Critical and harsh words can hurt deeply. If we allow them to, they can affect every aspect of our lives. What can we do to deal positively with hurtful words?
Put-downs and other deeply critical words are so common in the world today, no one makes it through life without enduring some of them. Sadly, people we should be able to trust and look to for support and encouragement—like parents, teachers, siblings and coworkers—may at times be the very people whose thoughtless words cut the deepest.
Often such words are considered by others to be funny—but to the one who ends up the object of the “joke,” it is anything but humorous. Children may pick on another child with name-calling, bullying and put-downs like “you can’t hit the ball” or “my grandmother can run faster than you.” Other children may laugh, but the child being picked on feels isolated and alone, inferior and often very angry.
The Internet and social media allow criticism and bullying to humiliate people on a much grander scale. The news media draws our attention to this destructive behavior when “cyberbullying” drives someone to the point of suicide.
We may put on a brave face, but often the hurt goes deep and can linger through life. Years later we may recall those cutting remarks, and the negative effect remains. How can we properly deal with them?
Put-downs in the Bible
It might be helpful for us to remember that some of the greatest and most influential figures in history have endured some of the most hurtful verbal attacks.
Jesus Christ was put down by the religious leaders for not having the education they had. When the truth He taught convicted them of being wrong, they even attacked His mother’s morals, saying, “We were not born of fornication” (John 8:41), with the implication that He was. This was intended to discredit Him and cause the people to shun Him and His words.
Jesus was cruelly mocked even during His trial, scourging and crucifixion (Luke 22:63-65; 23:11, 36, 39; Hebrews 12:3). He understands and can sympathize with us in every trial we go through (Hebrews 4:15).
The apostle Paul was by training a Pharisee (Philippians 3:4-6) and wrote more of the New Testament than any other author. While his writing was powerful, he may not have been as impressive in person. In an attempt to discredit him, his detractors said, “Paul’s letters are harsh and powerful. But in person, he is a weakling and has nothing worth saying” (2 Corinthians 10:10, Contemporary English Version).
Such barbs and verbal attacks hurt; but just like Jesus Christ, Paul didn’t let the criticism and attacks of others dissuade him from doing the job God had given him.
A natural impulse to put others down
Sadly, it seems we naturally have a strong drive to try to make ourselves look or seem better than others. Feelings of personal inferiority often lead us to attempt to compensate through unfair comparison or just plain nastiness.
Part of the Christian struggle is to recognize and overcome that human trait, and to instead build up encouraging, positive traits of character.
Become an encourager
One of the first things we can do to combat discouraging words is to learn not to use them ourselves. Instead of being a discourager, we can learn to be an encourager!
Too often we focus on the bad while ignoring the good. As someone once said, “When I do wrong, I hear it ever; when I do well, I hear it never.” While the author is unknown, what he or she said rings very true. We must learn to avoid the attitude of the business leader who told his employees, “If I’m unhappy with you, you will know it. If you don’t hear anything from me, then everything is fine.”
Wise King Solomon understood the power of encouragement when he wrote, “The right word spoken at the right time is as beautiful as gold apples in a silver bowl” (Proverbs 25:11, New Century Version). He also wrote, “People enjoy giving good advice. Saying the right word at the right time is so pleasing” (Proverbs 15:23, NCV).
Learning to say the right thing at the right time takes some practice. We have to train our minds to look for and focus on the positives in other people and then make the effort to comment on them.
How many times have we noticed something positive about others, but haven’t taken the time to pass on the compliment? Each instance is a wasted opportunity to lift up someone else.The impact of those positive and encouraging words is powerful. Mark Twain once said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment!” And, once again from Solomon, we read, “Finally hearing good news from a distant land is like a drink of cold water when you are dry and thirsty” (Proverbs 25:25, Good News Translation).
How many times have we noticed something positive about others, but haven’t taken the time to pass on the compliment? Each instance is a wasted opportunity to lift up someone else.
A proper perspective on put-downs
Making the effort to actively encourage others is the first step to dealing with the put-downs and discouraging words that are directed at us. But this step alone isn’t enough. What else can we do to deflect the despair and feelings of worthlessness we may suffer?
1. Avoid the temptation to retaliate. When an insult comes your way, you can refuse the temptation to hand one right back. You may not be able to stop someone else’s careless words, but you can change how you deal with them. There are graceful and appropriate ways to meet insults and criticism.
Proverbs 26:4 advises that there is a time to walk away and avoid a wrong response that would only disgrace yourself: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him.”
On the other hand, Proverbs 26:5 shows there is a time to stand your ground with an appropriate answer: “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” (For further information about applying these two verses, see “Proverbs 26: When Should You Answer a Fool?”)
2. Consider the source. Is it constructive criticism from someone who loves you, or is it an attack from someone seeking to hurt you?
Correction, even from loved ones, can be hard to take; but if we understand it is intended to help us, much of the sting is removed. Solomon wrote, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6).
If it is intended to be a demoralizing attack, carefully and objectively evaluate whether or not a response is warranted. As we saw above, in Proverbs 26:4-5 Solomon addressed both possibilities. It takes wisdom, and often the counsel of another trusted individual, to determine which approach is needed.
3. Draw boundaries. No one deserves to be put down or belittled constantly. It takes a measure of assertiveness and wisdom to know when and where to set proper personal boundaries.
Under some circumstances you can express (without attacking back or being antagonistic) how these words hurt you and ask your attacker to stop. In other situations you may choose to leave the room or politely excuse yourself from the conversation. Other times the only viable option is to end the relationship. It is important that you show respect to others, but also that you are respected by your friends and family.
4. Look for personal insight. Sometimes harsh words are intended only to hurt, but at other times there may be lessons for us to learn. While other people’s words might be hurtful, it is possible that something we said or did triggered the response.
Even constructive criticism is often hard to take, but we can benefit by looking for the personal reality in a painful situation. Instead of overreacting to criticism and going on the defensive, summon the courage to ask yourself: Does this criticism reveal a fact about me I can learn from? That insight may well become a key for your future spiritual and emotional growth.
5. Be gracious but firm in public. A public embarrassment—whether it’s a put-down from a boss or coworker at work, a relative at a family function or a heckler in a meeting—may be uncomfortable, but it is an opportunity to stay polite, calm and in control. Responding protectively by uttering a sarcastic comeback generally only fuels the fire.
If someone has a legitimate concern, but has voiced it in the wrong way or at the wrong time, respond briefly and sincerely, offering to resolve the issue with him or her later. Smile and say something to break the tension and meet the awkward moment with grace and poise.
Of course, with some people and their opinions you may have to just agree to disagree.
6. Don’t take it personally. If you have adjusted your behavior in an attempt to resolve an issue but are still dogged by an unrelenting critic, it’s probably time to move on. Instead of allowing your energy and attention to be sapped by negatives, understand there may always be some who are very critical. Let their comments go, and get on with the positives in your life.
Don’t speak about your critics with bitterness or blame. Treat them with respect and model the appropriate behavior yourself, and you might just spur a change of heart in them too.
8. Be open to help others. Sometimes what’s pointed at you is not about you at all. The antagonist may simply be struggling with his or her own internal battle, but you became the target of the person’s frustration. It would be good for you to take a moment to consider why he or she may be hurting, and see what you might be able to do to help.
Criticism, verbal attacks and put-downs are all too common today. No one can go through life without having to deal with these things and the weight of their impact on our lives. Most people respond to hurtful words without thinking, but you don’t have to be like that. We hope that after reading this article you are better equipped to deal properly with the hurtful words that will come your way from time to time.
Read more helpful communication principles in the other articles in this section, “The Joys and Challenges of Communication.”