Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.
Well that’s a bunch of poppycock if I’ve ever heard any! (#grannylingo)
Sure, we can train ourselves to shake it off, not let cruel words affect our confidence, and ignore meanie-poos. But saying you’ve mastered the art of ignoring hateful words is like claiming to be “color blind” when it comes to races. I don’t care how inclusive, socially just, and un-racist you are, you can clearly see the difference among skin tones. Perhaps it’s true that you don’t see how historical and cultural projections affect your view on people, because you’re so sure that racism does not apply to you, but that’s not the same thing. I mean, that’s awesome if you’ve managed to figure out some magical way to absolutely understand the plights of any and every race, as well as overcome any and all temptation to stereotype, but…well, let’s be honest, that’s impossible. You might be pretty good at dealing with the issue, but it’s still there, affecting your personal world whether you want to accept it or not. Whether you treat everyone equally or not. Whether you wish it away or not. Whether you’re black, white, turquoise, or magenta.
Similarly, words hurt. I don’t care how strong, faithful, or resilient you may be. Even with the hardening of your shell over time, the consequences of hearing hurtful words still fester deep inside our psyches, seeping into our insecurities, temperaments, and viewpoints. If you think you’ve developed the perfect shield through humor, forgiveness, confrontation, or condescending pity towards the attacker, think again. Yes, you’ve improved your coping mechanisms, but the residual effects will remain in your soul. Still invading your subconscious, whether you want them to or not.
I’ve never been one to think that words can’t affect me. Quite the contrary, actually. I’ve always known that I take what people say to heart. And soul. And spirit. And bloodstream. And tear ducts. I tend to let people’s words infiltrate every inch of my being, both physical and psychological. This, my friends, is unhealthy. Not only for my own emotional stability, but also because it feeds the unattainable goal of pleasing absolutely every person I meet. Wait, no, not just every person I meet. Every person in existence, whether I know they exist or not. Even if I’ve never met a person, I want them to think I’m the bees knees, because it’ll absolutely crush me if they vocalize anything but approval.
Now, as you’re probably hoping, yes, I’ve [somewhat] overcome this need to please everyone as I’ve grown older and wiser. I realize that no matter how kind, thoughtful, fair, and charming I try to be, some people are simply going to dislike me. And there’s nothing I can do about it. I think I started accepting this truth when I lived in New York, because getting a New Yorker to like you is like trying to paint a remake of the Sistine Chapel without ever dripping any paint on your face. Possible…maybe. But if you so much as let down your guard for a single moment, you’ll look like this:
All that paint on your face? Those are the New Yorkers who don’t like you. It can be sticky and keep you from breathing normally, but then you have to keep your chin up and admire all the paint that stuck to the ceiling, creating a beautiful masterpiece. Those are the people who do like you! They’re part of the greater picture of your life, which can be beautiful if you ignore all the paint trying to block your nostrils.
What a weird analogy. I just came up with it out of nowhere and kept going with it. Could’ve turned out worse! I’m pretty impressed, actually!
Okay, so you may be thinking, where is all of this coming from, you weird-little-Michelangelo, you? Well, it’s coming from knowing that all of us– every single last one of us– has been attacked by hurtful words. Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to avoid any hate-talk in your direction other than your older sister calling you a backstabbing whore for telling Mom she snuck out last night, but odds are, you’ve been dealt some blows with a little more sting than what your sister said after you tattled to your mother in 10th grade. Maybe a coworker was jealous of your success and spread a rumor around the office. Maybe some kids in high school chose you as the target of ridicule based on your appearance. Maybe competitive people on your adult swim league said you were pathetic and untalented. Maybe ravenous pageant fans tore you apart on an anonymous online message board for writing about Miss America on your blog.
Whatever it is, you may be really good at coping, but you’re probably way more prone to being rattled at your core than you expected. I always thought that by this age, if anyone took the time to say outlandish, untrue things about me, I’d just laugh it off. Chalk it up to crazy people being crazy. Well…not so much. My recent reaction to being called horrific names by anonymous online bullies (for lack of a better term) was, in reality, pretty pathetic. I would’ve called it the reaction of your average five-year-old whose classmate said she was stupid.
My heart began racing. I turned on Tay Swift. I listed all the reasons I knew none of this was worth my time. I took a long, big gulp of my iced soy chai, which usually has a pretty remarkable calming effect. But nothing made me feel better. About five minutes after reading these really random criticisms of my appearance, personality, and life in general, I began crying. So I called my best friend. And then I started sobbing uncontrollably. Am I really that ugly?? Do I really come across that unintelligent?? Did I do some heinous thing that I don’t know about? Has no one told me that I’m actually a horrible writer? Am actually a big fat loser who is uninteresting and an embarrassment to the people who associate with me?
Obviously, my best friend gave me 100+ reasons why the things that were said were so outlandish, starting with the fact that the word “harpy” was legitimately used as an insult (LOL that is pretty funny actually), but she also reminded me of how nuts I was for letting one or two people mess with the way I see myself. How silly did I have to be to actually let these insane comments truly get to me? It didn’t make any sense. I know it didn’t make any sense. But it happened.
