The Moment That Made Me Realize the Weight of Words as a Highly Sensitive Person
As both a writer and a highly sensitive person (HSP, from Dr. Elaine Aron’s book of the same name), I’ve been aware of the power of words for most of my life. It’s why I often hesitate to speak my mind in emotionally charged situations, and why I also feel horrible when I say something to offend another person, especially since I usually don’t realize what I’ve done until well after the words tumble out of my mouth.
Perhaps the first time I recognized how words can impact emotions was in sixth grade. We took a test about a book we were reading (“The Black Pearl” by Scott O’Dell) and I couldn’t think of an answer for one of the questions so I made up an admittedly ridiculous one that was still technically correct. The question asked for signs that a tidal wave was about to strike a shoreline, which was a significant event in the book. Since I couldn’t recall the examples we learned in class, such as the water quickly receding due to tidal disruption or the subsequent sound of loud roaring from the oncoming wall of water, my answer was that a lifeguard would shout “tidal wave!” It was the sort of answer that today would be part of a funny Tumblr post with a title like “27 School Kids Who Honestly Just Tried Their Best.”
The teacher handed out the graded tests a few days later, and I had a big “X” next to that answer along with a few other incorrect ones. As the teacher was reviewing the correct answers with the whole class, he reached the question I had so obviously missed and casually mentioned my particular answer to everyone, with a grin and a comment that it was “so stupid, I’m not even going to say who wrote it.”
Everyone giggled, of course, and immediately looked around the room to identify the owner of that absurd answer. I suppose I could have looked around like everyone else, pretending to wonder who would give such a dumb response, but my red face and noticeable cringe gave me away. A few people sitting next to me asked, “was it you?” I sheepishly nodded my head, and soon the entire class knew I was the guilty party. The chuckles and kids calling out “tidal wave!” only lasted a few seconds but it felt like hours.
My day went on like most kids’ school days do, and the acute embarrassment faded, probably by the end of that day or the next. I’m sure the other students never thought about it again after the bell rang at the end of class. It was such a brief moment in a long life.
Still, that moment bothers me, even decades later. Over time, that small public shaming of calling my answer stupid morphed into a feeling that the teacher was calling me stupid. If the answer came from me, and that answer was stupid, then it wasn’t a far leap to think of myself as stupid.
Flash-forward 35 years, and by nearly any measurement, I have a successful life — a college degree, a well-paying job and an enviable home. And while I’ve done more than my share of stupid things, I like to think it’s not an adjective anyone who knows me would use to describe me. But that moment from many years ago has stayed with me, and when I make a sloppy mistake at work or I forget to take care of something important for my family, 11-year-old me still reappears to remind me of my stupidity — that I am fulfilling a label I’ve internalized over the years, despite my many accomplishments.
I used to think about calling that teacher to tell him I’m not stupid — to show him samples of my work as a marketing professional, or maybe give him a copy of my paycheck to show him I’ve surpassed his elementary school salary. I’ve thought about cursing him out, or simply saying, “how dare you make feel that way?”
The embarrassment and anger eased over the years, but I do still occasionally think about contacting him, even though he must be long-retired by now. What I’d to say to him now is that words matter. That his amusement at my goofy answer and his offhand comment to the class is something I probably won’t ever forget. That words have the power to crush someone’s spirits, to make them question their own self-worth.
The words we use when talking to our kids — or anyone, really — can have an incredible amount of influence long after the single breath it takes to say them. It brings to mind the story of two birds in winter. As snow began to fall, one bird asked the other, “What is the weight of a snowflake?” The second bird replied, “Nothing more than nothing, of course.” The first bird shook its head and suggested they count the snowflakes as they fell upon a tree branch. Somewhere past the 2 millionth snowflake, one more landed, the weight of nothing more than nothing, and the branch broke.
Your words are far more permanent than snowflakes. Choose them carefully. You may think that each one may weigh nothing more than nothing, but they carry more weight than you can possibly imagine. Any word you say could be the one that breaks the branch. Fortunately, words also have the power to lift others up, to encourage, to help others see the best in themselves, even in criticism. Use them to support the fragile branches instead of burdening them.
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Getty Images photo via bodnarchuk