Hurtful words and healing therapy

Many of us will have been told from our early childhood that “sticks and stones may break our bones but words will never hurt us” and to “just ignore the bullies” or that “it’s only teasing”.  And when we were not able to simply shrug off some verbal injury, we may have been blamed for the hurt we feel by being told that we are “too sensitive”.

No matter what people might say, words are powerful.  If you feel hurt, it is an issue worth exploring.

In my therapy sessions, I often hear people utter statements such as “It was only a stupid comment…..”, “I know it is silly……”, “They laughed……”.   The ‘sticks and stones’ message is so powerful that people are embarrassed as the open up to me about incidents which they perceive should not matter but the realise do matter tremendously.

I have met individuals who have totally lost their confidence, felt unable to express a view, ask someone out to the cinema or even apply for a promotion due to the impact of seemingly small comments or incidents.

So why do some comments hurt and not others?

We all harbour a need to fit in and be accepted and want to avoid the pain of rejection.  So we quickly become aware of ways we are different from others and become self-conscious about this.  This is especially true if you do not find the people you do fit in with.  You might remember the ways you were teased about aspects of yourself that were somewhere along the spectrum of usual to unusual.  It might have been a physical characteristic ranging from frizzy hair to a physical deformity, or another issue such as a stammer or being uninterested in fashion or your family’s wealth. You can bet your bottom dollar that someone at school or out an about will have noticed and cruelly ridiculed you for it.

I am going to share the 2 stories from the many brave people who have dared to lay out before me and explore their past with me during their therapy.

Names and details are changed to protect the confidentiality of the people involved!

Peter, 28

Peter was a lively man whose humour made him a skilful advertising executive and meant that he seemed very confident in himself.  He was tall with kind eyes and a nice head of dark hear.  The extra weight he carried simply enhance his image as a gregarious man who liked nothing better than “banter with the lads” over a pint.

Peter came to therapy as he had fallen deeply in love with a Canadian lady who he thought was the bees knees.  He admired her so much that he could not understand why she was with him and was troubled by a constant feeling of dread that she would leave him and that no one a wonderful would ever love him again.

To deal with his fear of rejection and abandonment, he would seek reassurance that she loved him by often asking her if she loved him and if he perceived her as not reciprocating his affections, he would fall into a rage and even swear at her.  Soon after these outbursts, he would feel regret and shame at his behaviour.  He and his girlfriend agreed that he should go to therapy to seek help.

Through our sessions, Peter discovered that his neediness stemmed from his anxiety that he was unloveable and unattractive and so believed that if his amazing girlfriend left him, no one could fancy him again, let alone love him.

To an outside observer, it might seem strange that Peter could have these fears.  After all, he had come from a loving and stable background, achieved good grades at school, had friends and had never really been bullied.…..

We traced this fear back to his first attempt at chatting up a school friend he fancied.  He was 13 and had mustered up enough courage to approach her as she stood by the magazines in the newsagents with her friend.  As he drew closer, they started giggling.  He immediately jumped to the conclusion that this was because it was ridiculous of him to expect her to fancy him back.  He then began to imagine that she would tell all her friends about his stupid attempt and that they would all laugh at him.  Feeling humiliated, he turned back and left.

By talking about this incident in therapy, he realised that it was so powerful to him that it had prevented him from daring to approach women.  While he thought this memory had faded with time, he realised that the feelings and beliefs associated with it were as powerful as they were when he was a teen.  He never dared to chat up women because he still thought they would ridicule him.  Instead, Peter had learnt that to have a girlfriend, they had to be friends first or make the first move.  By waiting for o thers to take the initiative, it meant that he never developed a confidence in himself to be able to talk to women.

This one giggle, which could have meant almost anything, had made him feel totally scared in his relationships.

Dina, 50

As Dina approached her 50th birthday, she decided it was high time to come to therapy.  She was single, lacked confidence and felt unsatisfied in her life and relationships.

Dina was smart, friendly and very likeable.  Although she was subtly attractive, you would struggle to notice this as she often looked down, used flicks of her hair, or hand gestures to hide her face.  The way she did this was not obvious as she had mastered ways of hiding herself over the last 4 decades.

In our first session we examined what she thought and felt about herself.  Dina described how she had “terrible” teeth as she shattered them when she had fallen.  Her parents had not wanted to have them fixed until she was older and so had developed clever tricks to deflect attention from her face and over time, her.

Fortunately, her friends and schoolmates had never mentioned her teeth but Dina could see in the mirror how strange they looked and how different they were to her friend’s.  She did not want to trouble her parents by talking about this, they were busy and had told her several times that “looks did not matter” and that it was what was “on the inside that counts”.  She certainly did not want to draw attention to this by talking about it with friends.

One day, when Dina was 12, she got on the train and four 14-year old boys, pointed straight at her mouth and shouted loudly, “Oi! Look at that girls teeth!  They’re all broken and crap”.  Then in front of the whole train full of other children and teens laughed and shouted , “What’s wrong with your teeth”.  Dina stayed silent and cast her eyes to the ground, avoided their gaze and hoped they would lose interest.  They eventually did.

That night, Dina sobbed as she recalled the feelings of shame about her teeth.  She tried to rise above the “teasing” from “immature boys” and told her older sister who responded by threatened to beat them up.

Those boys probably never had a second thought about Dina or her teeth.  Yet 38 years later, this memory would still make her sob with shame and feel ugly, long after her teeth were fixed.   Dina did not need to have her feelings dismissed or to have the boys punished.  What she needed was to express how those teeth made her feel, and for others to explain how people will love her and find her beautiful.  This needed this to happen so that her self-esteem was sufficiently high for her to believe that she was loveable without having to constantly please others at the expense of her own needs.

How did therapy help

Therapy helped both these people to express their feelings at the time those incidents happened and correct the beliefs about themselves that had formed from these experiences.  By sharing their anguish, those memories lost their power and they felt increasingly confident as they realised in a very deep and meaningful way, the other parts of their identity which made them worthy of love and respect.

Dr Isabelle Hung

Dr Isabelle Hung is a co-founder of divorceclub.com and clinical psychologist. Having got through her own divorce just three years ago, she is now remarried and happy to report that divorce really is an opportunity for growth and positive change.

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