Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But Words Get Stuck in My Head

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I was a quiet child. Funny thing is, people who know me now would laugh out loud at the absurdity of that sentence. I’m actually obnoxiously loud, I talk too fast, and I laugh as if I want to rumble Heaven itself every time I find something funny (which is ALL THE TIME). 

“So what? You grew up and changed. People change.”

That’s the thing though: it was never that I was shy and naturally quiet as a child. I was just too terrified to speak.

I love my family, but growing up in a big family is hard. Making yourself heard (without being ignored or mocked) is even harder. (DISCLAIMER: No blame or shade being thrown here. It was just the circumstances of the time. Nobody’s fault.)

Especially if you’re an OCD kid prone to all the guilty feels like I was.

I remember one particular event that took place when I was about 3 years old. It was my baby brother’s baptism and all the relatives were in town. We were gathered in the back of the church for pictures. I remember getting restless and hungry. We were supposed to go out to eat after the baptism, but everyone was taking FOOORRREEEVVVEEERRR to take the photos. “Kathy, for pete’s sake smile!” “Oh cousin Stephen, you’re so funny!” “James, stop chewing on your tie!” “Who wants to hold the baby??”

So I was really getting impatient and REALLY wanted something to eat. But I felt too guilty to say anything out loud. I didn’t want to ruin the good time. So I quietly snuck over to my dad (waiting, of course, until he wasn’t talking to anyone so that I wouldn’t be interrupting). I whispered (or squeaked, whichever was quieter) to my dad, “Dad, I’m hungry.”

Thankfully, my dad knew how to keep it cool and not draw attention to the exchange to make me feel bad. “Don’t worry, we’re almost done,” he smiled. Then he stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out a green lifesaver candy. “Here’s something to tide you over.”

I was THRILLED to not only have something to eat, but CANDY nonetheless. After he unwrapped it and gave it to me, I quickly shoved it into my mouth.

Too quickly.

As my dad walked away, I felt the candy catch in my throat, causing that itch that makes one want to cough uncontrollably. But I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I didn’t want to be a bother. 

So I smothered the cough. Which caused the candy to get even more stuck. 

You’d think a child that’s dying, literally struggling to breathe, would be flailing her arms about, jumping up and down, and smacking the closest person to get their attention.

I just stood there, quietly, with my hands subtly holding my throat, trying to disappear into the background. 

I thought maybe if I tried hard enough, I could get it to go down. Or maybe it would eventually dissolve. (Yes, as a 3 year old, this was my thought process.) Or maybe I could silently die and no one would notice. 

But it was too painful. 

I walked over to my dad (even though he was in the middle of talking to someone; I was THAT desperate) and started tugging on his sleeve. He just patted my hand and said “Don’t worry, we’ll eat soon.” And went back to talking. I stood there, waiting until he finished talking. But then it was time for the final picture. My mom started instructing everyone to get in the photo. “Anna, come on, the sooner we get this picture, the sooner we can go eat!”

I walked over. I must have had tears streaming down my face at this point (or maybe my face had turned purple) because that’s when everyone finally realized something was wrong.

Say What You Wanna Say

Yes, I lived. But the point of the story is that I felt so guilty about bothering anyone that I kept it all inside to the point where it almost (literally) killed me. 

Keeping things bottled up isn’t healthy. You may think you’re doing others a favor by keeping what you have to say to yourself. But what you’re really doing is (figuratively) killing part of yourself. Everything that’s YOU should be glorified and shared with the world. 

Does that mean everyone is going to like what you say all the time? No, of course not. But you only control YOU. You can’t control how others react to what you have to say. 

In the wise words of life coach Jen Sincero, my favorite author of all time:

“You are responsible for what you say and do. You are not responsible for whether or not people freak out about it.” ~ from her book, You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life.

We commonly send ourselves into a spiral of negative self-talk that gets us all worked up about something we want to say. We convince ourselves that it would be wrong to say it because it may not be received well by others. If others freak out about it, aren’t we hurting them?

If what you want to say is something like, “You’re an idiotic pig that should stick its head in a hole and die a slow death,” of course this would be unkind. Being mean and rude is much different than being YOU. Meanness and rudeness are never truly part of a person’s being; they typically stem from other personal issues. If you feel that something you want to say is motivated by something mean, by all means, don’t say it. 

Basically, the only question you need to ask yourself when in doubt: “What is motivating what I want to say?” Or “Is what I’m about to say intended to hurt someone?”

If you determine that what you want to say comes from a genuine place of truth, then you’re golden.

We’re Only Human

Now, we are human. Sometimes we lose control over our impulses and say things we regret. (Remember: “guilt” and “regret” are two different things.) The important thing is that we recognize our mistakes and make amends. 

In the study of organizational communication, there’s a theory known as image restoration. Within that theory, there are multiple strategies organizations may use to repair their public image after they’ve made a big no-no. Two of those strategies are Corrective Action and Mortification.

Corrective Action involves taking specific actions to make amends for the offense. Mortification involves making an apology to those who were offended. 

If you say something hurtful to someone with the intent to harm, employ some Corrective Action and Mortification. It’s okay to acknowledge that you made a mistake. You always have the opportunity to be a good person; even if it means acknowledging that you had said something not-so-good. 

Get Out of Your Head

Guilt tends to get the words we want to say (or said and regret saying) stuck in a continuous loop in our heads. We overthink what we want to say to make it come out perfectly without offending anyone or we imagine all the possible terrible scenarios that could play out to the point when we chicken out. Or if we said something we regret, we get caught talking ourselves into believing that we’re the worst human beings IN THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE. 

Reality check: things are always a billion times worse in our heads than they actually are. When you find yourself getting stuck in that negative loop, pause and write down the negative thoughts you’re having. Doing so forces you to take what you’re thinking and literally put it out into reality (on a piece of paper). Read those thoughts out loud to yourself. 

Is there any evidence that those thoughts are, in actuality, true? Probably not.

Now, make a list of positive thoughts to replace those negative ones. For example, “I’m a terrible person for even thinking about wanting to say that” can be changed to “My instincts can do no wrong and they’re telling me this is important to say.” Or “I called him an idiot, I’m going to Hell” becomes “I made a mistake, people make mistakes all the time, and I’m a good person who is going to apologize and make amends.”

You get the idea. 

The key is to catch yourself whenever you start that negative, downward spiral spearheaded by guilt. Do a reality check, and replace those thoughts with positive, more uplifting ones. 

Still having a hard time? Try it this way: what advice would you give to a toddler struggling with the same negative thoughts and guilty feelings? If you are willing to get really emotional, imagine you are talking to your toddler self. How would you comfort you? What would make you feel better?

Deep down, we’re all still the same children we once were. Don’t be the child choking on a candy at the baptism. Be the lifesaving voice that lets your inner child breathe.

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