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Words can never hurt me

Imagine someone walks up to you in the street and begins shouting in a language you don’t understand. The person clearly intends to tear you down, but you cannot guess what he’s saying. Would you feel offended in such a situation? Do his words harm you?

Research shows that areas of the brain that experience physical pain can be activated by verbal abuse.1 We also know that some people are more sensitive to verbal attacks than others are. Recently, I spoke with a youth league referee who said that after 15 years of calling games up to six days a week, nothing a parent or coach says offends him anymore. I’ve seen other referees crack at the first whisper of disapproval. This article will discuss when words hurt and how to develop a thicker skin.

Good emotional pain?

Emotional pain is any suffering of a non-physical origin. It is mental torment and a universal part of the human experience. The psychologist Edwin Scheidman proposed that emotional pain is caused by frustrated psychological needs, including the lack of love, autonomy, and achievement and the desire to avoid shame and embarrassment.2

I believe words result in emotional pain when we fear a threatening message could be true, when it leads us to question our worth, and when it reminds us of unresolved issues from the past.3 If someone mentions a defect that I have already accepted about myself, I feel little pain. Likewise, if someone says something vile that is clearly false and that others are unlikely to believe, I don’t take it personally. It’s the self-doubt – the parts of me that I find unacceptable where I’m vulnerable to psychological pain.

Emotional suffering, like physical pain, can nudge us toward necessary change and personal growth. The only reason to say that all emotional pain is bad is that you see yourself as flawless. If you have reached the pinnacle of human excellence and have nothing to learn, then all pain would be bad. Sadly, you are not a heavenly being and need the motivating power of pain to progress.

But what good can come from emotional pain surrounding what cannot change? Is it helpful for people to point out how short, stupid or physically incapable we are?

These are difficult questions to answer simply. Extreme emotional pain or chronic exposure to it can have disastrous consequences, particularly for young children and others ill-equipped to process it. Bullying, or aggressive behavior repeatedly carried out on a weaker individual, is associated with long-term physical and psychological problems.4

On the other hand, grappling with unsolvable problems is how we come to terms with them and how we develop compensatory skills. Emotional pain also drives us to reach out for help and forge social connections. In summary, pain is unpleasant, potentially harmful, and necessary for growth.

A model for understanding how words hurt

The research on exactly why words hurt seems a little thin (help me out if you know of papers I don’t), but Brooke Castillo developed what she calls the Self-Coaching Model to describe how external factors affect people. In this model, the circumstances and messages that confront us throughout the day trigger thoughts. These thoughts about our circumstances produce feelings that motivate us to act. The results of our actions lead to more thoughts, and so on. All of this can happen within a few seconds.

The primary takeaway from this model is that words may not directly cause us to feel a certain way. It’s our own thoughts about our circumstances that lead to emotional pain. We can choose to accept a critical comment and make it part of our narrative, or we can let it pass as noise. If Castillo’s oversimplified model is correct – and it has some ring of truth – then we should look closely at the different attributes of verbal abuse and see if we can make better use of it. Let’s dig into:

  • The speaker’s intended message and the receiver’s interpretation of it
  • The sound waves and visual cues produced by the speaker
  • The speaker’s feelings while conveying the message
  • The receiver’s environment

The speaker’s intended message and the receiver’s interpretation of it

One of my daughters came home from a dance recently and was worried that she had offended one of her dance partners. She had questioned his taste in books. Thinking back on what she said, my daughter imagined that her words were hurtful even though that’s not how she intended them.

I’m impressed that my daughter strives to choose her words carefully and that she wants to build people up instead of tear them down. What if everyone acted as though they were 100% responsible for the words they used, and they took complete responsibility for how they interpreted others’ messages? No one could force them to say anything or react in a certain way.

They would consider the needs of the audience before speaking. When angry, they would quietly reflect. Their words might be harsh or critical at times, but they would be edifying instead of destructive. They would avoid attacking others to make themselves look better by comparison. And they would look for the most positive interpretation of others’ words. They would fail sometimes, of course, but then recommit. And their communities would be better for their efforts.

The sound waves and visual cues produced by the speaker

I think most people would agree that the sound waves from spoken language can’t hurt you unless they are spoken loudly and with spittle at close range.

When communicating sensitive messages, be aware of your voice tone, body language, and facial expressions and how they convey emotion. I personally struggle with finding the right tone for my messages. Even when I’m saying something reasonable, my wife and kids have said that they feel criticized by the way I say it. Humans are so good at picking up emotions through visual cues and tones that I’m honestly not sure if it’s possible to hide them from those close to you.

