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Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Power of Words

There is an old adage: "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me" which could not be more untrue.

As a psychotherapist, I hear many accounts from individuals and couples about just how harmful words can be when spoken in anger and in haste. Words, whether used to attack in anger or used with love and compassion, are very powerful. And, yet, I think we often underestimate the power of words and don't stop to think before we say certain things that can't be taken back once they're said. Many times, these words, often thoughtlessly blurted out, can seriously damage or end a relationship or a friendship or cost someone a job.

Comforting Words
Words, whether written or oral, can also be comforting and supportive.  A few supportive words from a loved one can make all the difference.  Also, when we read a story that is comforting and soothing, it can be very healing.

Words Have the Power to be Comforting

Words Said in Anger Can Have a Lasting Effect
Often, the effects of these words far outlast the few seconds it takes to say them. I'm thinking in particular of situations where a parent tells a child, in moment of frustration and exasperation, "You can't do anything right!" or, even more damaging, "You're never going to amount to anything."

It's often the case that this child carries these words with him for the rest of his life, and they're there right under the surface waiting to be triggered later on as an adult whenever he feels (or he is made to feel) inadequate. I'm also thinking of situations between couples where, as arguments escalate, each person tries to say things that are increasingly more harmful in an effort to "win" the fight (of course, there's really no "winning" in these situations). Other examples come to mind, like road rage, where drivers become impatient with each other and words can escalate to physical violence.

Words Said in Anger Can Have a Lasting Damaging Effect
Many times, whatever momentary gratification is derived from saying these harsh words, especially in personal relationships, is far outweighed afterwards by remorse and regret. And even when there is forgiveness, the other person often doesn't forget what has been said.

It seems to me that, during the last several years, I've been hearing more accounts than usual of how damaging angry and unkind words have ruined relationships between children and their parents, in marriages, in friendships, between employee and employer, between colleagues and in other business relationships. Usually, these dynamics occur in person but they also occur by phone, via email, and in Instant Messaging. I don't know what accounts for this increase or even if what I'm seeing is representative of a larger dynamic. But if it is more prevalent today than before, perhaps part of it is the increasingly faster pace of our lives, or the ease and speed of technology for communicating, or if, somehow, as a society, we've become somewhat desensitized and insensitive to each other.

What is apparent, however, is that the more a person engages in this type of behavior, the more habitual it becomes, and the harder it is to break this habit. Of course, no one can be expected to be "a saint" and it's normal to have angry feelings. But we can control how and when we express ourselves. And so much of the damage that is often done with harsh and angry words could be avoided if we just stop and think before we speak.

Learn to Recognize Physical Cues to Prevent Yourself From Uttering Words You'll Regret


Learn to Recognize Internal Cues to Prevent Yourself From Uttering Words You'll Regret
If you're quick to utter angry and harsh words, learn to recognize the cues in yourself before you blow your top and say things that you're going to regret. These cues can be physical, like when you feel your face getting flush or you feel a knot of anger in your stomach or many other cues in your body that are particular to you and that you can learn to recognize as signs that you're about to lose it. These cues can also be mental or emotional, as when you recognize the thoughts that you're having just before they turn into words that you could use as weapons.

This is a skill, like many skills, that you can learn. If an argument is escalating and you feel yourself on the verge of losing it, take a time out and get back to the other person once you've had time to cool off. Try to put yourself in the other person's shoes for a moment and see the situation from his or her point of view. Could it be that there's some misunderstanding that can be cleared up when cooler heads prevail?

Getting Help
If you find that you often use words in ways that you later regret and you're unable to stop this habit on your own, you could benefit from the help of a licensed psychotherapist.

I'm a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.  I work with individuals and couples.  I have helped many clients learn to communicate with others in a healthier way.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, feel free to call me at (212) 726-1006.


photo credit: Robbert van der Steeg via photopin cc
photo credit: JustCallMe_♥Bethy♥_ via photopin cc
photo credit: Jason Hargrove via photopin cc








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