Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you, right? I’ve been practicing therapy since 2014 and studying psychology since 2009. My experience? Words do hurt.
The labels we give ourselves have a powerful effect on our identity and self-esteem.
Stupid, ugly, worthless, unlovable, broken — these words carry weight. If we label ourselves as broken, our actions align to support how we think — we tell ourselves we’re broken, we self-sabotage and act broken, then we become broken.
Many of us are caught in this self-loathing cycle. But before we can break out of it, we have to understand how it happens. Here’s how to take back control when you feel broken.
How We Give Toxic Language Power
“Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.”— Marcus Aurelius
What’s in a name? Labels only have as much power as we give them. But we tend to give them a lot.
If you never knew what someone said about you, would it affect you? What if they said you were a terrible person, stupid, or ugly?
It wouldn’t harm you unless you found out about it and chose to give it power.
We give words power; words themselves are just made up letters and sounds we string together — they have no inherent meaning.
So how do we give words power?
It’s a three-part process.
First, we have to accept their words. If you never found out someone said negative things about you, you can’t accept them.
But let’s say you do find out. What then? Don’t you have to accept their words?
If you’re at a bar and someone sends you a drink you don’t want, do you take it anyway or send it back? You are under no obligation to accept things you don’t want, which includes toxic words people speak to you.
Just write: “Return to Sender” on that package of dog turds that arrived in your mailbox — don’t open that shit.
If you accept someone’s words but don’t internalize them, they fade out of your mind like an echo. Internalizing words gives them staying power. You have to actively clear up mental space for the words to set up shop in your mind.
If you have company over and they become belligerent, do you let them keep wreaking havoc, or do you tell them to GTFO?
Just because you accept something doesn’t mean you have to keep it around once it’s worn out its welcome.
Even if you let someone into your home and don’t kick them out for being belligerent, you don’t have to keep inviting them back.
Toxic words are heavy, so carrying them around all day weighs us down — it’s exhausting. Constantly rehashing people’s toxic words or revisiting painful memories that cause you to feel depressed is the same as continuing to invite toxic people over.
You are under no obligation to invite toxic people back into your house, your life, or your mind.
Mangy Cats and Your Mental Health
Many of us have been holding onto the toxic things other people have said to us for so long, we treat them like they’re our own words.
It’s like if a friend gave you a mangy flea-covered feral cat that bites you, scratches up and pisses on everything in your house, and utterly terrorizes everything around it, but you refuse to get rid of it because it’s become “your” cat. Channel your inner Elsa and let it go.
Maybe your parents told you you’re worthless or will never amount to anything.You don’t have to accept, internalize, or perpetuate those words to yourself. Let them be toxic people; you don’t have to be.
Maybe your “friends” say snide comments and make you feel like an inconvenience. You don’t have to carry around the belief that you’re an inconvenience to the world. That can lead to depression, low self-esteem, and a host of other psychological issues.
Maybe an ex cheated on you, gaslighted you, or did some other heinous shit to you. You don’t have to label yourself broken, worthless, or deserving to be treated like garbage.
There are people out there who will appreciate you; you just have to find them. Don’t let toxic people poison your mind or identity — practice self-compassion.
You can’t control the toxic language you grew up around. You can’t control all the negative experiences you’ve been through. You can’t control whether people are nice or shitty.
But you can control your thoughts, how you talk to yourself, and what you do moving forward. You can practice better self-talk. You can learn ways to cope with stress. You can go to therapy to work through mental baggage. You can heal. You can grow.
I see people do it every day.
You can, too.
This is Part 1 of a series on understanding how the language we use affects us. If you’re interested, check out Part 2: The Subtle Way Language Hijacks Our Perceptions and Part 3: 7 Positive Self-Labels for an Empowered Mindset.