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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When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.
Sometimes we all just need space to talk to someone who will listen without giving advice, or problem solving, or lecturing. Someone who will let us talk, and who can handle our experiences and words and feelings without having to smooth out the wrinkles or tidy the frayed edges. 

Our kids need this too, but as their important adults, it can be hard to hush without needing to fix things, or gather up their experience and bundle it into a learning that will grow them. We do this because we love them, but it can also mean that they choose not to let us in for the wrong reasons. 

We can’t help them if we don’t know what’s happening in their world, and entry will be on their terms - even more as they get older. As they grow, they won’t trust us with the big things if we don’t give them the opportunity to learn that we can handle the little things (which might feel seismic to them). They won’t let us in to their world unless we make it safe for them to.

When my own kids were small, we had a rule that when I picked them up from school they could tell me anything, and when we drove into the driveway, the conversation would be finished if they wanted it to be. They only put this rule into play a few times, but it was enough for them to learn that it was safe to talk about anything, and for me to hear what was happening in that part of their world that happened without me. My gosh though, there were times that the end of the conversation would be jarring and breathtaking and so unfinished for me, but every time they would come back when they were ready and we would finish the chat. As it turned out, I had to trust them as much as I wanted them to trust me. But that’s how parenting is really isn’t it.

Of course there will always be lessons in their experiences we will want to hear straight up, but we also need them to learn that we are safe to come to.  We need them to know that there isn’t anything about them or their life we can’t handle, and when the world feels hard or uncertain, it’s safe here. By building safety, we build our connection and influence. It’s just how it seems to work.♥️
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#parenting #parenthood #mindfulparenting
Words can be hard sometimes. The right words can be orbital and unconquerable and hard to grab hold of. Feelings though - they’ll always make themselves known, with or without the ‘why’. 

Kids and teens are no different to the rest of us. Their feelings can feel bigger than words - unfathomable and messy and too much to be lassoed into language. If we tap into our own experience, we can sometimes (not all the time) get an idea of what they might need. 

It’s completely understandable that new things or hard things (such as going back to school) might drive thoughts of falls and fails and missteps. When this happens, it’s not so much the hard thing or the new thing that drives avoidance, but thoughts of failing or not being good enough. The more meaningful the ‘thing’ is, the more this is likely to happen. If you can look behind the words, and through to the intention - to avoid failure more than the new or difficult experience, it can be easier to give them what they need. 

Often, ‘I can’t’ means, ‘What if I can’t?’ or, ‘Do you think I can?’, or, ‘Will you still think I’m brave, strong, and capable of I fail?’ They need to know that the outcome won’t make any difference at all to how much you adore them, and how capable and exceptional you think they are. By focusing on process, (the courage to give it a go), we clear the runway so they can feel safer to crawl, then walk, then run, then fly. 

It takes time to reach full flight in anything, but in the meantime the stumbling can make even the strongest of hearts feel vulnerable. The more we focus on process over outcome (their courage to try over the result), and who they are over what they do (their courage, tenacity, curiosity over the outcome), the safer they will feel to try new things or hard things. We know they can do hard things, and the beauty and expansion comes first in the willingness to try. 
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparent
Never in the history of forever has there been such a  lavish opportunity for a year to be better than the last. Not to be grabby, but you know what I’d love this year? Less opportunities that come in the name of ‘resilience’. I’m ready for joy, or adventure, or connection, or gratitude, or courage - anything else but resilience really. Opportunities for resilience have a place, but 2020 has been relentless with its servings, and it’s time for an out breath. Here’s hoping 2021 will be a year that wraps its loving arms around us. I’m ready for that. x
The holidays are a wonderland of everything that can lead to hyped up, exhausted, cranky, excited, happy kids (and adults). Sometimes they’ll cycle through all of these within ten minutes. Sugar will constantly pry their little mouths wide open and jump inside, routines will laugh at you from a distance, there will be gatherings and parties, and everything will feel a little bit different to usual. And a bit like magic. 

Know that whatever happens, it’s all part of what the holidays are meant to look like. They aren’t meant to be pristine and orderly and exactly as planned. They were never meant to be that. Christmas is about people, your favourite ones, not tasks. If focusing on the people means some of the tasks fall down, let that be okay, because that’s what Christmas is. It’s about you and your people. It’s not about proving your parenting stamina, or that you’ve raised perfectly well-behaved humans, or that your family can polish up like the catalog ones any day of the week, or that you can create restaurant quality meals and decorate the table like you were born doing it. Christmas is messy and ridiculous and exhausting and there will be plenty of frayed edges. And plenty of magic. The magic will happen the way it always happens. Not with the decorations or the trimmings or the food or the polish, but by being with the ones you love, and the ones who love you right back.

When it all starts to feel too important, too necessary and too ‘un-let-go-able’, be guided by the bigger truth, which is that more than anything, you will all remember how you all felt – as in how happy they felt, how loved they felt were, how noticed they felt. They won’t care about the instagram-worthy meals on the table, the cleanliness of the floors, how many relatives they visited, or how impressed other grown-ups were with their clean faces and darling smiles. It’s easy to forget sometimes, that what matters most at Christmas isn’t the tasks, but the people – the ones who would give up pretty much anything just to have the day with you.

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