When Words Can Kill

Source: SIphotography/DepositPhotos

I’m sure most of you have followed a story that received tremendous coverage in the news: a teenage girl convinced her boyfriend to kill himself through a series of relentless text messages.  She bullied and cajoled him into acting on his suicidal ideation, even accused him of being weak when he had second thoughts and tried to back out of the plan. Those of us who work in the mental health community have long understood the incredible impact of words. The way others talk to us profoundly influences our emotional states, our subsequent thoughts, and many of our behavioral choices.  Unkind or abusive words can literally be used as weapons; adversely affecting self-esteem by “cutting” someone down to size; or talking someone into dangerous acts of self-harm that can be life threatening.

Clients in their 60’s and 70’s can still recall the exact words and phrases that belittled and hurt them in childhood

I have worked with many clients who still carry in their heads the abusive messages they received from significant others. Words that criticized, taunted, ridiculed, accused, judged, shamed or blamed linger years later. And their emotional punch doesn’t lessen either. Clients in their 60’s and 70’s can still recall the exact words and phrases that belittled and hurt them in childhood. And when they do, they are still overcome with sadness, helplessness, self-doubt, or self-loathing. The messages remain powerful because they were spoken by people who were supposedly safe, trustworthy, and loving. Therefore, the words and their meaning were never challenged: they were accepted as core truths. The teenaged boy who ultimately killed himself trusted his girlfriend’s words: “You’ll be better off,” “You just have to do it,” “No more pushing it off.  No more waiting.”

Whenever possible, I try to find meaning in acts that are senseless. One of the lessons we can learn from this horrible tragedy is a reminder of the power of words.  This event shines an ugly spotlight on how deadly words can be. We also need to be reminded of the positive impact of words.

Words that are compassionate and non-judgmental have the power to calm, soothe, and re-ground us. They activate our social engagement response, helping us to feel safely connected to other people. This has the effect of reducing fears, anxiety, and a sense of isolation.  Words can de-escalate a flight-fight response, enabling us to successfully navigate challenges rather than wildly striking out or fleeing. Loving words of encouragement give us hope, enhance self-esteem, and enable us to take healthy risks in life that allow for ongoing personal and professional growth.

Words that are compassionate and non-judgmental have the power to calm, soothe, and re-ground us. 

So please take the time to notice the words you use when interacting with others. Ask yourself, “Is what I am about to say to my child, my partner, my co-worker, the stranger in line ahead of me, kind or unkind?” “What impact will my words have on this person?”  And keep in mind that when you text or e-mail, tone of voice, emotion, animation, body language, and facial expressions are all missing. Therefore, your word choice is even more important as it is the sole way in which your message will be communicated and received. Offhanded insulting, sarcastic, or condescending comments still hit their mark and can hurt deeply- whether you intended them to or not. Derogatory language, critical and judgmental words can reverberate years later and be just as debilitating as when they were first spoken.  Words can heal and words can traumatize.  And as we were recently reminded.



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