The Power of Words: Words Can Harm, Words Can Heal
The Illusion of Words. The Power of Words.
This is the Summary (Part 7 of a 7 part series) of “Words Can Harm. Words Can Heal.“
Words, Themselves, Are Benign Illusions
Words have no truth in and of themselves. This is no obtuse philosophical statement. I mean it in the most graspable sense possible. And if you will indulge and continue to read my words that I’ve seemingly rendered into nothing right now, I would love to explain.
Words only have power that we assign them. Alone, they are benign illusions or, if you prefer, symbols that represent something else.
When I say “cat” that word holds no truth. Zero. It’s only a word. And sure, it represents a thing that we call “cat” out there on planet Earth. On Mars, the word may be “bflrpe” if they happened to use the same english symbols for letters. But you see how the word, itself, is nothing. If you can only read Japanese, and you saw the word “cat,” no images would come to mind. Your thoughts may be of frustration in not understanding what “cat” means but no images of the thing you and I refer to as “cat.”
(And not to confuse the point further, but to make an observation; Even the image in your mind is not ‘real’ is it? No. There is probably no ‘cat’ in your brain. It’s only an imaginative figure based in your memory of what “cat” means. And if you had no memory of ‘cat’ then nothing. This is why so much of this world is operating in illusion.)
But Words can point toward meaning. Words can help express. And in our expressions, we can leave impressions.
Words are Symbols That Express Ideas
May Form an Image, Thought, or Belief
Because I say illusion, please don’t think I mean impotent or powerless.
To the contrary, illusions can be quite powerful and because of them, some people have a more difficult time in this life than others. And at the same time, not all illusions are harmful. Read any good ‘words of fiction’ lately? Even illusions can point to Truth for the one who is seeking it. Life is so amazing in this way.
So that when words point to harmful illusions that form belief or thought, human beings tend to then operate within that paradigm that can render them further into the world of Painful Illusion or Confusion.
Maybe it’s just the HSP but when I held beliefs or thoughts yet felt a kind of internal and unnameable pain at the same time, for me, horrific confusion. My brain is one thing, my heart is screaming. Today my heart doesn’t scream, but it still allows me to know when my mind is suffering a thought or belief that’s not true for me.
On the other hand, children being taught that the animal with whiskers, claws, sharp teeth, long tail is called “cat” does have its place in communication. Which is another message: We can use words but shouldn’t let them use us.
Words, labels, and taxonomy allow for communication and prevent confusion. But worshiping them as the Truth is the beginning of Mass Delusion.
So this is what this series has been ultimately about: The ability in recognizing the power of words and how to minimize the harmful thought-forms they can create.
If words can harm, then they can heal. If words can form or re-inforce illusions that hurt, words can also introduce and point toward the Truth or Reality that, because it IS closer to Truth, feels better. This is my message.
Words Can Harm and Words Can Heal
I’ve talked about the most common ways in which speaking without impeccability can harm ourselves, others, or our relationships. When I say harm, I want to make clear that I mean more than just our feelings. Yes our feelings can get hurt, but often and with enough time or exposure, it can change the “who we are” as incarnated on this planet.
It can form painful beliefs which shape our world into a painful nightmare. And this is the tragedy.
We were born innocent and then speech happened. Garden of Eden, the tree, the snake, and even so beautifully characterized in The Voice of Knowledge, we gained capacity and understanding through the importance and sometimes misuse of Words.
No matter our family of origin issues. No matter how we’ve been vocalizing ourselves up until this point. Not even is a matter that we may be the most verbally abusive “worse selves” that we can hardly believe it. If we’re pathological liars or have mental disorders, perhaps a psychologist could better equip us to undertake our new practice but minus any otherwise negative extremes, it is my belief we’re all well suited and appropriately already tended to take up our new vocation of more honest expression. [Note: Honest doesn't mean pretty positive affirmations. It simply means, "Not a lie."]
I’m going to, in the following sections, summarize what each article dealt with and then how we could better express ourselves, in no matter the situation. I pray this is helpful even if you feel you need to start back at the beginning.
Part 1: Words Can Harm
From nursery rhymes to eloquent sayings, nothing more has kept our world in “black mitote” than our verbal expression along with then the belief that a person’s negative (untruth or illusory) expression (of belief or thought) “should not” hurt us. The truth is, words can hurt. For those who currently do experience or inflict the pain that an unkind word or harshly turned sarcastic comment imposes, this is for you.
If you believe that words “can” harm, then I suggest they can heal as well.
If you do not believe in the majestically powerful or devastating potential of words AND have never experienced or inflicted “word harm” to yourself or others, maybe this can persuade you of the power of words anyway.
