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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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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