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

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.

2 Comments

Pammy

When I read this article, I think about shaming. How often is that discussed when your interactive with someone close to you? I was shamed by a family member so I wouldn’t address some financial issues with a few family members. Response I received was “forgive” and “pray” but that doesn’t make equal when they don’t want to pay you back. Bottom line, you been stiffed and they sliver away avoiding responsibility. I think you should do an article on someone “shaming” you.

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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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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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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