Words. I have spent my entire life in a love affair with words. I wrote my first poem when I was eight, first song at age ten, which I will share for your general entertainment. It went something like:
Just how I feel about you
I could not possibly live my life
If I was without you
Every other girl wants you
To know just how they feel
But their love it’s just puppy love
And my love it is real
It was a complete song, with verses, chorus, bridge and a melody. Also impressive was the urgency of my message. My love was real, friends! I was ten. 10, that’s X in Roman, 70 in dog years. I mean, I know what I meant by my evocative lyricism. I meant that this boy was my friend and I actually cared about him, unlike the popular girl he was “dating”, an absolutely hilarious concept in the sixth grade involving the title of boyfriend and girlfriend, but little more interaction than the pre-dating status —no one’s going to the movies or making out in a parking lot. Well SHE, the popular girl was only in it for the attention, with her shiny bomber jacket sleeves rolled up just so, and her flippy hair and long legs. This boy was my friend. We played together, but I also thought he was dreamy; his smile, his stocky shoulders, his mischievous smile. So much so that at my 7th grade birthday party when we played spin the bottle and it landed on me, and after two solid years of imagining it I was supposed to kiss him, I panicked and locked myself in the bathroom. SIGH. And this little ditty of longing lead to notebooks full of song lyrics. As a teenager I wrote for myself, and I wrote for all of my friends. If you had a heart break, you could come to Erin, and she would pour your pain into a song. I wrote real poetry in my young adulthood. A novel in my early twenties. I brought in my thirties with a hundred legal briefs, one of which the partner of a firm read aloud to his associates for the sheer entertainment value (I mean it was sound legal mojo as well, fret not) —I was proud of that one. And then, I started paying attention to words in a different way. On account of the emotional healing project I had undertaken, and all of that jazz.
I spent a few solid years on this side of the word, the hidden, secret, third entendre. It went like this. When I say this to myself, what do I really mean? When he says this to me, what does he really mean? When the world says this to us, what does it really mean? I did this for my relationships. I did this for others’ relationships. I did this for my children. I did this for “God”. Newsflash, when we place our hands on our hips and say “’Fine!” we do not mean I feel fine, or I agree, or I am okay with anything you are saying in any way. We kinda mean “I am so angry I will disdainfully do as you ask as an emotional punishment for your unreasonableness”. We have somewhere between 50k and 100k thoughts cycle through our mind in a day. We are in constant conversation with ourselves and others, inside our minds. What are we saying there?
Well I am here to dissect a few popular communications here for you today, results of my investigation, to provide the subtext or underlying message of what they are telling us as an educational process with the aim of lessening the damage they may be doing, in your head, or your life. The first gem: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me. Best case scenario this says “I choose not to give power to your hurtful verbal attack against me”. But it also says that emotional attacks are less powerful than physical attacks. And this is untrue. Certainly, “names” hurt in a different way than sticks. While my wish is for all of my peeps to get to the place where neither sticks are hurting their bones, nor names are hurting their souls, it’s typically a process to get there, so MOST of us when we are singing the sticks and stones ditty are saying “Nanny nanny poo poo, you can’t hurt me, I don’t even care about your insult you stupidhead, now go away so I can finish saving face and go home to cry to my mommy or Ben and Jer, or my hamster Harry”, probably all three, and probably in that order of operations.
The truth is that words that hurt us, do so because they get all up in our broken ideas of ourselves, our ouchy spots, and the smarter the bully, the more impressive the twisting, pinching and poking of your tender Achilles heel, or your worst bruise, via the simple “harmless” word.
ALL WORDS HAVE EMOTIONAL CUES. Words seek to connect, at least theoretically, and superficially. But they are part of a system where connection is not the name of the game. Dogs are eating dogs, and that is not a comforting world in which to trust, or share from the heart. Sometimes words help with this; they correct and bring us closer. Other times they serve to alienate us from one another, and our dogs.
It’s okay if it hurts being called a bozo, or a loser, or a fatty. You can choose not to give it power, to not invest in the idea, grow it, or define yourself by it, or the anger it invokes in you, and still, yes, feel your feelings, and answer those feelz.
