June 6, 2019

How to Avoid The Jellyfish & Be A Starfish: Healing From Word-Wounds

Words sting. And you know they do. Perhaps a sting doesn’t even begin to describe what words from an abusive partner (parent, boss, friend, family member) have done to you.

Psychology Today reports that “…emotionally abused women were more likely to report poor physical health than other women, and their reported ailments were strikingly similar to those affecting physically abused women.” This fact should not be news to us but it is good to be reminded of the power of words and the necessity for healing.

The impact of words from abusive partners has been a theme in my own life and most certainly in the life of my clients. I can’t think of one client (counselling or coaching) that hasn’t been adversely affected by the soul-damaging words of an intimate partner (or person in a position of perceived or real power and authority over them).

And because I’m a person-centered and solution-focussed counsellor, I was recently inspired to design a tool that I could use and offer to individuals and professionals to guide clients through steps to healing these word-wounds. More about this later.

According to Wikipedia, “The stinging cells used by jellyfish to subdue their prey can also injure humans. Many thousands of swimmers are stung every year, with effects ranging from mild discomfort to serious injury or even death; small box jellyfish are responsible for many of these deaths.”

When I read this description of a jellyfish, it rang true for me as a solid analogy with regard to how abusive language and words can sting us as we navigate the waters of relational life. As with the sting of a jellyfish, cruel words can injure and harm us - from mild discomfort to serious lifelong injury.

Then I noticed the word "subdue" in the above definition. Subdue means to "bring under control." Whoa! That lit me up. My mind raced as recollections flooded my memory of words my father and partners would use to "bring me under control." Words that killed my self-image, chipped away at my self-esteem, destroyed my spirit, killed my dreams, and put me in neutral because I bought into their lies. And I allowed them to have power over me. I don't say this as a shameful thing but a statement of fact.

Never again. I know better now. And yes, my favourite Maya Angelou quote once again fits perfectly here.  

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” —Maya Angelou.

The awareness of the power of words from our past and how it informs our present is the first step toward healing and strengthening.

If verbal abuse is not dealt with by being put in its place and replaced by truth, these damaging words and messages become what we believe to be true about ourselves (even though they are lies). These have a tendency to accumulate (because they are left to fester and grow into every area of our life - future relationships, life decisions, career choices) and sometimes can become life-threatening, even causing death.

It is imperative to note that it’s not "just the words" that can pack a punch but the messenger of them. Let me give an example:

If a driver in traffic were to call me “crazy” because of a perceived error in my driving habits (or I just made a mistake - it happens) or because they woke up on the wrong side of the bed, it might sting for a few seconds then dissipate by the time I reach my destination. It's done and forgotten, except for a good 'ol road rage story around the water cooler or Facebook post. However, if an intimate partner/husband to whom I entrust with my heart to cherish and love me, and with whom I share a home (a place supposed to be shelter and safety from the world) and a bed with follows me around the house and accuses me of being “crazy” and yells that into my face as the froth of rage forms around his mouth - that causes a different degree of soul damage.

Same word, different messenger, different circumstances.

Further damage or re-injury can happen when we attempt to share our hurtful experience with someone. Have you ever shared a hurtful message with someone only to be judged for your over-sensitivity and it be completely written off, discounted or (possibly worse) one-upmanship? Has someone completely invalidated the event to the point you were wishing you'd never shared? I’m guessing that’s happened to you. So this is when you dig deep(er). The knowing that it affected you, regardless of how someone else reacted to it, is the beginning of the work to healing from it. We don't need anyone else (although it's nice) to give us their stamp of approval of what to hurt over and what not to. If it hurt or affected you, then let's work with that. No questions asked. No judgment. 

If stuffed into the depths of our souls, over time hurtful, wounding words can cause us death, both figuratively and literally. Damaging words can throw us into a tailspin of despair and confusion, can cause us to give something up that we love, and dreams to die. The word-wounds are meant to break us down, put us in a place of disadvantage, subdue us, chip away and destroy our self-worth and self-confidence. They are meant to confuse and wear us down to the point that we feel worthless and lost in the lies and wreckage of what was once our self-esteem and dreams.

If we don’t have the awareness, resources, tools, or a support system to counter the attack(s), they inevitably get stuffed and stored away into our memory banks. And the tapes surface at the most awkward of times, often playing on repeat, and make us further susceptible to more stings and re-injury by future partners. It’s a toxicity that plagues our minds and can affect our lives, our choices, our mental, physical and spiritual health.

Whew! Now the good news. 

In a world of jellyfish, be a starfish. Here’s an excerpt from my website about the starfish. Take a moment and take this in.

The Starfish or Sea Star is a highly unique, intricate, and amazing creature found in salt water and in many shapes, sizes, and colours. More than 2,000 species worldwide live in environments from tropical habitats to great depths of the seafloor.

Sea Stars are survivors and are capable of regeneration. Beyond their typical symmetrical ‘star’ shape with five arms, some species have ten, twenty, even forty arms (called Sun Stars). To survive a predator, they will shed a limb or even a large portion of their body, yet have an incredible capacity to regenerate limbs, and sometimes, entire bodies.

For more, click here.

Starfish are one of the few creatures that can regenerate. It’s one of the many reasons I love the symbolism of the starfish for my life and for counselling. I believe in restoration and renewal and healing. We may disagree on the source of that power but it’s a belief that is a foundation of my life and business.

Be encouraged by the starfish. Even though a predator from your past has taken a limb or two or three away, just like the starfish, you can heal and regenerate.

The other thing that works about this analogy is that limbs don’t regenerate in a magical instant - there is no quick fix. Regeneration comes with awareness, time and effort. And that can be counted on.

To avoid the jellyfish, we need to be able to identify them. Get clear on who is safe and who is not. Then we can make better choices of what waters to swim in and which areas to avoid. And, if you're swimming through the waters of life and you come across a jellyfish, you, being a starfish, will have the scars to prove you have withstood their stings before and a knowing you will experience healing again. Better yet, you will be able to avoid their sting altogether.

If you’d like a copy of my downloadable workbook Reframing Negative Messages: A Workbook For Healing From Past Hurts, please e-mail me and ask to be added to my e-newsletter list so you know when I release it later this month. To help continue my study and work, I will be asking a small fee for the download. This is a way you can support the work that I am doing in my singles' wellness initiatives and with others on their journey to healing and wholeness, while you have access to a timeless tool for life and healing.

Because every one counts,

Melanie Hart
Counsellor, Coach, and Singles' Wellness Facilitator

To Book Melanie for more information, for a counselling or coaching session, or for a speaking engagement, e-mail melaniejoyhart@icloud.com.