Words are powerful: so powerful that the tongue – the conveyor of words – is described by some ancient poetry as possessing “the power of life and death.” The poetic language allows us to understand that death is more than simply the expiration of our final breath.
In my early life, a person of considerable importance defined me by their words. I died a little the first day a pernicious word shot like an arrow from their tongue. They then invoked this word throughout my life to describe me, which produced a number of feelings that amounted to self-loathing – or more crassly, self-hatred.
The word alighted on my mind regularly like a cold, heartless and unassuming assassin: Dan, “you are useless.”
It’s a short leap of logic from useless to associated adjectives, including worthless, pointless, ineffectual and purposeless. These words pursued me like a relentless gang. I was subsequently defined not only by the word useless, but by a band of allied hostiles.
Taken together they created an internal story that I rehearsed and replayed in my mind daily.
Words or statements like these are like death by a thousand cuts. They are slowly destroying us as we provide a home for them within our psyche and allow them to shape our identity. We then carry this distorted identity into our experience of the world – at work, at school or university, and in our personal life at home.
Was this simply because I was weak psychologically, excessively vulnerable to the opinions of others? I may have thought so at one point in my life. However I’ve discovered my experience is far from unique.
I have met plenty of people who have lived through similar ordeals. They have never been able to accept something about themselves – their body, intelligence, capabilities, or character – because of the words someone has spoken over them at some point in time.
Pernicious words threaten the very possibility of a positive personal identity.
Entire groups of people have also been defined by harmful words.
For a long time the people at the bottom of the caste system in India have been defined by a number of words, the most common being untouchable.
Contact with this caste was seen to contaminate the person who dared draw near. Imagine that for a lifetime you were told that you were untouchable, dirty, an abomination, and a festering wound that cannot be healed.
Researchers conducted a capability test on a mixed class of high and low caste children. Initially the children weren’t made aware of their individual caste identities, and when they tackled the puzzles presented to them, no significant caste-based difference was measured in their performance.
The test was then conducted again, but this time their caste identities were revealed. The low caste groups significantly underperformed when reminded of who they were: untouchables.
Reminded of their group membership, the words spoken over them by an entire social system – you’re not intelligent, you’re incapable of study, you’re unworthy, you’ll never amount to anything – became self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing. I’m sure most of us can think of other groups similarly defined.
Have you allowed someone else to negatively define you? Have you been told that you’re incompetent, lazy, selfish, useless, unintelligent, too tall, too short, have something ‘wrong’ with your body, or character?
Will these harmful words define us forever? They don’t have to, if we can adopt a more powerful alternative story and elevate it above the old.
I’m happy to say that useless and several other harmful words spoken over me in the past no longer define me. These steps have helped me craft an alternative personal story that has given me life, not death:
- Find good people (work colleague, mentor, coach, friend or Church or other faith leaders,) who can help you identify your most positive characteristics and strengths.
- Allow them to speak life into those positive characteristics and strengths – this can be hard at first because we have another conflicting and more powerful story playing on repeat in the background.
- Write down the harmful words spoken over you. Identify the story they create. Write a new story from your positive characteristics and who you want to be. Repeat the story to yourself regularly until it becomes self-reinforcing.
- Realise and accept that your words are powerful and use them to bring life, and never death, to others.
- Think of groups in society who have been negatively defined and offer them words of life.
Just as death is not the expiration of our final breath, so too life is not simply the prolonged animation of our physical being. Life-giving words can redefine your story, revive your imagination, and release your human ingenuity to create a peaceful society that renders the unassuming assassin defenseless.
The caste tests in India were referred to in the World Development Report 2015: Mind, Society, and Behavior. While the caste system has been officially banned by the government of India, as a cultural and normative construct it continues to define social relations and systems of access and exclusion within society.
The tongue has the power of life and death – Book of Proverbs 18:21