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Clear Water Lake

Words Can Hurt – Literally


“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me.” Remember that old nursery rhyme? I suppose we were taught that one as children to make us feel better if someone hurt our feelings. After all, words couldn’t “hurt.” They left no bruises, at least none that showed. 


Well, it never really sounded true. How could it be if, at the same time we were taught that words couldn’t hurt, we were also taught not to say mean things to other people? How could words hurt someone else’s feelings but not mine? 


Now we have scientific research that says we were right all along not to believe it. 


“Social pain,” that sense of being distressed, rejected, excluded or offended, registers in the same part of the brain that registers “physical pain.” And there are pictures to prove it.


Researchers at UCLA used a video ball toss game involving three people to find out what happens in the brain when someone is emotionally distressed. In one test group, everyone was included in the game. In a second test group, one person was routinely excluded from the game. The people who were excluded reported feeling distressed and rejected. As the researchers monitored brain activity with MRIs, they noted that the area of the brain activated by these feelings is the same as the area activated by physical pain.


I don’t know why we are surprised by that finding. Our language describes that pain very accurately, and very physically.


  • When I heard that, I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach.

  • It was so nasty, it absolutely took my breath away.

  • I was so humiliated, I had to leave and give myself time to recover. 

  • How could you say that to me? That really hurt.

  • I got beat up in that debate today.


We describe emotional pain in physical terms, so it is no surprise that the brain registers both in the same way. 


Next time you’re on the verge of saying something snide or critical or cruel or insulting, stop and find a better way to say it. If you’re not the kind of person who goes around hitting others because you don’t want to hurt anyone, then remember that you can generate the very same pain with words as you can with a punch. 


And don’t hide a painful comment under the cloak of honesty. As Tennessee Williams said, “All cruel people describe themselves as paragons of frankness.”

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