolved into what I frame as Ethical Intelligence. I reached a point internally where knew I had to try to frame all I do and say to fall under the umbrella of open-minded and open-hearted humanitarian interconnection as best as I can, while also being consciously aware that people bring every communication they see and hear into their mind through a variety of filters and unconscious biases. Not everyone will hear everything as we wish it to be heard, no matter how hard we try, but the effort is worth it.
It is my deepest hope that the power of the words contained within this blog post will be both clearly received and will help inspire you to begin to look at all you do – how you speak, how you write, your non-verbal communications, even how you dress – and to discover ways that you too can communicate with a greater sense of humanitarian inclusion, compassion and respect for the entire populace - even those you may disagree with. It is my deepest belief that this is the only way we will all be peace-builders within our own life circles, and extend open bridges instead of erecting impenetrable walls.
© 2020, Suzanne Matthiessen, innerevolution media. All rights reserved.