We’ve all heard the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” The only thing is, that’s not true. In fact, words can continue to hurt for a lifetime. In my practice, I continue to meet adults who are still “imprisoned” by words or names spoken over them years ago. These adults continue to struggle to be free from that distant voice, now deeply rooted in their self-image. They still remember being told they were no good, they would always be a failure or would never succeed at anything. They were told this was because they were bad, lazy, stupid or no good. Mostly as impressionable children, these labels became part of their self-image. They carried these powerful negative ideas into their adult lives which prevents them from ever feeling whole, worthwhile, and happy about themselves. Time and time again I have the heartbreaking experience of listening to a mature man or woman recount in great detail a childhood scolding or beating. In their eyes, this merciless and uncalled for…and left them scarred for life. I like to remember that people will always work towards becoming whatever the most influential person in their life thinks about them.

So why do we use these hateful words towards others? It’s rooted in a win-lose model of life. It makes us feel better. For example, you are stupid, as compared to me. I feel superior to you! You are lazy, as compared to me. I feel superior to you. You are good for nothing, as compared to me. I feel superior to you. I win; you lose. Let me suggest some rethinking about our words during this Mental Health Awareness Month. Finish a negative statement like “We had a good life until you came along…” by adding, “…then it got better because you came along.” Here’s another. Instead of saying “You can’t do anything right,” you can say, “Let’s find something that you CAN do well.” Here are a few more hurtful statements that shouldn’t be said to children. You’re bad. You’re no good. You’re stupid. You’re useless. You’re lazy. You’re clumsy. You’re not worth loving. You were an accident. You’ll never amount to anything. You are a pathetic excuse for a human being. These words do not create a hopeful future. They create destruction and cause pain.

Our common good as human beings is rooted in our humanness and our vulnerabilities, but also in our hopes and dreams. Do we sometimes do bad things? Do we sometimes say stupid things? Do we make careless mistakes? Yes, but we don’t deserve a lifetime of pain because of it. Part of the message of Mental Health Awareness Month involves using words to encourage, to praise, and to build up. We can use words that give others a sense of being a worthwhile human being. We have the power to use names that can hurt, but better to use names (words) of encouragement and praise that will help or heal. Let’s strive to achieve win-win relationships.

Dr. Jim Sendelbach