The taunting retort from childhood about sticks and stones is a flat out lie. It’s way worse than the Tooth Fairy/Santa fibs we tell our children. At least with those lies, children get to enjoy the fantasy while it’s happening. And eventually, when adults divulge the truth, kids can still feel that they profited from the story.
The “names-will-never-hurt-me” lie, however, sets children up to feel confused and ashamed about any pain incurred because of those “harmless” words. Actually, children are not the only ones who suffer as a result of this myth. Adults also fall prey to this fallacy—often berating themselves for feeling hurt when someone says something that offends, distresses, or wounds them.
The thing about hurtful words (unlike physical injuries) is there is usually no tangible evidence for the afflicted recipient or those around her/him to see. There are no bruises or cuts to identify as painful. There is no place to put a bandaid, or a clear method for treating the symptoms. So when you are hurt by someone’s words or non-violent actions, in addition to the emotional stress that you experience, you must also grapple with what exactly is causing the pain (i.e., why you feel the way you do). Furthermore, even if you are capable of discerning the reasons for your discomfort, it still may be quite difficult to “make it better”—especially when the remedy involves another person who has feelings of his or her own.
Emotional and physical injuries are not the same. In reality, though, that difference is the reason healing psychological wounds is often trickier than treating physical ones. Because of this, emotional injuries can have longer-lasting, lingering, and sometimes chronic repercussions. Yet, we want to believe that we cannot be hurt if there is no bodily harm.
I understand the value in teaching children that you should try to ignore and walk away from people who are mean to you, but the message that it never hurts is false. Denying feelings does not make them go away. And when we pretend that someone’s real and painful experience does not exist or should not be, we only compound that person’s suffering exponentially—making them feel unjustified and wrong, in addition to feeling hurt.
If you are really lucky, though, sometimes there are signs that physically mark emotional pain. I have a very small scar on the outside of my right thigh that helps me remember. It’s been there since I was four years-old, when a pair of scissors made a gash in my leg and I needed stitches to stop the bleeding.
Decades later, the only sign of that physical injury is a one-inch-by-one-centimeter patch of skin that is smoother and lighter than the area around it. The stitched-up cut healed well; I have no memory of that spot on my thigh ever hurting me; and the mark that remains is almost imperceptible. Nevertheless, I have learned to be grateful for that scar.
I used to believe that my scissors-story was a cautionary tale about sharp implements, blood, hospitals, and stitches. I always thought the story began right before I fell out of bed, but I was mistaken. The real story has nothing to do with blood or stitches. The story that matters 40 years later started before I ever had the scissors in my hands.
I have no residual pain from those scissors (the “stick that broke my bone”), but I have not completely recovered from the pain that I do remember from that night. I am fortunate, though, because I have a small, barely visible trace that marks my experience—tangible evidence of what really hurts.