Violence And The Power Of Words

by Robert Hetrick, Ph.D.


Have you been hurt by violent words? Most of us have. When verbally assaulted, we recoil, and sometimes, we counter attack. We perceive the attack as coming from outside ourselves. But, in truth, the attack also comes from within. It comes from the meanings we add to the speaker's words. Someone once said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us!" When we are hurt, or upset by other's words, we must look to ourselves as "self-abusers." It doesn't feel this way when we are accosted, but give me a couple of minutes to tell you how self-inflicted pain works in this situation. This article seeks to convince you that the ultimate cause of your reaction to other's lack of kindness, is you. And, if you "buy" my pitch, you just might quit wasting time and energy blaming another for your hurt, anger, or sadness when they speak cruelly. Then you will be freed to figure out how you let someone get to you.

This essay was stimulated by an article I read recently. The writer took a direct shot at folk wisdom. She maintained this saying is false, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." (see "Verbal Violence" by Debra Littlejohn Shinder, Self-Help And Psychology Magazine.) I don't think this phrase could have survived in our culture if it were not true. So, let me challenge her victim-view. I will suggest that you can develop yourself into a more powerful person by learning how to insulate yourself from other's abuse.

Let us get technical for a moment. When you stop to think about words, you realize that you already know these facts. Words are only written or sound symbols. They are not stones or bricks. As sounds, they simply rattle your eardrum. Our brains process both the sounds and the symbolic aspects of words to give them meaning. It is our interpretation of words that is the true cause of our emotional reactions. In short, your brain and mind acts as filters and barriers between incoming words and your reactions to them .

Let me illustrate how meaning, and not the word itself, which holds power over you. Imagine that someone you love calls you vile names in a foreign language. And, imagine that they do it willfully, intending to hurt and ridicule. You are not hurt in this situation. The reason is obvious, you do not understand the meaning of the words. Therefore, you can not attribute hurtful thoughts to the symbols you hear. You may be puzzled or curious but, but not hurt.

Notice that you are in control of understanding, not the loud-mouthed or cruel speaker. Even if you get the correct translation and it is truly an insult, the key factor is still the nature of the implications which you attribute to the communication. We assign meaning by a rapid and often pre-conscious thought, such as, "If she really loved me, she wouldn't talk like that to me." Then, we react . But, the reaction is caused by our view that there is a threat, for example, the loss of affection. We all know that others can talk harshly, and yet, not lose long-term affection for us. In short, what they meant was not what we believed they meant!

And this word "meant" exposes another error we often make in thinking about the power of words to influence us. We think that when the speaker is serious, or really meant to hurt us, then the words are even more powerful in their ability to wound. This is not so. The sincerity and strength of a speaker's intention does not guarantee his goal will be accomplished. A New year's eve intention is a great example of having a goal which often never results in a cause; it may never be fulfilled. And, what's more, some very strong intentions often have an entirely different impact from that sought. For example, have you ever told a joke with the purpose of amusing someone? Instead of realizing your goal, your words might have fallen flat. When a joke fails to amuse, it is because the hearer did not "get' it; they did not impute the meanings which the teller intended.

The next time you get "lip," notice your reaction. Resist the temptation to think "How dare you!" Ask yourself, "what do I take that remark to mean?" You may spot an area of personal vulnerability. This is great because this knowledge empowers you to challenge and toughen your weakness.

In summary, words carry meanings, and can reveal the talker's intent. What you do with those meaning is your responsibility. And, the abusive speaker is solely responsible for his tongue waggling. Let us use his abuse as an opportunity to inoculate ourselves from self-hurt.


Bob Hetrick, Ph. D. Bob is a retired Clinical Psychologist who practiced psychotherapy in a variety of settings. In addition, he has consulted with schools, and has taught psychological subjects to medical residents for fifteen years.

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