Seeing the best in life's challenges

Sticks and Stones….

There’s some confusion over whether words hurt or not.  It’s ALWAYS true, to me, that digging into a topic like this is the best way to understand it and get more clear.  So this is the topic of the day and here we go…

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names will never hurt me.


That old adage is one we’ve all heard.  It used to be taken for granted as true.  Let’s break it down.

Sticks and Stones – this is referring to physical violence that can result in physical damage.

Names – this is referring  to name-calling, words, that cannot physically hurt someone.


Can’t argue with that statement, right?  It’s talking about physical damage.

But what about emotional damage?  That’s a different thing.

It was shocking to me to search Google images for “Sticks and Stones.”  The thinking on this matter has really changed since I was a kid.  Yikes.  I’ll leave those ‘til the end.

These days, people strongly disagree with this adage.  They think it means that it’s ok to say mean things.   But I think there’s a misunderstanding here.  I don’t think that is the intent of the adage.

I always understood that the intent of the “Sticks and Stones” adage was to empower.  It’s a declaration of resiliency – YOU can say all you want, but YOU can’t touch me!!  It’s a defiant statement — at least that’s the way I thought of it as a kid.

The adage in no way, shape or form is saying that mean words are ok.

For me, what makes this issue so much more clear is to remember that there are two different sides to the uttering of mean words.  There is one whole set of issues with a person who is spewing mean words, and there is an entirely different set of issues associated with the person who is the receiver of mean words.

Of course we want to teach our kids to always be kind, compassionate, helpful and understanding.  Of course we strive to be this way ourselves.  There is never any reason to say mean words to another person (or are there??).  You don’t have to agree with them, you might point out your differences to them, you can have a debate, but there is no reason to be mean.

But there are reasons that people say mean words, and it helps to try to figure out why mean words are coming out.    Are these reasons legitimate?  It’s worth thinking about that.  Mean words are a reflection of what is going on with the person saying them.  They are not a reflection of the person at the receiving end.

The main reasons people are mean, are fear and anger.  Someone who is hurt and afraid is like a wounded animal backed into a corner.  They are hurt and afraid and all they can do is fight to protect themselves.  They can’t tell whether the person near them is friend or foe, and they can’t take that chance, so they lash out.  A good offense is the best defense, right?  So if someone is saying mean words, remember, it might be because of some troubles you know nothing about.  It’s not about you.

A lesser form of this is when someone says mean things because they are insecure.  Insecure people tend to want to put other people down, thinking that makes them look better.  Sometimes this happens with groups of people – being in a group makes them feel more secure, and lashing out at someone helps them feel powerful.  Fighting back at this type will only make them do it more.  Just have compassion for them knowing how badly they feel about themselves.

Sometimes people say things that everyone would consider mean, but they are oblivious and unaware.  They don’t intend to be mean, they are just ignorant.  In this case, if you respond with anger, you will just confuse them, and probably make them defensive.  It would be like you pushed them into that corner we just talked about.  So instead you can respond with information that lets them know more about what they just said.  Then, they will probably just be embarrassed and sorry.  You can assure them that you know they didn’t realize what they were saying.  And they probably won’t say those things any more.

Sometimes people say things just to see if they can get a reaction.  They care mostly about having fun and the challenge of seeing if they can get a rise out of you.  Some people do this with clowning around or acting stupid, some do it by joking about you, but sometimes it can get a little too mean or a lot mean.  For this type of situation, if you react by getting mad, you are just doing what they are trying to make you do!  If you react, they will only do it more, and the whole situation can escalate.  If this person learns, through trial and error, that people just ignore them when they are mean, they will stop because what this type of person wants is the interaction with others.

The bottom line is, when you are reacting to the words of others, you are in total control of your reactions.  No one can tell you that you have to react one way or another.  You are not a victim of someone else’s words.  You are in control.  If you choose to get offended or angry, the situation will probably proceed in a predictable manner.  But you can always choose not to react and not to take the words personally.

It can take a huge amount of skill and self-confidence to pull this off.  But at the very least, if you understand what’s going on, you won’t take it personally.

We can tell people to be nice, and we can make rules against saying mean things, but we won’t solve the problem unless we help people solve their underlying issues. That’s a whole other topic…

So can words cause emotional damage?

When we hear mean words directed at us, we can feel hurt.  We can feel misunderstood, unfairly accused, unwelcome, etc.  This is our initial reaction.

Then we have a choice.  Do we want to accept or engage this negativity?

And this is the key right here.  We can just refuse to accept or engage it.  Mean words coming from somewhere else only have power over us if we let them.


If I stand in the woods, alone, next to the proverbial tree,

and spew the most hateful words I can muster….

will they hurt anyone??


If we promote the idea that we have no choice, that mean words always hurt, then we give away our power.  We choose to be victims.

But the common wisdom we are teaching our kids these days is that they have no choice:  as a victim of mean words, they are automatically damaged.  They have no control, that’s just the way it is.  If people are mean to them, they will automatically do awful things to themselves and they will never be able to recover.



This does not mean that there are not very difficult situations in the world where gangs of people are spewing hate via their words.  Of course we know this happens.  But if we approach these situations from a position of Power, rather than getting sucked into a sparring match of hate-for-hate, we have a chance of breaking the cycle.

ALWAYS promote kindness, compassion, openness and understanding.  Let this be what you and yours broadcast out into the world.  Let others know that this should be EVERYONE’S priority.

BUT when you are on the RECEIVING end of hate, don’t let yourself get sucked into the downward spiral and the trap of victim consciousness.  Claim your POWER to be kind, compassionate, open and understanding.  STAND your ground because you know those words are nonsense and aren’t worth engaging.

OF COURSE mean words are not ok. 

But they only have power if we give it to them.



Check these out.  What are we promoting — resiliency or victimhood?