The Power of Words to Heal or Hurt

Our words have a tremendous power to bring healing and strength to another person or to hurt in a very deep way. We should never underestimate the power we have to use our words for a positive effect on a person’s life or, in some cases, a lasting negative effect.

When I was growing up my parents loved me very much. My father loved me as much as any father could love a little girl. He played games, built a toy house and read to me each night before I went to sleep. But he didn’t like my sensitivity, especially my tears when I felt hurt. My father felt that my sensitivity and tears would stand in the way of my having a successful and happy life. Often I heard, “You must get over being so sensitive and getting hurt. It will stand in your way.” When I would get hurt and cry, I was sent to my room and again told to get over the feelings as they were not good. As a child I believed my father. I thought I was handicapped as much as someone who is blind or deaf. I didn’t know how to tell myself to stop feeling. And so the feelings came, sometimes with tears, and I felt ashamed of them.

When I was twenty-four years old, I had the great fortune of attending the University of Southern California graduate school on full scholarship, with Leo Buscaglia as my main teacher. Leo at that time was becoming increasing famous for his class on love. He eventually left the university and went on to become the only author to have five books on the New York Times Best Seller list at the same time for several years in a row. He became an American hero and spokesperson for love and hugging. But when I was twenty-four years old, he was just my professor. I liked him a lot and looked up to him.

One day I met him in the hall of the school. I had been crying over something and as usual felt ashamed of my tears. He saw me and ran over and gave me the biggest hug. Then he said words that changed the course of my life, “Joyce, I just love how you feel so deeply. Your tears are so wonderful and beautiful. People could really learn so much from being around your deep and glorious feelings.”  

That was the first time anyone had ever truly acknowledged my feelings as beautiful. I was in shock and disbelief! But he just kept looking at me with so much love and telling me over and over again about the beauty of my feelings, that I began to believe him. In those few minutes a deep change began within me. I began to see the possibility that my feelings are beautiful and nothing to be ashamed of. While he stood there acknowledging me, I had a glimpse that my sensitivity and feelings were actually a strength that blessed me rather than a handicap. I had a lot more inner work to do on accepting this part of myself, but Leo had set the healing in motion in a very powerful way just by his words.  

A man in one of our workshops told me about a traumatic experience he had as a child of seven. He was having such a hard time learning to read even the simplest words. His teacher grew impatient with his slowness and approached his desk. She sternly asked him to read a sentence from the reading book. He struggled over the words and the teacher placed her hand on his shoulder and said, “You are so slow it seems as if you will never learn to read.” This man then said that her words, combined with her touch, went into him very deeply and he took them as the truth. He felt there was something very wrong with him and that perhaps he was stupid and could never read. He said he just gave up right there and then. He failed that grade, had to take it again, and then failed again. Fortunately for him, his parents took him out of school and began home schooling. They hired a reading specialist who right away saw that he had been traumatized by his second grade teacher. Through positive feedback and good reading techniques she had him reading well within a year. This boy home schooled through 12th grade and went on to a very good college. He is now a teacher specializing in reading. He knows the power of words and gives encouragement to all of his students.  

I once had the experience where a man I knew got angry at me and spoke very negative unkind words about qualities in me that I actually like very much. I did not believe the words he angrily expressed but still I felt hurt and distant. Later this man apologized and said, “Just forget the words I said.” But I could not forget the hurtful words and still felt distant. I knew he wanted me to forgive him and yet it was hard without positive words to replace the negative ones. Finally I asked for positive words. When these positive, vulnerable and heartfelt words finally came, they were like a healing salve over a wound, ridding me of all the hurt I had been feeling.

We all need positive words and acknowledgment. How beautiful that we all have the capacity to bring healing to others. How sad that we also have the capacity to bring hurt by the way we use our words. You can alter a person’s life in a very positive or very negative way. It’s a lot more fun and fulfilling to go for the positive and watch the blessings flow from your words. Everyone can benefit from your positive encouraging words.
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