Updated: Nov 20, 2021
This is a piece I started quite some time ago and put to one side. Events of the past week brought it back to the forefront and to completion.
It has often been said that the pen is mightier than the sword and it is.
Words, language and communication are amazing things and can be, and throughout history have been, put to either constructive or destructive use. For the purpose of this piece, I am interested in looking at the destructive use of language.
People have always used words destructively. They have used words to deride, belittle, tear down, mock and to gain the upper hand. Words have been used offensively and defensively. Sometimes leaving nothing much more than the faint shadow of a bruise on a person, other times with devastating effect. With the introduction of and advances of new technologies it became increasingly easy to spread the word, be it positively or negatively. Indeed, since the 1400s with the invention of the printing press, the destructive power of words has never ceased growing. In today’s world “fake news”, “misinformation” and “disinformation” have become real problems. With infinite information at our fingertips at any time, who can we trust?
Children and youth in particular are being exposed to more platforms for bullying than any other age group ever before. This year, 2021, nearly three quarters of students reported having felt they had been bullied in their lifetimes. Adults are feeling the effects too with up to 40% having experienced some form of online harassment**.
They are particularly at risk from the negative impact of words. They have extra challenges in learning to self-regulate their emotions because their brains are still developing. They both suffer and perpetrate. Approximately one quarter of children surveyed reported having had suicidal thoughts as a result of cyberbullying. Read that last sentence again.
I invite you to take a moment to reflect. How many of you have been on the receiving end of a slur, an insult, a deriding comment, a rumour, or other use of words used with the sole intent of hurting you? How many of you have lashed out at someone verbally, either intentionally or unintentionally (heat of the moment retaliation for example)? How many of you have come away from any of the experiences totally unscathed? No negative thoughts or feelings whatsoever?
Digging deeper – how many of you have had your self esteem, belief in yourself and your abilities, self worth, or feeling of being good enough assaulted and battered in some way by another person’s words? How many of you have suffered lasting negative effects because of the words of others?
Now think of your children. Think of how connected they are. Think of the network of people they know and don’t know who can, and do, verbally assault them. Think about the effect it is having on them.
Also think about the language you use with your children. Have you ever called them stupid? Worthless? No good? Idiot? Have you dismissed their feelings? Told them to get over it? To get a life? To be normal? What impact do you think this might be having on them when compounded with the incredibly varied and often random assaults they are facing from elsewhere?
Are there things you might want to modify to reduce the harm? Can you change even a few words you use to lessen the never ending assault some children are under?
Yes, I get it, when an off spring is in full vent and hormones are raging it is so much easier to shut them down with some sharp words. I know. I have done it. Remember this though: if your child acts out with you, they feel safe with you. The time to worry is when they stop communicating with you.
Looking beyond children and youth now – adults can and do use words to devastating effect too. Rudeness has a snowball effect: someone is rude to you, you lash out at someone else, they lash out further, and so on. The growth and use of social media has not helped. It would sometimes seem that, no matter how innocent, positive or innocuous a post encountered somewhere online might be, there will inevitably be at least one person who is rude. One negative comment can set off an online war where perfect strangers are hurling insults at each other. It is crazy and yet it happens every day.
Adults are, on the whole, much more able to rebound from rudeness, insults, bullying and verbal abuse but it still leaves scars and takes its toll. Over a lifetime the negative impact of such interactions builds up and has lasting impact. From low self esteem, a self fulfilling prophecy that you are not good at something, negative body image, and other seemingly harmless or every day facts of life through to breakdowns, depression and suicide … the impacts are there, everywhere, all the time.
We have to be careful with our use of words. We can never know where someone is or how they will react to something. There is a reason why we see and hear “Be Kind” so often.
So what is a take home for you for your life tool kit?
There are questions you can ask yourself, your child, friend, or any other person you encounter who is struggling to deal with a verbal or written onslaught. Here are a few:
What in all of this can I control?
What can I do to stop from freaking out / losing control? *
Do I need to respond?
How can I (safely) remove myself from this situation?
What do I need to do to feel safe?
Is this really about me?
How true is this?
What is best for me?
Is this about me or about them?
What good words can dissolve / diffuse the situation?
What can I say to disarm them? (positive, even if it feels false)
How can I react in a positive way?
Can I shrug it off?
What is hurting them so much that they are lashing out at me?
Why are they hurting?
Who hurt them?
Do I want to react?
Who can I speak to?
Who can help / support me?
To bring this to a close I would like to very briefly touch on the event which brought me back to this topic. The other day I received an email from a very experienced life coach which started out with the words “You total loser”. The fourth utterance was “WTF is wrong with you???” followed immediately by “Maybe you should quit coaching? Or quit life?”
I freely admit that I was shocked and furious for about half an hour and felt like I had received several deep gashes from a poisoned bayonet. Then I calmed and saw that it was nothing more than a couple of tiny scratches like those accidentally inflicted by a helpless baby animal and a different kind of shock and anger settled in and stayed with me. I could not believe that this person was expressing themselves in such a way to a person they did not know. This person knew my name, that I am a newer coach, that I am interested in learning everything I can – possibly that I often play the devil’s advocate – probably not much more, if even that much. We had exchanged a couple of brief emails and comments in a Facebook group, nothing more.
I deal with people experiencing anxiety, stress, challenges, and insecurities on a daily basis. I wondered how they might react if they had received this email. I didn’t need to wonder long. Most alarming was how many would very easily be pushed over the edge by it, either into depression, self harming behaviours and even suicide.
Then I thought about everyone I knew and how they might react. In all honesty, I could not think of a single person who would not come away with at least a shadow of a bruise from it but I could think of far too many – in fact more than half – who would carry some lasting scar from it.
With more and more people entering into coaching, consulting and other growth and healing careers and with the explosion of sources of verbal assault, abuse or just plain insults, it is more important than ever before to be careful of our use of words and to keep the incredible power words can have in mind in all our interactions.
The pen is mightier than the sword, use it wisely.
* Tip: practice calming techniques when they aren’t needed, whatever works for you – breathing, counting, walking away, humming, the ‘what can I see, hear, feel, smell, touch’ calming technique …
** The data available on cyberbullying, verbal harassment, and other negative use of words is enormous. If you are interested in a quick source to check out some facts and figures, go to the following link: https://www.broadbandsearch.net/blog/cyber-bullying-statistics and browse through some of the links provided there, and on the sites and reports they take you too.