When people say, “Sticks and Stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you,” and yet they DO hurt you, not only are you now hurt by the words that originally hurt you, but you’re subconsciously told that they shouldn’t be hurting you. Oh my goodness, how painful.
This saying probably evolved as parents tried to help their children put into perspective that words have no power unless we give them power. And this is true. And it is also true that the world does give them power. So that the word ‘never’ is just silly.
You could call a 2 year old the most horrific name in the world – to your understanding – but if you say it in a certain tone, she will laugh or giggle or she could scream and cry or she could just stare at you blankly with it not affecting her (except maybe confusion). In this case maybe the saying, “Sticks and Stones can break your bones but TONES will never hurt you,” might be her illusory equivalent. This makes the same amount of sense to me.
Call a 10 year old – who has watched television, read books, or has attended school – the same name, and things might look very different when you speak a phrase on her.
Compare and contrast that saying with quote: “The pen is mightier than the sword,” if you’re of the opinion that words have no power or that words cannot hurt. What each saying implies is inherently opposite each other.
The pen writes words while the sword threatens physical harm (like sticks and stones) and this saying is saying that words are mightier than threats of physical harm…That an idea is more powerful and can last even through death. That you can accomplish more with words than you can with a physical object of harm.
So that this saying is saying that since words have more power than swords, words are mightier (and by extension, in some cases, can hurt more) than physical harm.
Part 2: If Words Can Harm then Words Can Heal
The remedy for a lie is the truth – as I ousted that “nursery lie” in Section 1 as a contributor of “black mitote” or painful illusions. When we deny our truth we can’t remedy it. When we acknowledge our truth, we can. Until we can get to acceptance of our situation nothing can be done.
This series was inspired in large part by The Four Agreements and if you guys know me at all – you know how excitedly mad I am about The Four Agreements and how the book/the agreements has/ have changed my life. How it came to be I learned how to implement these fixes for communication woes has been a combination of Codependent Recovery as well as my own alcohol cessation. Had none of these things happened, The Four Agreements would have not been in my top 100 priorities much less the study of impeccable speech.
This series heeds caution to people who may find themselves in dangerous situations. It’s for verbal lashings and sometimes even “innocent” verbal faux pas’. It’s not going to make death threats sound sweeter or better and it’s not going to “make him or her” stop making death threats or belittling you if s/he is so inclined. If you’re currently at the mercy of such a relationship I would highly advise you begin working on Codependency Recovery – and there are plenty of areas and resources here in which to get started.
Part 3: Name Calling or Throwing Around Labels
I addressed some things we can do when that trigger of name-calling or labeling is about to be pulled. Whether it’s a time out or an open-ended ceasing of the conversation, both parties have power to insure it doesn’t escalate. By the time name calling has entered into the conversation, there had been a point when one or both people sensed that the conversation was in murky waters unless you’re dealing with an unbalanced person who just came at you by surprise. [One more time, this series is not about those extreme once in a lifetime or once in a blue moon occurrences but I will deal with that at a later time since they too have happened to me.]
Why is it that often when people have resorted to name-calling and labels that I sense the same partners have been stingy with their praise and open admiration for one another? I am a big believer in showing affection through my use of words. I have been known to say to people I love in my life:
“I respected what you said tonight. Thank you.”
“I really have such admiration for the way you can handle certain situations.”
“You make doing that look so easy!”
“I am grateful you are in my life. I am grateful you love me.”
“I am so lucky to have such a beautiful man in my life. I love you.”
I think honest and loving praise are the antitheses to name calling and labels. And can you imagine getting used to this kind of communication? We teach our brains something differently don’t we? Our minds get used to this particular path of speech and so when a heated exchange begins down the road, can you see how our brain would have a hard time insulting the very person it had been so honestly lavishing with respect, love, gratitude, and admiration? So, yes, words can heal. They can be used to heal even more too.
Part 4: Sarcasm
Sarcasm is not the same as irony, flip, or facetiousness. Sarcasm is mean-spirited. Sarcasm hurts. And sarcasm is angry.
The root word from Latin to the Greek, sarcasm literally means “to cut a piece of flesh (from the targeted person).” But no matter how you “slice it” sarcasm doesn’t feel good. Either the receiving of sarcasm or, I would even argue, the delivering of it. Sarcasm is contagious. The undercurrent of anger getting passed down generational lines and we wonder why family’s are becoming increasingly torn apart; Why children grow up to go to therapy or enter 12 step programs; Why parents divorce; Why siblings quit speaking; Why we’re constantly turning to narcotic substitutes, happy pills, alcohol, food, sugar, or even other relationships.
