Sticks and Stones

Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words will never hurt me.

Sticks and stones....
Sticks and stones…

How many times do we hear this growing up? I don’t remember the first time I heard this simple rhyme, but I know that I have heard it hundreds of times since. Superficially, the saying offers excellent common sense: don’t let someone get a rise out of you, don’t retaliate with violence, don’t freak out over an insult. But when you consider it more deeply, it is one of the most mind-bogglingly false adages out there. Because words hurt. Sometimes far more than a simple broken bone.

Yes, sticks and stones may break a person’s bones, but interestingly enough, the human body does not remember pain. The brain can remember having been in pain, and the emotions surrounding that pain, but the actual physical discomfort cannot be conjured up again without actually inflicting the same pain on the same nerves in the same way. So a broken bone will knit. A bruise will fade. A cut will heal. But anyone who has ever been badly wounded by a carefully chosen sentence or two will know that it is not so with words. The memory of an insult, criticism, or verbal abuse can sting or even damage long after the moment has passed. Often, it will even grow worse with time, burrowing deep into the psyche until nothing can dislodge it.

It is a cruel irony that we are so often quicker to believe cruel words than we are kind ones. A hundred accolades can be struck down by a single calculated word of criticism, and a thousand compliments forgotten in the face of one off-hand insult. And the more personal the harsh words, the more difficult it is to brush off the criticism or abuse.

The stuff of nightmares...
The stuff of nightmares

As a writer, I have made a concerted effort to thicken my skin. Not that I have people hurling insults and criticism at me every day, but the very act of creating something and then putting it out there for people to see and experience arms people with the weapons to harm you. Metaphorical sticks and stones, if you will. And learning to stand strong against those sticks and stones can feel nigh impossible. I have come a long way since the first time I ever workshopped a short story in a creative writing class, but I know I still have a long way to go before the paralyzing horror of having people say bad things about me and my work disappears. Maybe it won’t ever go away. But that doesn’t mean I should stop trying.

To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing. –Elbert Hubbard

And it doesn’t mean that I should stop doing, either. Because for every person who hates something I create there is bound to be just as many who like it. And while the bad words might be easier to remember, the good ones are stronger and more important.

Does that old childhood rhyme ever bother you? How do you keep from taking criticism too personally? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below!


3 thoughts on “Sticks and Stones

  1. Shauna Granger

    So, I read my reviews. I know, I know, everyone says, “Don’t read the reviews!” but I totally do. I read all of them. I bask in the positive ones, I go back to them when I’m feeling a bit down about my work or ranking or whatever. But I also read the negative reviews. They all suck. They all hurt a little bit. But I don’t like every single book my friends like. And sometimes my friends don’t like a book I loved. And that actually hurts, like it was my book or something. So I try to remember that when I do read the negative reviews. I read them to figure out if there’s a common thread to the dislike, or if it is just a personal flavor. But one day I read a two star review of one of my YA novels that said something along the lines of “this was pretty juvenile. Probably more suited for younger people.” And another time I read a one star review for an erotic novella written by my pen name that, at the time, was ranked in the erotica lists on Amazon, that said something like “this was just smut and sex!” And I just laughed at both reviews. Sometimes you gotta laugh at the negative reviews because they can be ridiculous and then sometimes they’re going to do a better job of selling your book for you.

    For what it’s worth, I do hate that stupid rhyme and wish people would stop using it. It does excuse a lot of what’s wrong with society like cyber bullying and slut shaming.

    1. Yeah, I imagine for me it would have to be all or nothing–I would either have to ban myself from ever reading a single review, or force myself to read all of them. Probably the latter, because I’m too curious for my own good. Either way, I think it’s important to do it with intention and purpose, like you’re saying, and not get too caught up in the emotional aspect of it.

      It is pretty hilarious that you had a few of those idiotic reviews, though. Like, don’t people know what a genre is?

  2. Buddhism teaches that there is always praise and blame, and it can come to you for taking the same action. Some will praise it and some will put blame on you for it. It’s something to make peace with over time and with experience, especially as a writer or creative person. There will be that person who you help and that other person you annoy. It’s inevitable!

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