The speaker’s feelings while conveying the message

Let’s go back to the thought experiment with the threatening stranger yelling at you for a moment. Though you do not understand his intended message, you sense his anger. Feelings are contagious, especially negative ones.5 You will probably begin feeling some of the frustration that he does.

Even if you are not offended by the man’s unintelligible message, your heart rate will likely rise – your fight-flight-or-freeze response activated. You might freeze up and become paralyzed with fear. You might run for safety. And in threatening situations with extreme levels of stress, you might even launch a physical or verbal assault of your own.

Does triggering your fight-or-flight response harm you? Not necessarily. Your body will calm down and return to normal 20 to 30 minutes after a stressful event.6 You might even react more confidently to a similar incident in the future.

Still, chronic stress that comes with persistent verbal abuse can compromise your health. It may lead to anxiety, cardiac and lung problems, depression, and other serious issues.7 Negative emotions are like salt, essential to human health in small doses but harmful at high doses over an extended time.8

The receiver’s environment

Let’s return to our thought experiment one last time. Imagine the man screaming at you is in the psychiatric ward of a well-lit hospital and on the other side of a thick door. Muscular-but-friendly staff members are walking toward you with smiles on their faces.

Now how would you perceive the situation differently if the stranger accosted you at 2 am in an otherwise empty subway station? What if he looked exactly like the serial killer from that documentary you watched last night? Which of these two situations is mostly likely to scar you for life?

The context of a message matters. The same sentence delivered by the same person to the same recipient can be interpreted very differently depending on the environment.9 When delivering a sensitive message, we should consider not just what to say, but where and when to say it.

How can we grow a thick skin?

Most people don’t want to become unhinged every time they receive minor criticism. I want to react with poise and caring when someone tells me what I don’t want to hear. The slander should bounce off me with barely a notice and the thoughtful advice should sink in and change me. Here are a few ideas on how to withstand criticism and verbal attacks. Let me know if you have any ideas to add.

Certain factors appear to reduce the likelihood and impact of verbal abuse on children:10

  • Good school (or work?) performance
  • Good social skills
  • A stable (undisrupted) family
  • Strong relationship with parents
  • Good friends
  • People willing to defend the person bullied 11

I believe these factors would help adults avoid the negative effects of verbal abuse as well. So, the first step to building a thick skin is not to build coping skills. It is having a strong social network. I don’t want to just manage the stress that comes with verbal criticism. I want to channel it into understanding and behaviors that help me progress.

After you have done what you can to maintain a strong family and friendships, consider the following tools to grow a thick skin:

  • Eat well, sleep well, and exercise – You are best able to accept valid criticism and recognize the unhelpful kind when you are well rested and content.
  • Practice mindfulness and prayer – These skills can help you create a space between the insult and your reaction to it – a space for you to thoughtfully consider the intended message and your response.12
    • Ask yourself why you are so offended – Are you worried that the accuser could be right about you? What part of you is threatened? What can you learn about yourself?
    • Ask yourself about the circumstances of the offender – Is this person really talking about you or is he projecting his own pain and insecurities?
    • Consider whether the statement could have come from a place of caring – And if the message was offered in anger and not love, perhaps your accuser is giving you information that could be helpful anyway.
  • Summarize the message back to the speaker and ask if that is what he intended – This will give your persecutor a chance to clarify or recant.
  • Don’t shy away from people who tell it how it is – Through exposure to hard truths, we grow faster than remaining insulated from pain. And through every positive experience with criticism, we are better able to bear it and benefit from it.
  • But avoid people and environments where people attack you constantly – Extended periods of verbal abuse appear to be more destructive than helpful. Best to surround yourself with people who praise you when you are going in the right direction and criticize you when you go astray.
  • Get help if you could benefit from it – And ask for feedback and comments when everyone is in good spirits.
  • Create new narratives about emotional pain – We cannot negotiate what psychological pain feels like, but we can decide what to do with it. We can run and hide from stressful messages, or we can consider them and decide whether to change.13


Sometimes my brain seems disconnected from my mouth. I think I am communicating clearly, but my audience takes away an unintended message. Or I try to reduce the tension with a joke, and my listener takes it personally. Or when I’m tired or my emotions get the best of me, I say something thoughtless or intentionally cruel.

I hope people will forgive me for these lapses, and I hope to extend them the same consideration. Better yet, don’t forgive the people who occasionally cause you emotional pain. Thank them for it.

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