When Everyone Has the Mic
Our words are killing us
I was thinking yesterday about how much words matter. I write, so of course I’m always thinking of the exact word to convey the feeling I want to express, but yesterday I was thinking specifically of the most awful things anyone has ever said to me, and how I can remember them easily if I try. This isn’t an exercise I practice, nor do I recommend it, because who wants to think about that? But it struck me how these words are retrievable without much effort, whereas remembering why I walked into a room can sometimes leave me baffled. I make an effort not to dwell on the past unless I’m writing about it, and if I’m writing about it it’s because I’m hoping some of the things I learned along the way might help someone else. The most heartbreaking things that have happened in my life are things I’ve already processed, worked through, integrated, and forgiven when possible - I have nothing productive to gain from dredging up old hurts. I do my best not to dwell on my own regrets, either, because those, too, have been pored over. I’ve done what I can to understand and forgive myself, and make sure I do better moving forward. That’s all any of us can do, really.
The thing is, if it’s so easy to remember the most painful things people have said to us, it’s because they hurt so much. They landed somewhere soft and tender, and maybe the echoes continue to reverberate, off in a distant universe that feels like a lifetime ago, but still exists somewhere within you. The people who can hurt you the most are the ones you’ve been the closest to - certainly your parents or primary caregivers have access to your most vulnerable places because they were there when you had your first big rejection, disappointment, embarrassment, heartbreak - they were there when the insecurities first took root. Hopefully the people closest to you had your back, and they tried to help you process these moments and begin to understand that hurt people hurt people, and if someone says something cruel, it’s a reflection on them, not you. Not everyone had parents like that, though, and not everyone got that support. In the worst cases, the very people who set up your control board and knew your biggest fears, used them against you. I know something about that.
There was a time in my early twenties when I left a horribly abusive relationship and barely made it out with my life. The people we open up to, the people we allow close are also the ones who can tear us down if they so choose. This person was not physically aggressive, but his words were like knives and he used them against me regularly. I was seventeen when I met him, twenty when I left. I was also twenty years younger than he was and didn’t stand a chance. I never have had that “go for the jugular” thing. I remember we were at a party once, and a few of his friends told me I looked great. He’d come up behind me and put his hands on my waist, so at first I thought he was being uncharacteristically affectionate, and I relaxed into him. He got right in my ear and said I didn’t look that great, it was just the cut of my dress and the lighting. To anyone else, it would have looked like he was saying something sweet. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut, not so much because of the words he chose, but because he clearly wanted to hurt me - a feeling I often had with him. Tears sprang to my eyes, but he hissed at me not to embarrass him, so I managed to blink them back and swallow over the giant lump in my throat. I remember thinking how easy it would be to fire back. I knew where his vulnerabilities were, I lived with him. I didn’t have it in me, though, and I still don’t, and I never will. I like that about myself.
Me, back then.
When I finally managed to break free of that relationship, I was hollowed out. I fell into a deep depression. He begged me to come back, but by then he had hurt me so badly I was numb. I knew it was over, I just didn’t know how to live with that. All I’d wanted was for him to love me. I spent three years trying to get him to just see me, to commit, to stop running around with other women even though he swore he wasn’t (he was), to extend a kind word or some affection in my direction, the way he had before we were dating. The way he did the first three months. The way he would once in a blue moon, when I had just begun to think leaving was the only thing for me to do if I wanted to survive. He didn’t want me to leave. He wanted me to live with him the way I had been, to stay and take the abuse. I just couldn’t understand it. I knew I’d been the best thing that ever happened to him. His ex-wife had broken his heart. I actually loved the guy. I thought about his life and how I could make it better. I did thoughtful things for him all the time, I listened to his dreams and his fears when he would very occasionally open up, I took care of him. I was there at the end of the day. I went where he wanted to go, I did what he wanted to do, I wore the things he wanted me to wear. I’d done everything “right” in an effort to get the one thing I wanted - his love. I suppose wanting his love also meant I wanted his fidelity, respect and kindness. I wanted him to see me and think I was worth cherishing. When he didn’t, I felt certain it was because I was not worth cherishing. It didn’t occur to me then that he was running around with other women the way my dad had run around on every woman who ever loved him. It didn’t occur to me that feeling cherished is what I’d wanted from my mom. I didn’t know I was trying to rewrite history and get a happy ending, or that I’d chosen someone who was inherently unable to give me one. I felt sure he was seeing the very thing that terrified me - that at my core I was broken and unlovable.
