Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Sticks and Stones and Spoken: The Power of a Verbal Swipe

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We are born the purest, most perfect version of ourselves, complete with a protective coating to shield that newborn flawlessness from a world and people that are often less so.

Of course we will grow faster, smarter, fitter, stronger, more graceful, more assertive, more likeable, but at birth we are completely unsullied by the judgements, clamour and manipulations of others, or ourselves.

If we grow up with reasonably adept people around us this protective coating will be reinforced every time they praise, show love or find a way to make us feel important.

Its function is critical – it repels the judgements and attempted shaming that will inevitably come our way, generally by those whose protective coating is wafer thin and tearing by the day.

Over time the job of reinforcing this coating moves away from our family and over to us. Hopefully by now, coating reasonably intact, we are in prime position to find the things we are good at and the people we radiate in front of.

The best view of ourselves is the one through the eyes of the people who love us. The closer our opinion of ourselves is to this, the more confident and world-ready we will be.

Confidence is a remarkable thing – with enough of it, the arrows shot by others are more likely to miss.

The more somebody is trusted, the closer that person is brought to our protective coating. Sometimes they are allowed to lean up against it. Sometimes they’re allowed to touch. Sometimes we let them behind it, into our core. We let them see the mess and the beauty that is us.

But what happens when one of those people in the protective fold turns nasty?

There’s an old adage, ‘Sticks and stones won’t break my bones but calling names won’t hurt me.’ Yes, perhaps, if it’s from the stranger who considers it his civic duty to point out that you have 13 items at the 12 items or less register, and shares his bristly opinion that you’re ‘useless’ or (gasp) a dumbass.

But if it is from one of the precious few allowed to sit against your core the pain of a harsh verbal blow can be breathtaking.

Things occasionally said in spite are a fact of life. But said over and over again, and they become a fact of downfall – downfall of a relationship, a friendship, a family, a marriage, a person.

In every relationship there are a set of rules. Often these rules are unspoken. Sometimes they are assumed. Sometimes neither party even knows they are there until they are broken.

Verbal attacks from people we hold close damage the coating around each of us. Consider the crass (though fiercely illustrative) frog in boiling water metaphor – put a frog in a pot of boiling water and it jumps out straight away, but put it in a pot and bring it slowly to the boil and the frog will never know what’s happening until it’s too late.

The first personal attack may be repaired quickly enough with a kiss and a heartfelt, ‘I’m sorry’, but make no mistake, look closely enough and there will be a small, perhaps almost unnoticeable dent in the protective coating.

The problem comes with the second, third, fourth and so on. With every nasty verbal assault another dent is made in the sacred protective armour. The closer the person the more severe the damage.

With every personal attack our protective coating is compromised a little bit more. Eventually it tears.

The problem? Once torn, there is a weak point in the very armour that is there to protect us from the world and, dare I say, ourselves. Once that hole is there it is stretched and manipulated with increasing ease.

The things we tell ourselves when we are at a low – ‘I’m not clever enough/capable enough/attractive enough/creative enough/successful enough/whatever enough – now have a way straight through to our core. Once in, the hole is chewed from the inside out as well as from the outside in. The gatekeeper is gone.

There comes a point, however strong we are, that we start little by little to wonder if there isn’t at least a shred of truth in the nastiness. We look for data to prove it isn’t. Sometimes the data is there and sometimes it isn’t, because however rich our strengths, we all have our chinks.

We are all human. We all have a history and often the richer and more varied the history, the more we have fallen along the way. We can look at these falls in one of two ways – an opportunity or evidence of our unworthiness.

Even if the data is there, sometimes it’s ambiguous. When the protective coating is at it’s strongest the ambiguous is more likely to be read as positive. When there is damage, as negative.

In the context of an intimate relationship perhaps you will come back together fairly quickly. There will be an apology, ‘You know I didn’t mean it right?’, an acceptance and you’ll find your way back on track. 

Until the day you don’t.

Until the day that everything said in anger curls itself around you. The nastiness, criticism and judgement which has been scraping at that coating bit by bit, wears it down to threadbare and suddenly, there is a clear passage straight through. At this point, there is nothing stopping the ugly from getting in.

This is the point in relationships where there is often a withdrawal – of love, of gratitude, of appreciation – a little at first but the capacity for this to spiral into complete erosion is very real. It is very hard to love somebody and communicate gratitude when your own feeling of self-worth is compromised.

A verbal blow can be astoundingly damaging when thrown by those we hold close. It breaks through our protective skin, leading us eventually to wonder if perhaps, even just a little, the message is correct.

Psychologists often say that nobody can make us feel – upset/ angry/ stupid/ anything we don’t want to feel. True to a point, but the very nature of an intimate relationship means that we drop our guard. We let another person in to the sometimes messy, sometimes beautiful, sometimes crazy realm that is us.

It is a realm that needs to be treated with tenderness and grace because it is from here that our self-doubts are born. Whether those self-doubts are left to fend for themselves or handraised through to a devastating maturity is influenced by those we choose to love, and who claim to love us.

A verbal blow can be every bit as devastating as a physical one. No-one can ever know how thin somebody’s protective armour is before a verbal punch is thrown. Perhaps it will barely make a dint. And perhaps it will break right through.

There is a richness unlike any other that comes from lifting our guard and letting another person close. It’s critical that we are discerning about who we choose to let close, and that we fight with warrior daring to protect not only our own protective coating but that of those we love.

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2 Comments

Pam

I think that’s easier said than done sometimes. k Protecting yourself and knowing who you can trust to be that close to you, it’s tough. Especially with someone who is just waiting for that to happen. You trust them just that bit with some of yourself and when you least expect it, whammo, you are on the ground. How can you learn to truly judge people, and when to trust them with that part of you. I’ve been wrong about that a lot in my life and I wonder if it’s because just once I’d like to be right? I don’t know, it’s one of those things I guess.

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Dave

So well written! This rings true for me in my present relationship. I feel she and I are at the edge of an abyss – an abyss that I used to have the strength to keep us from falling into. But I feel I am at a point now where the accumulated damage done has forever changed me. As much as I love her, I don’t look at her the same way. My heart has closed and I don’t think it will open for her. I know it’s not all her fault; I didn’t protect my own protective coating because without knowing it I wanted to be her knight in shining armour, rescuing her from her own demons. Lesson learned – the only person I can truly help and save is myself.

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