An old adage states, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” That’s not true. What we say to ourselves and about ourselves to others can and does harm us.
I recently attended an event where I listened to folks who have lived experience with internal controversies, what some would term mental illnesses. One of these marvelous speakers was Nanette Larson, a personal hero of mine and many others here in Illinois. She has, like all humans, struggled hard to find her niche in the world and has a loud voice in the mental health system of my state.
Out of all the remarkable things she spoke about that Saturday afternoon one has stuck in my mind, the importance of language.
This article isn’t about being politically correct, it is about how what we say with our mouths influences not only how others see us, but also how we see ourselves.
How Describing Oneself Is Important
Everyone is familiar with how using words to describe a person’s color is looked down on by today’s society. An African-American person is horribly disturbed, and rightly so, when called the N word. Yet, I’ve heard it used on television by African-Americans to describe themselves.
You may wonder, what is wrong with that? Don’t they have that right? Of course. Everyone should have the right speak as they wish if they don’t interfere with someone else’s life. However, if saying the N word is considered harmful when used by someone else when speaking isn’t it harmful to use it to describe oneself?
The N word is linked to being degraded and dehumanized. It is a word that says you are owned and worthless. Calling oneself the N word is saying to yourself and to others that you relate yourself to that title.
Think about that.
You are saying not only to anyone else you may meet but to yourself that you believe you are a worthless piece of chattel instead of a worthwhile and necessary part of humanity.
History Can Teach a Lot About the Power of Words
An extreme case and point comes from the hideous abuse of words used by Nazi Germany. Joseph Goebbels used the human tendency to follow a crowd and humanities seemingly endless desire to be better than others against his own people. He was very careful to structure and use words to persuade the people of Germany who they should see as “acceptable” people. The Nazi party spent a lot of time and money describing the people they chose as Aryans, pure and demonizing everyone else.
They wanted people who did not fit their criteria to been seen by labels only. They convinced the people, through propaganda, that anyone who did not match their strict vision of what the human race should be were not worthy of life. This meant millions of men, women and children were non-contributing users living off the government and thus the taxpayers money.
Sound eerily familiar?
Although I do not believe the people who were murdered ever thought of themselves as worthless, the population of Germany came to that conclusion. They actively and passively took part in the slaughter of millions in a systematic murder of millions of innocent people.
While that may seem like an extreme example, is it really? Things like this still go on in our world today in countries all over the world. Even here in the United States, a land of abundant resources, people like myself who are unable to work and must draw social security and/or use food stamps are labeled users, takers and not valuable. Is less than human next? Food for thought.
Yes, Words Can Be Deadly
Calling oneself mentally ill or saying you suffer with a mental illness also labels you. This title says to yourself and society that you are hopelessly unstable, untrustworthy and sick. It also states that you feel sorry for yourself and most importantly of all will never get well.
As I have said in other pieces, I was diagnosed in 1990 with dissociative identity disorder, a severe brain dysfunction. At one time I described myself as suffering with this condition and being very sick. Not only this, I called myself a victim of my past. Inevitably when I told people about my diagnosis their reactions weren’t good. Some pitied me, some stopped being my friends and yet others feared me. I even had a woman who had trusted me around her children suddenly avoid me after I told her about my diagnosis.
Who Am I Really?
I no longer say I am suffering, ill, or a victim, I now say I live with a condition known as dissociative identity disorder caused by severe childhood trauma. I realize they sound similar, but the difference in the way I see myself and how others see me is enormous.
I’m Living, Not Suffering
I’ve climbed out of the suffering mentality and into the living one. I no longer see myself as being controlled by my brain disorder, I see it as the best thing that has ever happened to me. It has made me more loving, understanding and able to help the world than not living with it ever would have done.
I had someone on a social media site once ask me in a not so nice way if I lived with a man called DID. I very nicely answered no, but I am alive and DID is only a part of who I am.
I’m Not Ill
By calling myself mentally ill I am saying that I am sick and to others this may mean contagious. Some even see illnesses as being incurable or fatal. When I call myself mentally ill I am saying to myself I will never get well.
Yes, I live a very complex life sometimes due to the symptoms of dissociative identity disorder, but I am not sick. I live with diabetes and have high blood pressure too, but these problems don’t mean I’m ill. These are just conditions that are part of my life which are treatable. This is also true of DID.
Am I a Victim?
Maybe I when I was a helpless child, but no longer. The only one who can hurt me and keep me from being happy today is me. Calling myself a victim of childhood trauma is saying that I am still under the control of those who harmed me. That simply is not true.
Am I A Consumer?
Perhaps the term that disturbs me the most is when I am termed a consumer. People who receive services from the mental health system are called this term, but why? What am I consuming?
According to the website, Dictionary.com the word consuming means “to destroy and to use up.”
What am I destroying and using up? I a therapist and take medication to treat my symptoms, but how am I destroying or using up anything that others with types of disorders?
No One Brought Me a Casserole
True, DID is a chronic and lifelong disorder, but so is diabetes. Yet there is no one who considers the millions of people who live with diabetes users and takers.
What about cancer? I know from first-hand experience that cancer is a very expensive disease and when you are going through the surgery and treatments you need help. A person can’t go to the store without seeing a canister on the counter asking for funds to help a cancer patient pay his rent and other expenses. Dinners and other functions are held to support people with cancer, and neighbors bring over casseroles.
It’s Time for a Change
Yet, if are diagnosed and going through treatment for a severe bout of depression or have a child who has developed the symptoms of schizophrenia no one comes rushing to your aid. In fact, you are more likely to be shunned.
How do people often measure the worth of another human being? Words.
For far too long society has used words to devalue other human beings. It’s time for a change.
Where Does It Begin?
It begins with changing the way we use words in our self-talk. It starts by saying to ourselves that we are not worthless consumers, nor are we a waste of space. We are worthwhile human beings with hopes, desires and dreams.
As you can see, words are very powerful. They shape the way we see ourselves and how others see us. I urge all of you to make a list of all your good points. If you are having a bad day, start small. Do you have pretty eyes? Are you a good friend? Do you love animals?
Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE have abilities and good points.
What you say to yourself today will change your attitude about yourself and in that way help change the world.
Below is only one resource available online. All you need to do is google it and you will find tons of ways to change yourself. Together we can end stigma by using the awesome power of words.
“Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, and to humble.” -Yehuda Berg