“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” ~Gandhi
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
Do you remember this saying from childhood? It was one I heard often and wanted to believe. The saying states that physical acts can hurt us, but no one’s words can.
There’s nothing that seems further from the truth. Words hurt, and they stick with us far beyond the time of their telling.
It was in elementary school where my hair color was a joke. I was a carrot top, and my peers didn’t look kindly on this rare trait.
They insulted me with disgust and laughter, and I believed the things they said. I wished that I had hair like the other kids. If I were the same as them, they couldn’t say anything mean about me.
They also insulted me for being flat chested, stupid, a snob, and more. I let the words stick with me and affect my self-perception.
Fast forward to adulthood, I’m a quiet introvert enjoying my solitude. I’m not one to put myself forward. I’m not a snob, the complete opposite actually, but I’ve been called it on more than one occasion.
I learned to walk around feeling that in my solitude I was doing something wrong. I was actually hurt by these people’s words and judgments. The words hurt.
Or so I thought…
Here’s how it works: Someone says something to us that isn’t very nice, we hear from a friend that a co-worker has insulted our new hairstyle or personality, or we walk down the street and we see someone pointing at us and whispering.
Someone has spoken harsh words to us or about us, and even though we don’t want to be, we’re hurt.
We’ve taken these words and ingested them. They are now harboring somewhere deep within us.
We feed them with worry and anger. We contemplate the words, trying to dissect their meaning. We absorb their negative energy. Then, to make it even worse, we hold on to them, allowing them to fester for days, weeks, or maybe even years to come.
Why do we allow these seemingly meaningless words to stick with us?
We rely heavily on the support and acceptance from the people in our life. We feel the pressure to please those around us and to be accepted. We thrive on others’ attention as a confirmation of our own self-worth.
What we fail to consider is why someone could be using their words against us.
More than likely, these people are projecting onto us a negative belief or fear they have about themselves.
Perhaps they’ve ingested too many negative words directed at them. We need to take this into consideration before we allow others’ words to negatively affect our self-perception.
In truth, words can’t hurt. They are only words. The words cannot live without us feeding them with our thoughts. Without thoughts put behind them, they mean nothing.
It has taken me some time to realize this, and the way I did it was by becoming a sieve.
Let me explain what being a sieve means.
We hear and see things hundreds of times a day.
We hear a train whistle. We step on a leaf. We hear the words “thank you.” We watch a cat jump on a fence. Our days are filled with sensory input.
We take it all in at the moment, then we allow it to pass. We still may hold on to the memory, but this experience hasn’t affected us. We allowed them to pass right through us.
Then there are things that we don’t allow to pass: the judgmental glare, the insinuation that we ate too much, the lack of appreciation, the insult from a nearby driver.
These instances stick with us. We didn’t let them pass like we did with the cat jumping over the fence. Instead, we fed these experiences with thought after thought, dissecting and defining. We absorbed it all.
Why? Why do we hold on to some things and allow others to stay with us?
We think about and keep alive certain experiences. Some are good, like the passionate kiss we received from a lover or a simple smile from a passing stranger. Keep these ones that feel good. Let them nourish you.
But when you come across an experience that doesn’t feel good, be a sieve. Let what feels bad go straight through you. Don’t hesitate. Don’t let the thoughts or anger take over.
Here are the extremely simple yet life-changing steps to letting go.
- Recognize the bad feeling that comes from words directed at you. Here you have the choice to feed the experience with thoughts or to just let them go.
- If you are willing to let the experience go, imagine yourself as a sieve. Now see the bad words and thoughts pass right through you.
For example, let’s say a friend tells you that a mutual acquaintance said something negative about you, and you immediately feel hurt and angry.
You could spend the next ten minutes to a week, or even more, dissecting what was said and keeping it alive. Or, you could consider that it’s not personal—that the other person may have been having a bad day, or projecting their own issues onto you—and then choose to let it pass right through you.
I don’t know about you, but I think the second option would feel a lot better.
After some practice, being a sieve will become second nature, and all that negativity you once experienced will disappear and go right through you, floating away to be transmuted into something better.
Maybe the old adage is valid. Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you—so long as you don’t let them.
Be a sieve and filter it out.
*This post is referring to occasional rude, ignorant, or insensitive comments, not ongoing verbal abuse. You can read a little more about verbal abuse, and how to respond to it, here.