When Words Hurt

How to protect yourself from unkind comments

WHEN WORDS HURT

By Jennifer James

“You’re hopeless.”
“My, that’s a great-looking dress. Too bad they didn’t have your size.”
“I hear your daughter finally got a job. Did her father set it up?”
“Why waste time practicing? You’ll never play the piano like your mother.”
“Gee, you look marvelous! Did you have plastic surgery?”

Verbal zingers zap us everyday, often when we’re least prepared They seem to be everywhere: on the road, when rush hour brings out the worst in people; in lines, when everyone’s patience is wearing thin; at work and at the dinner table, where people feel free to be rude.

There are so many styles of criticism that it’s impossible to catalogue them all. There are common, everyday zaps (“Congratulations! You finally made it!”). And others so hurtful they leave us dizzy and upset (“Oh, I see you are doing what you do best—eating”).

Then there are comments insensitive beyond belief. When a man had gotten up nerve to tell his mother that his wife had left him, his mother snapped, “What took her so long?”

Families are supposed to be havens from the world. But, in fact, relatives say things they never would outside the family, often with the excuse “You know I wouldn’t say this if I didn’t love you.”

One woman remembers standing at the bathroom mirror at the tender age of 12 when her mother remarked, “Don’t worry honey. If your nose gets any bigger we can have it fixed.” Until then, it had never even occurred to her that her nose less than perfect

My favorite category of put down is the well-dressed zap otherwise known as “constructive criticism” (which is anything but). You can recognize downers like these by the company they keep—usually such phrases as “I hope you don’t mind if I’m honest” or “I’m telling you this for your own good.” Somehow, you’re supposed to admire the critic for candor and appreciate his concern, while you try to recover from the punch in the gut.

It’s easy, when defending yourself from insults, to get caught in vicious cycle of attack and counter-attack. Fortunately there are ways to deflect the barbs—and boost your self-esteem. Next time you are the victim of criticism, try one of these strategies.

1.  Look behind the insult. People who criticize have a lot of hurt to unload. If you can’t figure out what’s really bothering the critic, ask. Remember, not every criticism is aimed at you. So step back and consider the source.

The waitress isn’t singling you out for trouble: her boyfriend dumped her the night before. The driver who cuts in front of you isn’t out to get you: he’s rushing to the bedside of a sick child. Let him in, boost him on his way. When you give people the benefit of the doubt like this, you’ll feel soothed by your grace.

2.  Analyze the remark. In The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, Suzette Haden Elgin suggests dividing an attack into its parts and responding to the unspoken assumption—without playing the victim. For example, someone who is told. “If you loved me, you’d lose weight” could respond, “How long have you thought I didn’t love you?”

The secret is to examine what was said—and unsaid—before you get emotionally involved. Don’t take the bait if you can avoid it.

3.  Confront your critic. It’s not easy to stand up to insults. One trick is to be direct. Defuse the negative comment with comebacks such as “Is there any reason you would want to hurt my feelings?” or “Are you aware how that remark might sound to other people?”

As an alternative, ask the person to clarify his or her statement: “What did you mean by that?” or “I want to make sure I understood what you said.” As soon as critics know you are aware of what they are doing they will leave you alone. Nothing shames more than being caught in the act.

4.  Use humor. Someone once said to a friend of mine, “A new skirt? That looks like material you’d use to upholster a chair.” The woman replied, “Well, come sit in my lap.”

Another woman told me about her mother, who has devoted her life to keeping an immaculate house. One day the mother spied a cobweb in her daughter’s kitchen and asked, “What’s that?” Her daughter quipped, “A science project.” Making light of life is one of the best weapons against insults. A quick wit can cope with almost anyone.

5.  Set up signals. A woman told me about her husband, who criticized her only in public. She began carrying a small towel, and whenever he made a hurtful remark she put it on her head. He was so embarrassed that he stopped.

Another family came up with a phrase that serves the same purpose. Once, after Sunday dinner, their guest commented, “Oh, that was wonderful! Chicken is cheap these days, isn’t it?” Now, whenever one of them makes a cutting remark, someone says, “Chicken is cheap,” and they all laugh.

6.  Brush it off. Go along with whatever is said. If your wife says, “You’ve gained about 20 pounds, haven’t you dear?” respond: “Actually it’s closer to 25,” Is she persists, “Aren’t you going to do anything about it?” try: “Probably not. Just be fat for a while.” A remark has power only if you grant it power. By being agreeable, you immobilize it.

7.  Ignore the insult. Note the comment, realize it doesn’t “belong” to you and simply let it go. The ability to forgive is one of the most important survival skills we can cultivate.

If you’re not quite ready for that, let the speaker know you registered the remark but won’t respond. Next time someone zaps you, wipe an imaginary spot off your shirt. When the person asks what you are doing, say, “Oh, I thought something hit me, but I must have been mistaken.” When they know you know, criticizers are much more careful

Or feign lack of interest. Blink your eyes, yawn, and then look away with a “why bother?” expression. People hate to think they’re boring.

8.  Add ten percent. You will never be able to stop all hurtful comments from reaching you. Try to accept some verbal assaults as the normal venting of the frustration we all encounter. Most of us try not to insult others, but on occasion we make mistakes. So, defend yourself when it seems appropriate, but also consider the ten-percent solution:

  • Ten percent of the time, something you just bought will turn out to be cheaper elsewhere.
  • Ten percent of the time, even your best friend may say something thoughtless and regret it.

In other words, harden yourself to insult. It is often easier to assume that people are doing the best they can, and that many are simply unaware of the impact of their behavior. It costs far more to defend yourself constantly, to need to be right and in control. Try forgiving, and you will get much more than ten percent in return.

After a man had verbally attacked Buddha, he responded, “Son, if someone declined to accept a present, to who would it belongs?” The man answered, “To him who offered it.”
“And so,” said Buddha, “I decline to accept your abuse.”

The world is full of people who establish their worth by degrading others. They have pockets and purses full of put-downs—and they’ll hand them out to anyone.

Refuse to accept their insults, even when hurled under the guise of love. By ignoring them, you’ll reduce tension, strengthen your relationships and increase your joy.

CONDENSED FROM “YOU KNOW I WOULDN’T SAY THIS IF I DIDN’T LOVE YOU.” COPYRIGHT 1984 AND 1990

BY JENNIFER JAMES, PUBLISHED BY NEWMARKET PRESS, NEW YORK, N.Y. ILLUSTRATION: DAVE CUTLER

2 thoughts on “When Words Hurt

  1. sometimes, we tend to launch a hurtful comment, especially when we are not in a good mood.
    just like John Maxwell said, Hurt People tend to hurt another people…..

    We must be careful with what we say, so it won’t hurt someone else…

  2. Thanks for the comment, Isak.
    Yup, that’s why both deciding and controlling our own words is important regardless of how sour the mood is at the time. Self-control is the key but a sincere apology is required when we had already hurt someone. 🙂

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