“It’s not the events of our lives that shape us, but our beliefs as to what those events mean.” ~Tony Robbins
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
Wow. That one takes me waaay back. All the way to the elementary school playground. A place where I attempted to use it as a shield. As juvenile as this saying is, I would search for comfort in its words for years to come.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how old we get. It’s good to feel a part of something, to be understood, and to be accepted, and it hurts when we feel we’re not good enough to belong.
Whether it’s due to the words of a schoolyard bully (with a flat-chested joke), a passing remark from a stranger (“your arms are hairy”), or an observation by a loved one (“you’re too shy), we begin to transform into a guarded version of ourselves.
Daily interactions with others thicken our skin a bit, allowing some words to roll off our backs. But the ones that stick around change our inner landscape.
For many of us, the physical pain we suffer come from accidents, adventures, or clumsiness. They are unpredictable events that originate from nowhere in particular. They don’t feel personal.
Words, on the other hand, always stem from people. And they almost always feel personal. For a species that thrives on connection, acceptance, and love, words are a primary source of information about where we stand within our tribe.
With words, we define ourselves, find our people, and take a stand. Words reinforce who we are. Words inspire. Words make us giants. With words, we feel pain, loneliness, or betrayal. Words cut us down. Words keep us small. Words plant seeds of doubt. Words deflate.
Words are powerful. Choose them wisely.
When it comes to delivering a message, how we say things matters.
Words can be positive, negative, or neutral. Imagine how using the very same word creates different outcomes.
Spoken at a surprise birthday party, this gets everyone excited. The guest of honor is coming!
Spoken to a questioning child, this makes her feel small, unimportant, hurt.
Even an adult can suffer at this word. Imagine a man watching a football game. His wife runs in to share an exciting piece of news. He shouts “quiet,” and just like that she feels diminished and robbed of joy.
Words are powerful. But is all the power reserved for the speaker?
When it comes to receiving a message, we can feel powerless. Just as a spider’s web catches much more than dinner, our minds become cluttered with a lot of word debris. I have spent years unpacking my pain and my past, and the ickier parts are born from comments, passing phrases, and direct attacks.
So, here’s my question: Why do some things go in one ear and out the other, while others have a way of following us around? Why do some words so profoundly affect us that we give up our joy and opt not to dance, sing, or speak?
Here’s my revelation. Those who know me have heard me say it before: What we believe matters.
It seems that words can become seeds planted in my brain. The ones that stick around begin to grow into something messy that tangle with my very being.
After a lot (and I mean a lot) of soul searching, I have found my common denominator—two actually. My hurt is born from the truth or from my fear of what might be the truth. The pain is my feelings of lack that get amplified.
Whew. That’s a bitter pill to swallow. None of us want to believe that we think we’re not smart, beautiful, fun, cool, lovable, or funny. But I’ll say it again. Almost all the remarks that have hurt me are ones I thought were true. Or ones I feared might be true. That’s it.
When our truth is revealed or challenged it is painful. Our truth is often a part of us that we cannot or feel we cannot change. Whether it’s our laugh, our bodies, or our dreams, we are exposed.
What do we do with this? The only thing we can—accept ourselves. Just. The. Way. We. Are.
This doesn’t mean we cannot continue to grow and evolve as humans. It means that we are always being and becoming.
Most of us go out into the world as ourselves and slowly withdraw into our shells as we feel less and less safe to be who we are. We become a watered-down version of our colorful selves to avoid vulnerability.
But I’m here to challenge the idea that vulnerability has to be painful. Uncomfortable, yes, but maybe not painful. Our best defense is knowing and embracing who we really are so that when someone questions our character or motive it is either true or not true—and if it is true, being okay with that.
If I find myself ruminating on a comment, it’s an opportunity, a chance for me to know myself better.
Now, when a word stings, I approach the discomfort differently. I ask myself: Why am I hurt? Is this true? Is this something I can change? Do I want it to be true? If it is me, can I do more than accept it—can I love this part of me?
I used to think my problem was that I wasn’t enough ‘this’ or needed to be more of ‘that.’ I used to think that if I could just take the best parts of other people and become those things, I would feel secure, confident, and untouchable.
But it was exhausting, and I would inevitably fall short of my goal. My life was like a house of cards, ready to crash at any moment. Living in fear is draining. I also began to feel like I couldn’t make any forward progress. It was like treading water when I could be swimming.
It wasn’t until I took a break and developed faith in myself that I found my full energy, optimism, and confidence return. Because in the end, we can never be great at being anything but ourselves. There is no trying anymore, only being. And the knowing that I don’t need to be all things. Just myself. Regardless of what other people have to say about that.
And you know what? The strangest things have begun to happen. I have found new strengths, new joys, and new opportunities. When I let go of mimicking others’ successes, I have found more of my own. The kind that I’m not afraid to lose. The kind that doesn’t make me feel like a fraud.
Sharing my voice has gone from scary and nerve-wracking to a way to create connection and joy. The transition feels like nothing short of miraculous. If you would’ve told me all this several years ago, I would never have believed that I could achieve this kind of peace and confidence. But I have come to believe in believing. And I highly recommend it.