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