Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words shall never hurt me.
The rhyme is used as a defense against name-calling and verbal bullying, intended to increase resiliency, avoid physical retaliation and to remain calm.
Whatever we may say, unkind words or even words that were not meant unkindly, can often hurt us.
Belonging, approval, and being part of a group or tribe is important to us because it enhances our survival (it is an evolutionary drive). Therefore, we feel good when we get approval from others and feel bad when we get their disapproval. Because of survival, our minds also have a negative bias.
The negative bias is our tendency not only to register negative stimuli more readily but also to dwell on these events. … In almost any interaction, we are more likely to notice negative things and later remember them more vividly.
To quote Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, “the bad stuff is easier to believe.”
The Bad Stuff Is Easier to Believe
When we hear speech, our mind processes it and categorizes it. From this comes our own perception of what is said. Our perception of what is said is colored by our past memories, learned habits, our current mood, and more. Based on this perception, one or more emotions may arise. We may feel happy at a compliment from a respected friend, or insulted by a perceived cruel remark from a foe.
My mother once told me this – “Your father does not love you and would abandon you to get what he wants.”
Obviously, this affected me greatly and caused me great emotional pain. It caused me great pain and sorrow then, and the memory of it continues to cause me pain, even though my mother has since passed away. Why is that and is there a way to release that continued pain and suffering?
As described previously, there are many causes and conditions that contribute to the arising of an emotion. Once an emotion arises, we have an opportunity to decide on our response. We can let that emotion control our subsequent action, or we can override the prescribed action of that emotion. Our natural state is to be in automatic mode, which is to say that we keep our messy emotions suppressed so that it doesn’t rise to consciousness. In this way, we unconsciously act according to our emotions. This can lead to unwanted consequences like the continuous pain and suffering from the memory of my mother.
A careless or inaccurate statement, if left unchallenged mentally, leads to inaccurate thoughts that cause difficult emotions to arise. This further leads to more inaccurate thoughts, which later become beliefs, that then lead to more difficult emotions and so on, until it snowballs into a lifetime of hurt as well as suffering.
“Your father does not love you and would abandon you to get what he wants,” leads to –
- Belief that my father does not love me. ➞ Fear of being unloved and emotional pain.
- Belief that my father could abandon me at any time. ➞ Fear of abandonment and emotional pain.
- Why does my mother say these things? She must really dislike me. ➞ Belief that I must be a bad daughter or unworthy of her love. ➞ Belief that I am generally not worthy ➞ Fear of failure, being unloved, and emotional pain.
- Why does my father not love me? ➞ Belief that I am not worthy of love. ➞ Fear of being unloved and emotional pain.
- My mother is a terrible person for causing me all this pain. ➞ Fear of my mother.
- What did I ever do to get such bad parents? ➞ Belief that I am not worthy ➞ Fear of failure and emotional pain.
Each thought generates more fear and pain, which generates more negative thoughts and so on. Soon, these thoughts harden into deep beliefs, which corrodes self-esteem and self-love. The process becomes habit and as more and more afflictive emotions arise, it affects our mood and we become hypersensitive to all things that others say. This makes us mistrust people in general, because people say hurtful words, cause painful emotions, and are therefore threats. We reject and withdraw from people, thereby actualizing our fears of being unloved and abandoned.
We feel isolated and very alone. However, no man is an island and we need others to survive. So fear now compels us to seek out support and company. This can sometimes lead to extreme people pleasing or approval seeking behavior.
In this way, our competing fears make us run around in circles. When we are with people, we feel pain and suffering from perceived verbal wounds and other fears that their words activate. To avoid this pain, we isolate ourselves from people and their words. When this occurs, we feel lonely and in need of support. The pain of isolation and abandonment ultimately leads us to seek out company and the cycle continues.
I Don’t Give A F*ck Coping Mechanism
Faced with this seemingly neverending cycle of fear, many of us resort to the “I Don’t Give A F*ck” coping mechanism, which is also known as blame and denial. In short, we blame others for making us feel bad, get angry with them, and then try to convince ourselves that we do not care what people say; but of course we still *do* care because that is how our minds work.
Our mind is designed to care because that is how it learns, by absorbing information. The learning capability of our mind is a superpower because it makes us highly adaptable to changing situations. However, it also makes us highly suggestive to learning the wrong things and thus falling prey to afflictive emotions that arise from distorted beliefs of reality.
Of course I care what my mother says. She is my mother and I depended on her for survival for much of my childhood. My evolutionary drive for survival compels me to care about what my mother says, what my boss says, and what others’ say. Denying that I care does not make it so, and more importantly, it does not address the root of the pain and fear.
However, just because my mother says it does not mean it is true. Just because my own mind thinks it in the moment, does not mean it is true either. Many of the things that people say are inaccurate and driven by their own fears, pains, and past. When my mother said my father did not love me and would abandon me, she was projecting her own pain of my father leaving her and not loving her anymore. She was likely also projecting pain from her own difficult childhood and losing her mother at a young age. It had very little to do with me. Yet, my mind created all these thoughts and stories around it.
My mistake was not that I cared what my mother said, but rather that I believed what she said at the surface level. If I had looked deeper, I would have seen what my mother was truly saying, and then I would feel compassion for her, instead of fear, pain, and suffering for my own false perception of unworthiness and abandonment. Now that I see it, I can deal with my own fears of unworthiness and abandonment, so that they have less control over me the next time someone says something that triggers it. This builds emotional resiliency and self-love.
Learning to Listen Deeply
Blame and anger are very tempting tools to use, especially in the midst of fear, because blame abdicates us from responsibility of failure (it is my mother’s fault, not mine) and anger gives us a semblance of control (to avoid suffering, all I need do is avoid my mother). However, blame and anger are maladaptive coping mechanisms because they lead us to avoid the pain and fear rather than face them head-on. By blaming my mother, I avoid facing my own fear of unworthiness and abandonment. By replacing fear with anger I take the wrong action, avoiding my mother, instead of facing my original fears. In this way, my old fears grow and I create new ones – fear of my mother and more generally, fear of verbal harm from everyone around me.
Overusing blame and anger will cause our fears to multiply.
The next time that someone says something hurtful to you, remind yourself that blame and anger are pointless and will only grow our fears. Instead, try to listen below the surface into the heart of the matter. Before believing a thought or an utterance, follow it back to its causes and conditions to see if it is true. You will quickly see that in most cases, hurtful utterances have more to do with the speaker than with you. Once you see this, the utterance and all the thoughts as well as emotions that come from it will lose their power over you.
Soothing Fear with Love
There was a period of almost 10 years where fear seemed to recede in my life. It started when I met my furry soul-mate Shania and ended soon after her death. Looking back, I now see that Shania was so special to me because somehow, without even knowing it, she answered my every fear with love.
The most effective antidote to fear (aversion or withdrawal) is love (engagement). This is why phobias (extreme fears) are effectively addressed with exposure (purposeful decision to engage with that which we fear).
When we learn to understand and love that which we fear, we will no longer fear it.
That happened with my mother. When I faced my fear of my mother, and learned to understand her and her motivations, I developed compassion for her, and for the first time, learned to forgive her. This helped to release a lot of the pain from childhood that has haunted me my whole life. Note that the compassion and forgiveness helped me deal with my issues and were not done for my mother, who had sadly passed away by then.
We truly love the poor, old, sick, and dying, only when we have dealt with our own core existential fears of poverty, aging, illness, and death. When we have faced these fears, then we will be truly free to love ourselves and others unconditionally.