The friend who made me aware of the things that were being said (I had no clue this particular message board even existed) felt horrible for bringing it to my attention after she found out just how much it shook me, but it wasn’t just about me and my feelings. I was rattled much more deeply than just in my self-confidence. First of all, I was rattled at my own possible involvement in causing such detestation. I evaluated the things I’ve said on this blog or in my podcast. I triple checked that even while expressing my opinion about certain topics or people, I never made it personal or said anything out of line. After all, I never want to make anyone feel the way I felt when I read those anonymous attacks about me. I’m proud to say that I’ve never called anyone “a wannabe with a lowly opinion” who “was never pretty or talented enough [for pageants]” (ironic, because I won talent basically whenever I competed, but I guess that’s beside the point) because she’s (oh, hi!) a “dumb bimbo,” so that feels good. But still. I’m not perfect.
Par for the course of writing a blog is that your words are going to be misconstrued, especially when particular posts reach the masses. Recently, I was pretty straightforward about my thoughts on a journalist whom I felt was putting down another woman with her writing, and pretty honest about what I perceived to be a lack of class in another public figure. Perhaps my straightforward evaluation of both sides of a controversy provoked defensiveness from people who had stronger opinions on one side or the other, who were too blinded by unconditional loyalty to understand the balanced stance I intended to make. That’s understandable. Still, I always make sure to be fair, rational, and forthcoming with any insight to the situation at hand– or lack thereof. I’m the queen of disclaimers, ensuring that my readers know I am not the end all, be all of knowledge on a controversial topic or the people who may be involved. And always, always, I give the benefit of the doubt, because, Golden Rule.
While my intentions may be pure, however, I am not guaranteed to successfully get my points across without any harm. As a blogger, my words are always out there, so I have to think of how they’ll affect anyone who reads them. And I try really, really hard. I really do. But I fail, because even with the intent of honesty wrapped in kindness with a dash of constructive criticism (key word: constructive), I am human. I can’t always predict all the different ways my words can be interpreted. So let me stop right here and apologize if I’ve ever said anything that hurt absolutely anyone, in any way. I’m so, so sorry. Please know that is never an intent– and even moreso, I actively try not to. And still, in my failure, I apologize. Yes, even to Evan the Erectile Dysfunction Expert.
As I was saying earlier, however, I was rattled in more ways than one. More than just in my own self-confidence. And more than just by my shortcomings in writing/saying unintentionally hurtful words of my own. I was rattled by knowing that people with way thinner support systems than I, and way less confidence, experience, and rationality (read: younger), have to deal with these sorts of harsh attacks on a regular basis. Particularly, harsh attacks that come from people hiding behind their computer screens. I mean, it’s a downright epidemic among adolescents.
If it’s tough for me, a 28-year-old woman with an incredible support system from friends to family to a husband– oh and even as far-reaching as readers who send me real-life money for wine and caffeine on Venmo in allegiance to this blog– if it’s hard for me to not be rocked by the words of some randos, what does that mean for people who are way less equipped to stay strong? With regards to just one angle of the attacks, I can mentally retaliate by pointing out to myself that I am educated, constantly reassured, and showered with love on a regular basis when it comes to my writing. And yet, because one bozo said I was useless and shouldn’t write, I questioned my entire calling in life. I’m pretty sure we can multiply that reaction by 5,000 when it comes to malleable teens hearing that they’re failures, stupid, unimportant, or unwanted.
After evaluating the validity of the things that were said and if I “deserved” it, a second wave of questions flooded my head as I processed everything:
What about those teenagers out there who are called all those same names I was called, and worse? What about the people who already feel isolated– how can they possibly handle gut-wrenching attacks and name-calling if I can’t? What about the people who don’t have 5,000 compliments to cling to for every 1 insult? What about my friends in a much harsher spotlight than me, having had to deal with outlandish verbal assaults to extents I can’t even dream of?
I’ve known long before this situation that online bullying is an issue. I’ve written about it before. But not until I was bawling to my best friend on the phone in the parking lot of Starbucks did I feel for the first time the very real repercussions, first hand. “Ah,” I thought to myself. “Now I can see why 15-year-olds kill themselves over this stuff.” Not that I got even close to thoughts like that, but I can imagine that as an established adult, my reaction was probably just the tip of the iceburg when it comes to the powerful effects of words on the human psyche. Particularly on the young or unstable.
Like I said, I’m not perfect. But I’ll continue doing my best– which will hopefully only get better and better with time– to be kind with my words, aiming to surpass the possibility of any misinterpretation. And my call to all of you is to do the same. To teach your kids the same, both directly and through example. Whoever wrote the things that provoked this post is probably reading this, given that they seem to read and listen to all of my media in order to pick it apart, so this is a calling for you, too, pal. Actively, purposefully tearing down others with horrendous verbal attacks and name-calling is a level to which I’ve never stooped, but it’s time for this to stop. In every way. In every medium. Under any circumstance.
And for those of you dealing with hateful words now or in your past, please, please, don’t lose sight of your worth. Don’t lose sight of your talent. Don’t lose sight of your potential. Don’t lose sight of your beauty. When people say things, not as constructive criticisms but rather as blatant outbursts of pent up hatred, they are not a reflection of you. They are a reflection of that person’s own issues. Define yourself by the words of people who love you, by the confidence you receive through faith (that’s a big one if you’re a believer), and by your own self-evaluation on the continual journey of bettering yourself as a decent, kind human being. You know what’s up. So don’t let others drag you down.