I don’t remember what it felt like to hit my head on the side of my grandparents’ pool hard enough to send me to the ER, or the time I fractured my ankle. I don’t remember the physical pain of that one really bad ski fall.
I can, though, remember how I felt in middle school when that one girl told me my birthday party was the worst one she had ever been to. The words from some of my first heartbreaks are seared into my mind. There are a lot of conversations I can’t quite remember, but I can recall how they made me feel. Seemingly small moments – things said in one split second – have had the greatest impact on me.
While physical wounds heal over time, words can stay with us forever. In my experience doing therapy, I’ve realized that emotional wounds take much longer and often hurt much more than physical wounds. We often don’t realize the impact of our words.
This is most hurtful in our closer relationships. Even when it seems like the other person has moved on, something said in one moment can forever damage a thread of connection.
Whether you’re speaking to your friend, parent, child, partner, stranger, literally anyone at all, you can’t take back what you say. It’s important to make sure those words are nurturing, from a place of love, and facilitate connection.
No matter who you’re speaking to, here are some things you can do –
1. Take a breather. The absolute worst things I have said (or almost said) have been in the heat of the moment. Rationality and respect can easily disappear when emotions run high. Be aware of your signs – when I feel my body get hot, I know it’s time for me to step away. When I have taken a breath and feel calm, I’m able to speak from a place of respect and find my ability to be reasonable. The key here is to return to the issue – 20 minutes to an hour or so is ideal. That gives you enough time to self-soothe, eat something, calm down, think before you speak, and say what you mean respectfully when you return. Similarly, it’s your responsibility to manage your stress, no matter where it is coming from. Small daily stressors build up quickly, and sometimes one small thing in a relationship can send us over the edge. Taking some time to decompress can help prevent taking our stress out on the people around us.
2. Evaluate where your emotions are coming from. When we feel a need to say something hurtful, it’s typically a problem with us – not the person we’re talking to. There’s some reason that whatever situation is getting to us, whether that’s an unresolved personal conflict or a feeling we haven’t processed. When we know why we’re feeling what we’re feeling and what those emotions are rooted in, we can choose how to respond, whether that’s not at all or in a healthier way that leads us to our goal.
3. Communicate your feelings, but have a goal. It wasn’t until I started my full times job as a psychotherapist that I realized we often don’t consciously know why we want to say the things we want to say, and because of that, we don’t say those things well. I recently watched a customer verbally attack an employee at Dick’s for not violating protocol. What was the goal here? To crush the spirit of a (probably) high school student just trying to make some money for following the rules? That was the only outcome of that exchange. When we follow steps 1 and 2, we can figure out the goal of our actions, and take steps to lead us closer to our goal. Criticism and shame do not get us closer to any goal worth working toward. Everything we say can be in an effort to reach our well thought out and well-intentioned goal, rather than diverting to a verbal attack that gets us nowhere other than being the bad guy.
4. Take opportunities to voice praise, encouragement, and your appreciation. You know those days that you wake up on the wrong side of the bed, things just seem to not be going your way, then you go out in public and someone says something – ANYTHING – nice to you and it totally transforms your whole day? Then maybe you say something nice to someone else and see them smile, and return home feeling pretty great? There’s so much negativity in the world – it’s important that we combat that in any way we can. I once had a friend that made seemingly small negative comments toward me often, about my looks, my personality, my choices…everything she could. She did not build me up, and I didn’t realize how detrimental that was until I found friends who actually made me feel good about myself. Building others up does not take anything away from you. In fact, building up others will build you up at the same time. What are we competing for, anyway?
5. Take accountability when possible. When thinking about some of the most hurtful things people have said to me, the ones that still sting are ones that weren’t followed by an apology. Accountability has made the biggest difference in some of my relationships, giving me the push needed to reconcile after a rift. It provides a sense of closure, no matter what the situation. We can change our role in someone else’s story when we take accountability – we can go from being the bad guy to being a human that simply made a human mistake.
Let’s operate from a place of love, friends.