Sticks ‘n Stones

Sticks and stones will break my bones
But words will never hurt me.

Sticks and stones....
Sticks and stones….

How many times do we hear this growing up? I don’t remember the first time I heard this simple rhyme, but I know that I have heard it hundreds of times since. And on one level, it is excellent common sense: don’t let someone get a rise out of you, don’t retaliate with violence, don’t freak out over an insult. But on another level, it is one of the most mind-bogglingly false adages out there. Because words hurt. Sometimes far more than a simple broken bone.

Yes, sticks and stones may break a person’s bones, but interestingly enough, the human body does not remember pain. The brain can remember having been in pain, and the emotions surrounding that pain, but the actual physical discomfort cannot be conjured up again without actually inflicting the same pain on the same nerves in the same way. So a broken bone will knit. A bruise will fade. A cut will heal. But anyone who has ever been badly wounded by a carefully chosen sentence or two will know that it is not so with words. The memory of an insult, criticism, or verbal abuse can sting or even damage long after the moment has passed. Often, it will even grow worse with time, burrowing deep into the psyche until nothing can dislodge it.

It is a cruel irony that we are so often quicker to believe cruel words than we are kind ones. A hundred accolades can be struck down by a single calculated word of criticism, and a thousand compliments forgotten in the face of one off-hand insult. And the more personal the harsh words, the harder it is to brush off the criticism or abuse.

The stuff of nightmares...
The stuff of nightmares…

As a writer, I have had to make a concerted effort to thicken my skin. Not that I have people hurling insults and criticism at me every day, but the very act of creating something and then putting it out there for people to see and experience arms people with the weapons to harm you. Metaphorical sticks and stones, if you will. And learning to stand strong against those sticks and stones is very difficult. I have come a long way since the first time I ever work-shopped a short story in a creative writing class, but I know I still have a long way to go before the paralyzing horror of having people say bad things about me and my work goes away. Maybe it won’t ever go away. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t keep trying.

To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing. –Elbert Hubbard

And it doesn’t mean that I should stop doing, either. Because for every person who hates something I create there is bound to be just as many who like it. And while the bad words might be easier to remember, the good ones are stronger and more important.

Does that old childhood rhyme ever bother you? How do you keep from taking criticism too personally? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below!


  1. Steven Robinette

    There is interesting research in the experience of pain that suggests memories of painful experiences are governed by a “peak/end” rule, in which we only remember how bad something was at its worst and at the end. Does that mean that once you are successful in some pursuit you forget all (except the very worst!) of trying to get there?

    • Lyra Selene

      How interesting! I’m not sure if the same principle applies to emotional stress/pain, but it definitely could. I know that memory often amplifies strong emotions and glosses over times of less stress.

  2. Kourtney Heintz

    Words will always hurt. And emotional pain is far worse than physical pain because it lingers for so long. It’s hard to deal with thoughtless feedback where someone thinks honesty means being tactless and rude. Hard truths can be delivered with a soft touch imho.

    • Lyra Selene

      Absolutely. I don’t think that honesty equates cruelty. It’s important to remember that every harsh word can be taken personally by someone, and even if we don’t know them personally it’s no less important to temper criticism with kindness.

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