At it’s foundation sarcasm is the very deception of communication. Using people as the butt of our anger, or our potentially viable words as an excuse to retort back, “I didn’t mean it! I was joking.” [At least with name calling and throwing out labels we know, at least, how to take the other person. We understand they are angry with us even if it's not appropriately expressed.] Please re-visit the Sarcasm article in techniques on avoiding Sarcasm.
I loved writing this section and now that we know where I stand on sarcasm. What do I propose is the anecdote to sarcasm?
Dealing with underlying anger or resentments. Why can’t we express our displeasure at our beloved for coming home late instead of saying, “Thanks for allowing me cook dinner for you yet again and letting me throw it out! I just love to waste time and money!” Yes. Okay. He gets the message that you’re angry but now you’ve thrown sarcasm at him and he may be more in a defensive posture than a receptive one. Deal with the underlying issue if you want resolution. Forcing someone into a defensive stance will not make your communication successful or your relationship blissful.
Honesty in your communication. “I feel that…” or “I think that…” or “I want you to understand that…” or “It’s important to me…” or “I don’t appreciate…” are all good ways to start communicating how you’re feeling about something. Anytime a conversation starts with your addressing your problem with “You always…” or “Why don’t you ever…” or “If you would just…” or “You should…” you are blaming another person for your problem and again, where is her reception going to fall? Good to not use sarcasm but blaming isn’t going to cut it either as we see in the Blaming/Shaming section.
Courage. Instead of being sarcastic, do you have the courage to be brave and express yourself as honestly as you can? I don’t think anyone who was born into sarcasm acquires this courage naturally. I believe it takes work. And what about the fear you may have lingering that’s currently telling you, “But if I don’t have sarcasm I won’t be funny?” Hogwash! You heard me. Hogwash! When the anger is gone and the courageous honesty has become a mainstay in your life you will have a humor so freeing and refreshing that you will be the person people will want to be around when they’re down. And when we gain control of our tongue and begin to use it without sarcasm, we will begin to understand what real humor is, and more to the point, because sarcasm seems to be contagious, because we won’t be sarcastic anymore, we’ll have less need to be angry, we’ll feel even more free and less shackled in anger, and we can use our good humor then with impunity!
Part 5: Gossip
Drama Triangle of Gossip: When I tell you what he said about you, it’s gossip.
What the imagined “he” said about “you” would normally never hurt you. But when I get into the middle of it and am “a good friend” by relaying it…Who has really hurt your feelings? Who has harmed you? He could think bad things of you all day long but if he never told me and/or I never told you you wouldn’t have hurt feelings. Response for the tenacious one who would bring such insipid information to you? [Go back to the article and choose a response.]
Now, with all things in life, little black and white. Sometimes your life, livelihood, health, and so forth may be in danger of shifting into painful or illusion territory when a viable threat or word harm is overheard. Sometimes telling your friend or someone may be the wisest course of action. But because there is a single-mindedness of love and care, the matter is in the motivation. Remember the very beginning of this piece: Words are illusions and at best, all we can do is try to point at the Truth as best we can and even then, sometimes messy. Oh how I love language!
I shared in a meeting one day: “What people think of me is none of my business. But if a person decides to tell me, we may have a challenge.”
If I solicit you for your opinion of me, my thoughts, beliefs, or whatever, that’s one thing. If minding my own business, you unsolicitedly wanted to share your thoughts with me about me, that is a different game. (I would hope we had mutually similar boundaries in our relationship for you and I to both be happy with that!)
Otherwise, what you are doing is then gossiping on yourself. You’re telling me more about you than you are about me.
The Anecdote for Gossip is first to recognize it and then to stop the telling of it or the listening to it or the passing of it around.
Self Gossip – Gossiping On Yourself
Not to be confused with seeking counsel from a trusted advisor or friend
This means telling your co-workers who you slept with the night before, this means having boundaries so soft that you believe the entire world is entitled to know you like a book. This is harmful because it stymies us or it can boomerang us back into worse shape than before. Let’s face it that the world still needs to put people in boxes and that some people will revert your words against you.
When you reveal everything about what you think – you are not revealing who you are. At the very best you are revealing what you think or believe about whatever particular story you are currently in. And that can change in a clip.
You are simply revealing one train of thought or idea that perhaps may change tomorrow. [Buddhism or Vedanta or other eastern philosophies or religions teach that attachment to thought can lead to pain or confusion, as also explained in The Four Agreements time after time. It's an agreement and that's all. As you change, so may it.] So when all of your family knows how you feel about me because you made sure to tell them, when you invite me to dinner one night with your family, you’ll perhaps have some tough questions to answer.
