Volume 23: Just Words

Welcome to the twenty-third installment of Open Book. If it’s your first time here, click here for a little background.

Dearest readers, I want to start by asking you a question: What words would you use to describe yourself?

Maybe you’d poke fun at a few of your less-than-stellar qualities and call yourself geeky or perpetually late or such a hot mess right now lol. But you probably wouldn’t be outright mean to yourself. Right?

That’s what I would have said if you asked me a couple weeks ago. But I undertook a little project recently: To look through my old journals and jot down the exact words that I have used to describe myself over the years—every single adjective and metaphor and incoherent vomit puddle of English language included.

There have been some gems.

In 2013, temporarily forgetting the existence of Hitler, Martin Shkreli, and various serial killers, I determined that I was “the world’s worst person.” Six years earlier, as high school freshman recovering from a breakup, I decreed: “Eh. I’m pretty freakin hot.” Earlier still, in a pair of acrostic poems circa 1997–8, I confidently deemed myself “awesome,” “really cool,” “really cool,” (yes, twice), and “neat.”

 

SCAN0015
No, Young Caroline: “hates eels” does not start with the letter E. But points for weirdness.

But here’s the thing that most affected me: Of all the adjectives I used to describe myself throughout the journals, the word I chose most often was stupid.

Now, I am a lot of things—passive aggressive, messy, over-analytical, emotionally guarded, impatient, stubborn—but I am definitely not stupid.

I know that I’ve referred to myself that way in a temporary sense—as in, I’m so stupid for dropping my cell phone in a toilet for the third time in my life. (Real-life PSA: Don’t text and pee.) But I honestly don’t recall a time when I really called myself stupid, out loud, and meant it in a permanent sense. So why did I do it on paper, in my journals? And if I can’t be kind to myself on those pages—where no one can hear me or judge me—where the hell can I?

Turns out younger me already knew that all this negative self-talk was not too great. Here’s a spontaneous pep talk I wrote down in January 2012 (transcribed below for the cursive averse):

SCAN0001

I am going to be fine. I am going to be more than fine. I don’t care how stupid this all will sound to a future me—I rarely use this journal as a cheerleading squad for myself, so I think it’s deserved. Hell, most of the time I come to these pages to put myself down.

 I dredge all this up because I believe that words are extremely important. Yes, I am a person whose top ten visited websites include an online dictionary and thesaurus—so I might be a touch fanatical. But hear me out.

We’ve all been conditioned by that crappy childhood aphorism that says Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

Most of you already know that this is complete horseshit. Ask someone whether or not she remembers the precise words spoken before her first big breakup. Ask a kid if he can recall the first time his parents told him he’d disappointed them. Ask me if I remember the exact phrase that my seventh grade home-ec teacher used to make me cry in front my entire class. (THANKS, Mrs. Herrmann.) Then ask if words will “never hurt” you.

Those are just the single instances, too—the one-off times when hurtful words struck us so hard they became locked into our memory. I think it’s the recurring words that have far more power to harm.

Years ago I came across a tip on a body positivity blog that went a little something like this: Every time you look in the mirror and disparage yourself or your body, imagine that there’s a little girl standing in the corner of the room, hearing everything you say.

How does it affect her to hear those words one time? How does it affect her to hear those words over and over again? Many women have experienced this very situation in real life, watching mothers or older sisters get dressed for special occasions and hearing them bemoan certain body parts. Did hearing those words change the way we viewed our own bodies when we became old enough to start comparing them to the same unrealistic standards?

More importantly: Can we really say that they were just words?

This is what I mean when I say that words are important—especially the ones we use to describe ourselves. Sure, they all start as one-time insults—but they don’t just dissipate into nothingness after you’ve said (or written, or thought) them. I think of it this way: Over time, each one of those little insult is laid down like a brick in a wall. Pretty soon it’s not just a collection of words. Pretty soon you’ve constructed a monolith that’s standing between you and the things you want. Tell yourself you’re ugly often enough and soon you’ll start believing that no one will find you beautiful. Tell yourself you’re stupid often enough and you probably won’t apply for that job or speak up in that meeting. Tell yourself you’re untalented or unoriginal or a crappy writer (another frequent insult that cropped up in my journals) and, eventually, you’ll lose the courage to pen that poem or submit that essay or publish that blog post.

Maybe I’ve finally become the selfie-taking, gimme-a-trophy lazy millennial narcissist that all those New York Times trend pieces keep telling me I am.

via The Nib
via The Nib

But I really think we could all stand to be kinder to ourselves. Of course, if you do something douchey, by all means chide yourself for said douchebaggery. If you do something that’s genuinely stupid—say, driving straight into a snow bank at the edge of the driveway right after your dad spent hours clearing a perfectly lovely path for your car, which is an actual thing I have done—go ahead and call yourself stupid.

But also try and find a space to compliment yourself with abandon. It could be a journal, or a classic bathroom mirror pep talk, or even a mantra you say in your head when you’re falling asleep every night. It feels a little weird. I know because I’ve been trying it out over the past few days. (Need proof of the pervasiveness of negative self-talk? Trying writing down the words “I am a smart person” and see how quickly you feel like you ought to cross them out.) And when you do feel the urge to put yourself down, think of that imaginary little kid standing in the corner of the room. Think of the cumulative effects of those tiny little words, stacked up over a lifetime.

Maybe with some practice, even the most self-critical of us could momentarily consider that we are awesome, really cool, really cool, and neat. (Hey, if six-year old Caroline could do it…) And think about what might happen—what new things we might dare to try—if we really believed it.

P.S. Sincere shout out to my mom, who helped me brainstorm a list of legitimately stupid things I’ve done in my life for the purpose of including them in this post. A million thank yous and retroactive apologies.