Conquering the Stinging Words That Haunt Us
Just in time for Halloween: 3 tips for busting the ghosts of harsh comments
“You’re dumb and lazy.” “You don’t even have the right clothes.” You’ll never get anywhere.”
We’ve all felt the sting of piercing, unkind words like those at times. Maybe it was the neighborhood bully calling you names. Maybe it was shaming statements from a parent. Or perhaps it was barbs about your looks from the high school clique, a dig from a coworker with an ax to grind or an employer who had it in for you.
Sometimes it’s easy to let harsh comments roll off your shoulders. Sticks and stones and all that. But sometimes words do hurt in a way scrapes and bruises don’t: Apropos of Halloween, they haunt us. These are the voices of our past that still linger like ghosts.
My cousin in Georgia, a writer now in his late 70s, has told me over and over about how a comment about his inability to afford proper attire changed the course of his life. One of his teachers had secretly submitted him for a four-year scholarship at Washington & Lee University. But when my cousin sought a recommendation letter from a local business leader, the man took one look at the name of the school and said, “You can’t even afford the clothes to go to that school.” My cousin joined the Navy instead.
In recent years, celebrated actor Henry Winkler, who turns 71 the day before Halloween, has opened up about his lifelong struggle with undiagnosed dyslexia. His German-born parents called him dummer hund, which means dumb dog. “I spent so much time of my life worried because I always felt less than,” he told The Atlantic in 2015.
Discouraging and offensive comments like those have a way of cutting deep at our core, and blocking us from life’s rewards.
In the spirit of Halloween, it is time to do some ghostbusting. I’ll begin with my own ghost story.
My Ghost Story
When I moved to New York more than 30 years ago, I arrived with less than $700, a few thrift store outfits, a couple of pairs of shoes, an incomplete college education and the Southern accent I still have today. I was immediately pegged as a hillbilly and ditz. Acquaintances — and even friends — mocked my accent. Job interviews were a particular problem.
A well-known talent agent once told me, “You need to go to a professional voice coach. You’ll never be respected here in New York as long as you keep that accent. No company will ever put you in a higher position until you blend in.”
Others remarked, “Have you ever thought about getting rid of it?” As if “it” were a disease.
One incident in particular still disturbs me, even though it happened 20 years ago. A marketing firm CEO — with a strong Brooklyn accent — became visibly frustrated as soon as I started talking. She stopped me mid-sentence and shouted: “You’re from the South?! Do you know what negative connotations your accent has? Stupid and uneducated.” She went on to tell me that image was everything when working with her clients. I didn’t get the job.
And though I received occasional compliments for my twang, I found myself almost apologizing for being born Southern and began to develop feelings of shame about my background. I became self-conscious about my voice and stopped my pursuit of acting and public speaking.
Putting Specters in Perspective
My cousin has put the incident that changed his life course into perspective. “I just got on with what I had to do,” he says. He became a Navy journalist and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree with honors from the University of Georgia School of Journalism. Says my cousin: “I think back and realize what he said was by fate or will of the gods. I’ve worked many interesting jobs, traveled all over the Western Hemisphere, and have been married for 56 years to a woman I fall in love with every day. I never let the incident get in my way. But there are three things that I can never change: a missed opportunity, the words spoken and the broken promise.”
Jennifer Crocker, a social psychology professor at Ohio State University, studies contingencies of self-worth, or self-esteem, which she defines as “the area of life on which we stake our worth and value as a person.” She says: “When we fail in these areas, we feel worthless — we are worthless — and when we succeed we feel great, valuable, worthy — we are worthy. When our hot buttons are triggered, we can have huge emotional reactions that lead us to miss the opportunities in the situation.”
But by reframing how we see a hurtful comment, we can let go, heal and even find success and joy. Easier said than done, of course. But here are three strategies for doing just that:
1. Keep Your Ghosts at a Distance
The key, Crocker says, is to remember: “One person’s judgment at a particular moment in time is not a statement about our worth and value. It’s just one person’s judgment at a particular moment in time.”
She recommends “taking a more distanced and compassionate view of the person’s situation. Consider the pressures, stresses or other factors that might have made comments come out more harshly than intended.”
That distanced approach helped my cousin reframe his situation as a happy fate. Winkler talked about his parents in a similar way on BBC HardTalk: “I admire them for having escaped Nazi Germany. I admire them for starting this brand-new life in America. I am grateful for the life that I had.”
2. Be Casper the Friendly Ghost
During the 2016 Democratic National Convention, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke about how she and her husband teach their daughters: “When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is: 'When they go low, we go high.'”
Crocker suggests seeing others' cruelties as an opportunity. “Maybe this could be a life experience that clarifies for you what you don’t want to inflict on other people — anchoring how you want to be, and don’t want to be, in your interactions with others,” she says.
That’s one way my cousin has found peace. “I resolved long ago that if a young person comes to me for a reference to enter college, I don’t care what they look like or where they come from. He or she will have my reference immediately,” he says.
Winkler, too, has chosen to go high. “My parents did not get who I was as an individual, so that was really difficult. It was only after my success that they became proud,” he told the BBC. “I promised myself that I would be a different parent with my own children.”
3. Face Those Ghosts Head On
Winkler also grappled with these ghosts by doing something he never thought he could do: Write a book.
When his agent first approached him with the idea, Winkler’s insecurities kicked in. ““Me write a book? I thought I couldn't do it, I thought I was too stupid to write a book,” he said in an interview with The Guardian. “Even though I was a famous actor, I still thought I was stupid because I'd been told that so many times at school.”
He decided to face that fear head-on and use his experience to help others see that they don’t have to buy into negative messages from those with power over them. “I was told in so many areas of my life that I would never achieve, that I am an underachiever,” Winkler told The Atlantic. “That’s the title of the book: Hank Zipzer, the World’s Greatest Underachiever.”
His message for kids: Don’t listen. His message for adults: Be wary about shaming and name-calling. “If you do that when the child is young enough and you do it often enough, the child starts to wear it, wear that name-calling like a sweater,” he said. “And, see, if it fits, sometimes you just imprint it on yourself — for the rest of your life until you work it out."
And it is possible to work it out. Winkler and my cousin are two fine examples of that.
As for me, I have started a time-intensive, delightful project of learning about and embracing my Southern heritage. I’ve pored over historical records and photos, and I have walked through the graveyards of my ancestors. I’ve sat around the table breaking cornbread with my cousin, enjoying his encyclopedic knowledge of our family tree, while he has told me fascinating stories about Southern history.
And now I have this message for my ghosts: Y'all, it’s time to go.