Show of hands of all females who made the mistake of telling Mom every time their boyfriend treated them “badly.” Yeah. me too. How bad did THAT suck? Having to back peddle every time we made up? Was it any wonder that when my life started changing and with my Mom constantly criticizing my then husband that I had a hard time setting that ferocious boundary? But didn’t I ask for that? Didn’t I effectually say, “Hey Mom. When I tell you junk I want you to support me and be on my side?” And furthermore wasn’t she? So when I got straightened out I had to set that one down and it also helped I finally told her my not so lovely contributions to the relationship woes.
Still even more insidiousness to gossiping on ourselves.
Rarely will we reveal the “who we are” in our gossip against ourselves.
“Yeah I hooked up last night” you tell your friends around the water cooler. What you don’t tell them as they go off on their way to ridicule you amongst themselves is that you hook up casually because your self-esteem has been damaged ever since that one horrible thing that happened to you when you were 14. Or I tell my Mom all about the evils of my past boyfriend but neglect the parts of the story that reveal he’d put up with my drunken stupors, bouts of rage, isolations, agoraphobia, and bad-mouthing her.
Gossiping on ourselves requires perhaps more observation.
So what’s the anecdote for Self- Gossip?
Let’s make the concept of Boundaries an integral part of our life and learn the appropriateness of strict boundaries as well as soft ones. Let’s discuss our ideas; the who we are right now. What are the things that make us tick? When we do this, we can form even more bonded relationships with the people we’re communicating with. We can communicate with integrity without having to explain or justify what it was we said what about whom or why we felt it necessary to reveal intimate details with virtual strangers.
Remember: As your ideas, beliefs, thoughts change, the world around you change. When we gossip and put “the word” out there, we seem to begin painting ourselves into a corner; All the while, making ourselves ripe for others to gossip about us, call us names, use sarcasm on us, and even shame & blame us.
Halting gossip about others and ourself is a huge [the hugest?] step in the process of healing harmful speech and the fertile ground it can set in motion. And I do believe as I sit here and write, that healing harmful communication is the healthiest endeavor we can undertake in order to heal our often damaged spirits while in this incarnation.
Part 6: Shame, Blame, and Manipulation
We can be a quite shame-based society. Or, for some us, growing up in shame-based and blaming systems has shaped our world to the extent we think this is primary way in order to get someone to ‘change’ or ‘do something different that might make us happy or feel better.
I understand that theory has not often much to do with our realities when we’re reading an article or a book on how better life could be “if only”.
Sure the world could be perfect if each and every one of us learned to get rid of shame, blame, and manipulation and the subsets like gossip, name-calling, labels, and sarcasm.. If we could all learn how to truly express with 100% accuracy each and every time in order to get to that truthful and authentic expression, wouldn’t we live in a truly different world? I do know I would be happier and more peaceful. I would have authentic relationships and I would feel trusting and open. I would feel the freedom to be completely who I am and that would be a loving, caring, compassionate and sensitive person with good intentions expressing myself always perfectly. Unfortunately this is not how it is yet, but in the meantime and quite fortunately, we can start practicing in my own world.
It would be wonderful if people took responsibility for their relationships and admitted when they were less than skillful in a particular expression but again, many of these same people have had to build up a thick layer of ego-shell because they themselves have experienced other people who refused to take responsibility. What ends up happening is no one is responsible but everyone else is to blame. It’s painful.
If it really is my fault that you are in pain or you are suffering then that means it’s my responsibility and it either is or it’s not. I will either take that responsibility or I will not. But if you are going to wait on me to fix you and if that thought doesn’t terrify you, go please run to my Articles on Codependency.
Taking responsibility for myself. I have discovered that when I am taking care of myself to the best of my ability, God/Karma/Universal Law/Nature/Spirit, will always systematically begin taking care of the other person or my situation and not a moment before. If I am genuinely taking care of myself, shame and blame will not enter into my thoughts. Manipulation may still enter my thoughts because I haven’t gotten exactly courageous as asking for what I want and need so the remedy for manipulative speech is honesty, courage and practice.
And if these are of a particular challenge for you, come see us – without shame – at my Codependent Recovery page on Facebook.
Part 7: The Epilogue
If skeptics have turned to believers over the power of words – good.
If the former person who’d not understood the power of her words can now understand her power and further use them for healing and good communication – excellent. If I haven’t been as clear as I maybe could have been I apologize – I have been under the weather lately. [Another good reason to adore Agreement #4: Always do your Best. ]
We’re all going to waffle and wane and don’t let this be an excuse to throw in the towel and revert back to what you’re trying to overcome. Don’t you dare have an accountability partner you allow to shame you when you slip. Because you will slip. And so what? What is life if not the dance?
And do not under any circumstances ever buy the fact you cannot move successfully toward your new goal of at least recognizing that Words Do Have Power and how we use them can matter.
Edited June 02, 2014