This was the belief I had about myself coming out of my childhood, and it’s the belief I took with me as I entered my first relationships, both romantic and otherwise. I was so scared of being abandoned or being found out, I bent over backwards for people. I moved back to my mom’s, back to my old room. After a few months of calling me every day pleading with me to come back, and sending weekly roses to the new place I was working near college, he gave up. Not long after that, I ran into a mutual friend on Broadway, who told me my ex was dating this girl I knew. She’d been in the same circle, and I knew he would date her - she was absolutely his type - but it still made me feel nauseous. I excused myself from the conversation. I went home in tears. My mother was in the kitchen and I broke down crying. I told her about the girl, I knew her name. Weirdly, it was my grandmother’s name, Evelyn. My mother just shook her head. She’d already said everything she was going to say about the situation, which she’d never been happy about to begin with, she wasn’t going to comfort me because it had all exploded like she said it would. I went to my room and cried until I had nothing left. Got up the next day and tried again.
A few weeks later I went to my mom’s office to drop off some papers she needed. One of her close friends worked in the office, too, they were real estate brokers. Her friend took one look at me and said I looked too thin. She asked if I was okay. I tried to pep up and smile because I knew my mother hated when I didn’t act right or look right, but my mother said, “She’s depressed. Steve is fucking Evelyn now so he doesn’t need her anymore.” I was shocked, but I shouldn’t have been. It wasn’t the first time she’d done something like that. I was used to being loved by someone who went for my jugular. My mother’s friend’s mouth hung open. I think she might have said, “Catherine!” but I was already out the door. I don’t know what was in my mother that made her want to hurt me, any more than I know why Steve couldn’t stop himself. I suspect neither one of them understood how much words matter, or how much they can hurt. I think there are people who see someone’s vulnerability and it reminds them of their own and they recoil from it.
It seems there are many people who use words as weapons, who feel hurt or angry and lash out with language. There was a guy later who yelled that I was a “replaceable hole” as I was leaving him, wheeling my bag of stuff down the hall and toward the elevator. One of the neighbors stuck her head out of her apartment, speechless. That guy sent me a friend request on Facebook years later, which reminds me of this song. When you doubt your own worth, you’re not going to pick partners well. You might even be drawn to people who are going to reassure you that you aren’t so great, because that feeling of not being enough reminds you of home.
The reason words like this hurt so much, and the only way they can, is if some part of us believes them to be true. The “replaceable hole” thing didn’t bother me the way my mother’s words did, or the way Steve’s words had, because it was so disgusting and ridiculous to reduce a whole human being that way. I knew instantly that comment was about him, not me. Nonetheless, the words stayed with me because they are so totally insane.
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If you secretly believe you’re unlovable at your core, but you’re doing everything in your power to prove that isn’t the case so that some incredibly damaged person will love you - and then they don’t - of course you’re going to think it’s because they saw through the smokescreen and all the dancing-like-a-monkey you did to show them how great you are, to that very dark place you thought you had hidden, where all your darkest fears exist. You’re going to think they saw your brokenness and your unlovability and that is why they did all the unthinkably mean things they did along the way, all the heartless, cold things they did … because how else could they have treated you like that if you didn’t deserve it? That’s what I thought at twenty-one, and sadly, even after years of therapy and yoga, I still thought that way for far too long. It didn’t occur to me that people can be cruel to you because of their own pain and their own limitations. It didn’t occur to me that I was gravitating toward incredibly self-absorbed people who were mostly interested in how amazing they were, and not-so-much in really showing up or changing or growing or thinking about anyone else before themselves.
The thing is, if you’re in pain, if you’re doubting yourself or hating yourself or feeling hurt or rejected, that’s a time to reach out if you need help, and also to turn inward and see what you need in order to understand all those feelings, allow them to move through you, and release them. It’s probably not the best time to hurtle toward a new romantic relationship, or to get into debates on social media with anyone, because chances are, those other, big painful feelings are going to color the interaction. Have you ever gotten into a fight with someone that started over something so small you couldn’t even remember later what the catalyst was? Like you ended up having an apocalypse in your living room because your partner forgot to pick up apples on the way home? The fight wasn’t about apples.
