... on Words

Do you remember the first time you were hurt by words?

I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I remember it as clearly as if it were today. I think I remember it because it came from someone who was very close to me, someone in my own family. And interestingly, as I try to think about when exactly this would have happened, I think I would have been old enough for other people to have said unkind things to me, as children often do without really understanding the weight of their words, but for some reason, this moment was a pivotal one. In hindsight, my feelings about the situation were a combination of many factors, and I’m very conscious of the fact that I’m not even saying who it was, as it’s still a bit of a painful memory. Chronologically, this moment would have also perhaps coincided with the beginning of the many years of bullying that I would then endure, all the way up to my leaving my country at 17 years old.

I just realised, for instance, that when victims of sexual assault are subject to interrogations and are discredited because they don’t remember the details surrounding their assault, that this also happens in other circumstances, to different degrees. We will always remember the traumatic event with acute detail, but not always the moments before or after. It’s our own internal system’s way of preservation – isolate the memory to such an extent that even when it surfaces, it won’t make much sense. This can happen with both big and small traumatic events. But going back to words…

This post was inspired by an exasperating and unfortunate situation a close friend of mine experienced last week. He texted me one day with a print screen of a message that someone had sent him, which was very much intent on hurting him. This message had come from someone who he doesn’t know that well, but they’re connected on social media, and so, this person must have felt that it was in their duty to tell my friend off for something that they have no idea about. When this happened, I immediately thought of that wonderful quote by Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet:

“Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?”

I don’t know about you, but in this day and in age, it seems that more and more, people seem to forget the power of their words, and rely on this entitlement that they can say whatever they want, without consequence. This is interesting to me, though. I love a bit of gossip sometimes, but I also deeply understand the consequences of gossip, which is often accompanied by untrue, unnecessary, and unkind statements. I don’t know when I realised this, but I very much feel that this quote is not just about what we say to others, but also about what others say to us, and also about what people in our lives say about others.

Many life experiences have shaped my own understanding of the power of words. Firstly, family experiences. I grew up in a large family. There were loving moments between all of us, and in many ways, I still equate family with large groups of people. But I also grew up witnessing members of my family talking stuff behind the back of other members of my family, and I don’t know if I’m somehow alone on this, but I remember thinking that it didn’t make any sense to love someone, and then to assassinate their character. Even as a child, these two things seemed deeply conflicting. I was the youngest, and so I think people often thought that I wasn’t listening or paying attention, but I was, and I always thought that “I don’t want my family to be like this.” This large family, is now much smaller as the accumulation of resentful and negative words has finally drawn deep enough wounds for some of these relationships to become estranged. Which is also deeply sad.

Secondly, I was heavily bullied throughout my late childhood, and adolescence. I was different in many ways, and this allowed me to see to worst in people very early on in my life. In fact, even though I had a wonderful, loving, and nurturing childhood, the weight of this bullying in my life, actually reversed those early loving experiences, to the point that a lot of the emotional impact of my early years has been mostly erased. This is the power of words. They can lift you up, or they can destroy you. One of the ways I found to cope with this bullying, and none of them were healthy by the way, was to become a bully myself. There’s always a “smaller fish” in the sea. And since I was good with words, my bullying towards others was very much carried out through words. I’ve also always had good instincts about people, and was deeply sensitive to everyone around me, and so I developed this skill of knowing exactly what to say to someone to cause the most damage in relation to their insecurities. Everything about this time was awful. I might have felt good for 3 seconds after each negative comment, but never more than that. In a way this helped me in the subsequent work I would do with teenagers and children much later on, in helping them with their own experiences of bullying. It is never about you, and always about the person who carries out the bullying towards you, even though this is difficult to understand in those difficult moments.

What these two deeply influential experiences taught me was to watch my words, to pay attention to what I was saying to others, and about others. This was also easy due to the fact that I was the youngest in my family and very bullied at school: I was often quiet and listening. And so, over time, this became a part of me: to listen, to observe, to take a pause. When it came time for my consciousness to expand, and for me to learn more and more about myself through spiritual and therapeutic practices, I already possessed the skills that would help me watch my words: it was easier to stop and assess whether my words were true, necessary, and kind. But then I realised that there was a second step to take: to pay attention to the words of others. I mean, I was being responsible about my words, but were other people being responsible about theirs? I worked in an office environment, where the primary language was gossip, and I remember feeling that “this is not who I am”. Which is when I realised, that I also had to pay attention to what others said about other people. I mean, if people talk about a colleague in a certain way, do you really think they won’t be talking about you in the same way? I’d learned this from watching my family. When it comes to gossip, everyone is game.

I made a conscious effort not to gossip. I also began to spend less time with my colleagues outside of work. Over the years, particularly the 8 years that I’ve lived in London, I’ve met, worked, and spent time with, a lot of different people, and over the years only a few have remained in my core of friendships. Why? Because I pay attention to who people are. Are they true, purposeful, and kind? Do their words reflect this? Do their actions reflect this? When I meet someone, and they are consistently untrue and unkind in their actions and words, I quickly remove them from my life. Even family. It’s my way of managing my own truth, purpose, and kindness towards the world around me. In my core circle, words and actions are used to elevate, support, and love. Anything less than that, is not welcome.

I realised this past week, as I considered this topic, that what I’ve been doing over the years was managing boundaries with people. If you think about it, the three questions that Rumi proposes in our use of words, are actually boundaries: are the people in your life speaking true, necessary, and kind words? Great! Are they not? Make an assessment: where do the people in your life falter more in terms of their words? And where do you? Even in all my self-regulation, I often break one of these boundaries for myself and others. Sometimes I say unnecessary or unkind things. I usually do this when I’m hurt, or out of balance about something. When this happens, it’s always a great opportunity to ask myself: why did I say that? What feeling motivated such a reaction? You can also do this in relation to what others say to you. What motivated such a reaction? Why would they say that? Depending on who they are, I either then speak to the person if they matter, or I simply ignore, delete, and block. There are far too many worries in the world, to be spending time and energy with people who don’t deserve it.

I will leave you with another poem, by Rupi Kaur, Invest in the right people:

“There are far too many mouths here

But not enough of them are worth

What you’re offering

Give yourself to a few

And to those few

Give heavily.”