Let’s tackle another BEAUTY: I’ll give you something to cry about. Did your parents hit you with this one? ‘Cause y’all, I’m gonna break it down for ya:
“Whatever pain is feeling so terrible for you that you are physically spewing from your tear ducts is not just unacceptable and illegitimate but also, such a personal transgression against me so as to warrant a violent punishment and the total terror of imagining and anticipating what that mysterious unnamed punishment might be, while you try to choke back your sobs straight past your throat and into your lower intestine”.
WOW. That little number could keep me in biz for a few thousand years. In addition to not resolving your emotional pain, which is generally what you need help with when you are small, it brings to the table shame and terror.
Now I am a parent. I know what is going on for the mom or dad who reaches for this desperate device, or stands by in shocked chagrin as they hear it pass from a dark place in hell straight over their very own lips.
What that parent is feeling is utter emotional panic that goes like this “I can’t do this. I do not have what it takes to answer this distress either because it is making me feel shame and I need that horrible feeling gone NOW, or because I am tired, worn, wearied, afraid and I must make it go away decidedly and effectively so I can lie down on this here pile of laundry for a nap.” Sometimes the very cry for help is heard as an attack. “You must give what you don’t have, mwuah ha ha, you are not giving enough, you are not enough”. One hurt, then begets another, which is like Genesis, but different.
Now as adult, grown-up people in charge of smaller people, we are supposed to have this shit sorted out, but we aren’t really given a system that allows for that, so it rarely happens. Not all of us reach for the deadly combo of “words to save for therapy” as above, but we find a softer smaller rock and throw that one. It never feels good. I am going to go as far as to say, the more malevolent we are, the more hair trigger our shame response, and the greater our defense mechanics -kinda like we have a big scary monster suit that we live in in order to stay safe.
Is that okay? For us, no. For our kids, hell no. And the trick with this one, is that what we are HEARING that engenders the panicked response, is NOT in fact, what the child is saying, with it’s plaintiff cry, or dramatic sobbing as the case may be. That mis-hearing comes from, wait for it, the informational short circuiting that forms the inner dialogue of our, you know, psyche, deep innermost thoughts, unconscious mind, blah blah blah. The thing I am constantly tuned into, but most of us are running from like my daughter on an LA sidewalk at dusk when we discovered those strange tree pods were actually cockroaches.
There has to be some painful, caustic stuff cycling around in there for us to respond the way we do, and it is helpful to know this. Even the most scientific communication has emotional value and impact because we experience life emotionally.
So let’s turn to romantic relationship for the final stop on our word trip. When I work with a couple, or one person that is part of a couple and having some struggles with their coupledom, I often provide a ‘conflict assessment’, which is a cool title for me decoding what you are actually struggling with, and differentiating it from what you are communicating to one another. This one is often earth shattering, and eye opening, and at least one more tired metaphor, how about jaw-dropping?
I worked post-mortem on a relationship once (they found me after the break up to help with the falling apart and catastrophic heart break that was going on), and I will never forget the look on HIS face, when he realized what his partner had been needing from him ALL OF THIS TIME, but struggled to communicate. Suddenly the blame and attack dissolved. Now had we been earlier in the game, well, we may have saved a couple, instead we saved one partner from emotionally drowning and set the other on a path to healing.
For many of us, when we feel our own emotional distress kicking in, the connection breaks and we reach for words indiscriminately. Turns out that sometimes it is better to say “I am scared” than “You fucking whore”, even if they are both attempts to express the same emotion. We want to make it stop, we think we want to point out what was OBVIOUSLY blatantly wrong with whatever Judy said or did, but what we really want is to feel loved, honoured, respected, heard, understood, comforted, noticed, and some other related THINGS.
I am not gonna teach you a whole new way in today’s pages, but I will suggest a sort of “STOP, DROP AND ROLL” approach to communication when you are in distress. At the first sign of heat, AKA distress, Stop. Observe that you are in fact on fire. Then Drop. Do not run into the wind, or away from your pain, or off at the mouth. Get grounded. Then finally Roll. Don’t reach for the metaphorical rock, or stick. Give yourself a hug. Take a walk or a breath. Eat a Snickers. Count to Jesus.
And when you are ready, try “I feel” or “could you help me” as an opening. I feel you’re an asshole does not count. Could you help me shove it up your ass? Also, not the direction I am hoping for.
I leave you with the following poem.
Violets are blue.
My love for you is real.
— Love, Erin.
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