wounded by words

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Researchers have shown that the same area of the brain lights up—the interior cingulate gyrus—when you experience hurtful words as it does when you experience physical pain. Words are real—they enter your brain as electro-magnetic forces; they become thoughts. Every thought carries the chemicals of the emotions that go with it, so if the words are hurtful, the chemical instructions contained in the electro-magnetic forces traveling through your brain cause pain. It hurts, and that’s a physical, measurable reality for you.

Damaging words not only cause pain when they are spoken, but the chemical recipe for that pain is stored within the thoughts in your memory. You can, and will, relive that pain every time you remember them. You may even internalize those words as truth—for instance, “I never do anything right.”—which strengthens and prolongs their effect on your psyche.


“I’ve been sitting behind you in class for two years, and you wear that same dress every week. Aren’t you sick of it? I sure am.”

That comment was spoken to me over 40 years ago in high school, and I remember it to this day. He didn’t mean to be cruel or even begin to guess at the reasons why I wore it so often. I knew that was true when he spoke those words, but it didn’t stop the pain and embarrassment I felt.

The effect has been life-long. Finances have fluctuated between tight and tighter for most of my life, easing a little after our children left the nest. Even though I had clothes that were presentable, I was always self-conscious, tried to dress to meet other’s criterion, and felt like I didn’t quite get there. Today, I’m a self-proclaimed “clothes horse.” I know what I like, and I buy and wear styles to please myself—still always from the sales racks, of course.

The memory of that comment is still firmly planted in my brain, but the chemicals attached to it have changed so it no longer pains me. How is that possible?

That young man’s voiced opinion has been pulled up and examined in many different contexts, and each time it returns to my memory, the emotional recipe attached to it has undergone a change. My every-stinking-week dress has played a role in a growing self-image, in increased confidence, and in development of my style. With my growth the memory of those hurtful words has undergone changes as well. His words don’t hurt me any more; instead, they’re a mark of where I was then compared to who I am now.

What we say is important—to others as well as to ourselves. Acknowledge the toxic nature of cruel words, both those you say and those aimed at you. Once said, they can’t be UNsaid–the pain has been inflicted, and it is real.

Damaging words stay in your memory. You can change the toxic composition of the emotional chemicals attached to them, but it takes time and effort.

  • Pull the memory into your working mind and examine it.
  • Ask yourself: How have you matured since you first heard them? Is there something in those words that stops you from moving forward?
  • Name it, and then repeat out loud and practice thinking the opposing truth.

If you persist, you can change the chemical recipe of the emotion attached to your memory from toxic to positive, and remember with strength instead of pain.

Are there words in your memory banks that still cause you pain?

Do your words cause pain to others?

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