Do Words Really Hurt?

by Elyssa Lee, MSW, LCSWA

You may be familiar with the old adage: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Although widely popular and commonly used as a defense against insulting words, this phrase is not necessarily true. The truth is, words DO hurt.

Many scientific studies have shown that words, positive or negative, not only affect us on a deep psychological level, but can also have a significant impact on the outcome of our lives. It has been found that the sound waves emitted when we speak not only carry the message spoken, but also create an impact on the person at the receiving end. At times, this impact lasts forever. If it’s positive, it can boost a person’s energy, self esteem, and bring out good. If it’s negative, it can negatively affect a person’s sense of self and ultimately, the direction of their lives.

In fact, it has been found that words can not only have a deep psychological impact, but a physical one as well. In their book, Words Can Change Your Brain, neuroscientists Newberg and Waldman state “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.” In a neuroscience experiment conducted by Maria Richter and colleagues, it was shown that negative words release stress and anxiety-inducing hormones in subjects. Additional studies have found increased levels of anxiety in children are associated with higher rates of negative self-talk. These increased anxiety and stress hormones can lead to a myriad of physical health issues as well. Ultimately, negative words- whether spoken, heard, or thought- not only cause situational stress, but also contribute to long term anxiety and physical health problems.

On the contrary, positive words can have just as profound of an impact on our well being. According to the research by Newberg and Waldman, exercising positive thoughts can quite literally change one’s reality. They found that “By holding a positive and optimistic word in your mind, you stimulate frontal lobe activity. This area includes specific language centers that connect directly to the motor cortex responsible for moving you into action. And as our research has shown, the longer you concentrate on positive words, the more you begin to affect other areas of the brain.” Therefore, positive words can boost our confidence, health, and pursuit of life goals.

As the famous proverb states: “Kind words are like honey- sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.” -Proverbs 16:24.

The above evidence goes to show just how much power our words hold. Think back to some of the most pivotal moments in your own life. Maybe you were facing an important decision, attempting to take on an intimidating challenge, or working through insecurity/sense of identity. What words were both others and yourself speaking over you during this time? Were they positive or negative? If they were positive, did they give you the courage to move forward and conquer that challenge? Or, if they were negative, did they keep you stuck and forever change your sense of self?

I have witnessed the power words can have firsthand through seeing their effect in the life of my father. Let me take you back to the glorious days of high school algebra (I know, I cringe just thinking about it too). Although a very intelligent man, math was not my father’s strongest subject and he struggled to grasp the concept of algebra. Despite tutoring and putting in his best efforts, he continued to struggle and received failing grades. At his wits end, he went to his teacher for suggestions. Rather than offer a different approach, support, or encouragement, the teacher offered a “solution” that forever impacted my father’s confidence and the trajectory of his life. The teacher told him, “How about I agree to pass you if you promise to never step foot in my class again?”

Although these words may seem insignificant on the surface and may even sound like a great way to get out of algebra, they crushed my father’s confidence. He began to view himself as stupid and incompetent. He went from being a man of confidence, to one full of negative self-talk and self-doubt. In the following years, he gave up his plans for college and even passed up several career promotions because he did not think of himself as being capable to meet the challenge. It was not until many years later (in therapy!), when he realized the impact these words had and he began the process of repairing his confidence and self-perception through positive words.

You may not know that June 1st is National Say Something Nice Day. What a great opportunity for us to reflect and take inventory of the words we routinely speak over ourselves and others! Are they primarily positive or negative? Are they building up or tearing down? No matter your answer, there is always an opportunity to engage in more positive speech.

I’d like to challenge you to take this day (and the whole month of June) to practice being more intentional to speak kind words to others and yourself. You never know the power a single kind word can have. By exercising consistent positive thoughts and speech, we not only build others up and change our own self-perception, but how we perceive the world around us also shifts positively. Ultimately, this grants us the ability to shape our reality and change the world for the better.

So join me in my effort to go out and make the world a better place…. one word at a time!