How Do Words Hurt People?

Mean words can hurt on many levels.
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We've all heard the saying, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But words do hurt when they change our view of ourselves or our perceived value to others, whether they are yelled, uttered sarcastically or stated quietly. In her article, "Hostile Venting: Mean Phrases that Scar Intimate Relationships," Clinical Psychologist Randi Gunther, Ph.D., explains that harmful words can leave lasting scars that may impact the health of the individual and the relationship.

1 Words that Discount

Invalidations and challenges are words and statements that discount your very being. An example of invalidation is the statement, “I’m not going to waste my time talking to you.” Invalidation statements hurt because the message you hear is that you don’t matter. Challenges are comments that hurt because they call into question your intelligence or judgment. An example is the statement, “Nobody would be dumb enough to believe that," or the sarcastic remark, “I’ll listen to you because you’re the expert on this topic, right?”

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2 Words that Demean

Preaching and character assassinations are designed to induce shame, embarrassment or guilt in the other person. The pain associated with such statements often results from childhood memories or the sudden position of power the other person takes over you in an almost parent-like manner. Character assassinations hurt because they state or imply that you are an innately bad person with phrases like "You’re a failure,” or “You should be ashamed of yourself.” Preaching relies on forced self-reflection. An example of preaching is the statement, “Why are you behaving like a child?” or “You don’t even know what’s right, do you?”

3 Words that Devalue

Threats of abandonment and exile include phrases that indicate the cutting of ties. Threats of abandonment are phrases such as," I don’t care what you do anymore,” or “I don’t need you." They hurt because the person is telling you they want nothing more to do with you. Threats of exile are more harsh statements that cause pain because they indicate that you have no value by wishing you were gone: “I never want to see you again,” or “You are no longer welcome here.”

4 Words that Cause Physical Pain

Words don’t just hurt our feelings. There is evidence that words can cause physical pain. In the article, "Do Words Hurt?" psychologists from Jena University in Germany explain that verbal stimuli can trigger reactions in certain parts of the brain that cause physical pain. In the "Scientific American" article, "What Causes Chest Pain When Feelings Are Hurt?", Robert Emery and Jim Coan, professors of psychology at the University of Virginia, explain that " ... emotional pain involves the same brain regions as physical pain, suggesting the two are inextricably connected.”

Christine Jax has been a writer since 1991 in the areas of education, parenting and family relationships. Professor Jax has a Ph.D. in education policy and administration, a Master of Arts in public administration and a Bachelor of Arts in child psychology. She has worked in PK-12 and higher education for more than 20 years.