Language and Intention

Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me.

This is of course the biggest bunch of crap.

Reality is that humans care deeply what others think of them. It’s possible to train ourselves away from that behaviour, but it is deeply engrained in many of us (Alain de Botton makes this point well in his book ‘Status Anxiety’).

Reality is that punches knocks and falls hurt bad. But we recover from them. Our bodies are ingenious at that. It will be a long time before robots become as good at self-healing as living systems.

But there are subtleties to this. If someone calls you a shit head but you know they are joshing (playing) with you, then the comment rarely ‘counts’ psychologically.

So the issue isn’t really about language; what people say to us. It’s actually about intention.¬†(I’ve actually learnt this from Tim Field who wrote a not-very-well-known book called ‘Bully in Sight‘. It’s a great book, but the pain the author went through also comes through in the writing so it’s not for the faint-hearted.)

Intention is the key. If someone intends to hurt you and then says something about you or your behaviour then that’s much more likely to ‘count’ psychologically.

But there’s another subtlety to this. It’s to do with time.

A few intended comments, nit-pickings, public shaming, disempowerments don’t actually count for a lot. We all have a level of resilience to this; after all, we survived the playground at school didn’t we?

But our levels of resilience are different and, over time…perhaps even years… any human being can end up psychologically damaged by someone else’s words and actions. Psychological violence.

I was staggered to learn, when bullying¬†happened to me, that because of the way our brains work some of the damage was actually physical. Our brains are psycho-physical things. They’re also very weird because unlike computers the software can rewrite the necessary hardware. In other words our electrical ‘thought’ activity can, over time, reroute neurons as required.

Recovering from poor mental health I was staggered to learn that part of the necessary healing was physical. My neuron pathways had to reconnect, and connect in different and new ways. Sometimes it was like I could even tell that this was going on (but not prove), because I’d get the most profound and unusual headaches and not be able to do much with myself mentally or physically.

And no amount of meditation or anti-depressant drugs were doing to do that work. Only time could fix it. Only the body-mind could do that part. I just had to let the process be what it was.

I found it interesting that my then meditation school had a set of ‘rules of the dojo’. One of those rules was that sick people and mentally unwell people should not enter the dojo. This sounds harsh. But it has something to it. Even the meditation dojo can’t do that fixing work. Only the body-mind and time can do that part. (Self-nurturing will of course aide this natural process.)

I guess my key learning here is, don’t consider people’s language. Consider what they are intending to do with it. ‘Are you intending to hurt me?’ is one of those good questions to ask people. They will rarely say ‘yes’, and when they say ‘no’ they sometimes back down – and that stops their action from ‘counting’.

Because of these subtle things – intention not language, words causing physical harm over time, harmful intention in a short amount of time causing little damage, none of the damage being visible – and of course our collective fear (because any human can be a victim of bullying) we tend to either want to misunderstand bullying, or even if we want to understand it we misunderstand.

After many many years (at least 8 now) of working on myself, I can (on a good day) talk through something I found difficult with someone; ask them if they are OK; and mentally give their own pain back to them. Vindictive behaviour rarely comes from a simplistic ‘evil person’ place. Show me an ‘evil’ person and I’ll show you someone who is suffering. (Many Buddhist authors such as Thich Nhat Hanh have written on this point.)

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve become bullying immune. But I have found this knowledge to be power. Knowledge that vindictive behaviour points to suffering in the other person. Knowledge that names do hurt – really a lot if given enough time to do so. Knowledge to look at intention not words.