When I was a kid, I had a relative who could occasionally be, well, mean (to put it bluntly). I realize now, as an adult, that this person probably carried a lot of unresolved wounds and insecurities, but children are very black-and-white. So unfortunately, at the time, I wasn’t able to reconcile some of the nuances of very complex human beings such as this particular person. On one insignificant day in my grandmother’s kitchen, this relative arrived for a visit and sized me up. “Well, Katherine, you’re a lot shorter than I thought you’d be by now. My granddaughter’s tall as a bean-pole. Blonde, all legs, and tan as can be. She’s a cheerleader, too, you know.” Awesome. Great to see you too.
This is obviously a silly, seemingly harmless example of hurtful words, but that’s part of why I chose it. Even as silly as it was, it affected me for some time. I desperately wanted to be beautiful, like most girls in our society, and I have to admit that these words were sort of a blow to my fragile little 9-year-old ego. It also planted an idea that I didn’t recognize until later: tall, tan blondes were more beautiful than I ever would be. It also reinforced an idea that our culture had no trouble planting and watering all on its own: “Beauty is crucial to our value."
Despite what I was told on the playground, I believe words inflict more pain than sticks & stones ever could, and the scars they leave last far longer. We carry words around with us all the time, mostly without realizing it. We carry what that kid said to us the first time we dared show ourselves in a swimsuit, what our teacher said to us after a failed project, and what our childhood friend said that humiliated us at the lunch table. And we especially carry the words spoken by the most important people in our lives: our parents, our family, and our significant other. Unless we’re intentional about releasing them, words mark us like tattoos on the soul. We may not want them there, but like that misshapen pink panther on our calf after a night of drunken mistakes, their permanence persists.
Words spoken to us can inadvertently shape who we become. We are affected by them, whether it’s in trying to prove them wrong, or internalizing them, weaving them into part of our identity. But an overwhelming amount of the words we’re subjected to are neither true nor kind. And they are certainly not a pure reflection of who we were meant to be.
So how do we escape these words? How do rid ourselves of the compulsive need to prove the haters wrong? How do we avoid becoming what others have said we are?
Some people will tell you it’s by ignoring harmful words. Some will say we escape their effects by simply forgetting about them. My bestie, T Swift, says we simply “shake it off.” I genuinely appreciate the sentiment there, (and I jam out to that tune more often than I’d care to admit, by the way) but I also think it’s incomplete. Let me be the first to admit that I have a problem with simply “shaking it off.”
And my problem is that I can’t—I’m actually lacking the ability to merely "shake it off". When I hear hurtful or critical words, they haunt me. They seep into my psyche until I begin to question: am I those things they said about me? No matter how preposterous, it’s easy to let the words of others become a seed of doubt, a thought planted that grows over time.
So here’s what I think we have to do before we can simply “shake, shake, shake, shake shake shake, shake it off.” We have to confront the words. The words and I must have words. I have to admit the pain those words inflicted, and I have to admit all the doubts and false beliefs those words are birthing in my brain. I have to face down the feelings those words brought to the surface and stare at them in the light. I can’t try to pretend they didn’t hurt, and I can’t masquerade forgetfulness. No, I heard them. They hurt me. And they have affected the way I think, feel, and act. But they don’t have to continue to do so.
The second part is a wee bit harder, but probably the most crucial. The second part is forgiveness. I hold the opinion that forgiveness is always a miracle. We humans can’t perform miracles, we must rely on the mystery of the divine for that. Forgiveness originated with God, and God is the one who gives power to forgive. We must make the choice, and we must cooperate with that power, but if we invite him, God will empower us where we fall short. Forgiveness is hard. Let’s not pretend it isn’t. But our two alternatives are even worse. We can pretend the offense didn’t affect us, that we’re fine, everything’s fine. But the hurt will still be there, tattooing our insides with the doubt, the wound, the scar. Or we can admit the words were offensive, that they hurt us, and choose to live continually in that hurt. But staying in that bitter place only poisons us, not the one who hurt us.
Forgiveness is the process that strips hurtful words of their power. If we deny forgiveness, we can’t help but live under the effects of the words spoken over us. But if we choose the hard, grueling road of facing the pain and then consciously letting the offender off the hook, we’ll be free.
@@Forgiveness is the road that leads to freedom.@@
So if you find yourself haunted by words spoken to you or about you, sit down and ask yourself if you’ve faced, with total honesty, how those words have affected you. Have you admitted and dealt with the pain? Have you forgiven? It’s not easy, but so very worth it.