Photo by Natalie Grainger on Unsplash
Do you ever meet someone in passing and their energy is just awful? You know that feeling of just wanting to stay out of the way and not engage? And then there’s the feeling you get sometimes when you don’t know someone, but their energy is magnetic. That’s happening all the time, every day, everywhere we go. Everyone has off days, and I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt. You can never know what someone is going through, or if the way they’re acting that day, that moment, is indicative of how they always are. Nonetheless, whatever you’re filled with is what you’re going to spread. So if you’re having a tough time in your life, sensitive, observant people are going to feel that. And if you wake up feeling terrific because you just got a job you really wanted, or went on a fantastic first date, people are going to feel that, too. If you get close to people, they’re also going to start to feel the things you might try to push down … eventually. What’s happening around you is always a reflection of what’s happening within you. If you’re feeling less-than, there’s an energy to that. If you’re feeling more-than, there’s an energy to that, too. You’re having an impact on the world around you every time you enter it, whether you use your words or not. But most of the time, we are using our words. If we’re out in the world, we’re talking to one another. If we’re home, we’re emailing, texting or posting. Words are the currency we use to express the energy we’re feeling. It’s okay to feel anything at all - joyful, fearful, excited, scared, enraged, anxious, small, uncertain, slighted, rejected, wronged, ignored, appreciated, envious, creative, smart, funny, hopeful - you’re a human being, after all. But so is everyone else. If we can agree that words matter and we’re all human, that’s a start, that’s something. And if we can agree that the words we use are the tokens of our feelings, then hopefully we can also agree that not everything we feel needs to be said, spewed, or shouted, in person or on the internet.
Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash
If you like to read, my guess is you’re already aware of the impact of words and you probably use them thoughtfully. The topic of words has been on my mind a lot lately, not just because I’m feverishly finishing my memoir, but because whenever I jump on social media to post something, or to take a writing break and peek out to see if possibly the world might be tilting back toward anything that feels livable, I feel that same feeling of being punched in the gut. I don’t know when or why we got the idea that screaming at one another over the internet was going to help anyone. I don’t know when we lost the ability to disagree with someone without feeling the need to attack. It’s certainly gotten worse in this country since 2016 when things became so openly polarizing here. What I do know is this is no way to live. This is no way to treat one another. This is not sustainable. For those of us who are sensitive, this is exhausting and depressing in ways it’s hard to push through. It makes you lose hope for humanity. There is no doubt the world is in serious trouble and there are overwhelming issues that need to be addressed. There’s no doubt that there are heartbreaking, mind-boggling, devastating things happening. This is not the world I want for my kids, and if you have kids or nieces and nephews, or if you just care because you’re human, this can’t be the world you want for them, either, or for yourself.
Before social media, only the people at the highest levels “had the mic” - politicians, journalists, writers, musicians, poets, celebrities…those are the people we heard from. Now everyone has the mic, and it isn’t working out too well. Enraged people who are sure they’re right are screaming everywhere you turn, so if you feel hopeless, it’s no wonder. Everyone's an expert on everything after a twenty-minute dive on YouTube. Even people close to you who once might have been measured, who might have exercised self-restraint, have lost their minds. It’s hard to take. We’re all spent. We take sides like we’re watching the Super Bowl instead of recognizing the world is on fire and we’d better get on the same team and grab a hose.
If you’re feeling scared, I’m with you. If you’re feeling hopeless, I’m struggling with that myself some days. If you’re feeling helpless and outraged because people are dying in the most violent, unthinkable ways on the other side of the world and you feel such enormous grief it’s hard to do anything else, I feel that, too. But some of the worst feelings I have are a result of the way we’re dealing with what’s happening, the way we’re hurling insults and using if/then thinking instead of just allowing each other to express our heartbreak and grief in whatever ways we can, without being crucified for getting even that wrong. The world has gone mad when you express your immense horror that innocent people on all sides of any situation are losing their lives, and other people scream back at you to only care about one side and not the other. I believe in my heart most people just want to live peacefully on this earth, love their kids if they have kids, have genuine connections with their family and close friends, walk their dogs, cuddle their cats, help their neighbors and y’know, do the best they can with this whole being-a-human-being thing. But it isn’t easy. Everything costs too much and the internet has made people forget there are human beings on the other end of their words. We have people with big mics saying hateful, horrifying things with glee and a lack of remorse. We have half the country feeling radically one way and half the other. That seems to be the case in many places these days. We have a roll-back of rights and a rise of autocrats and a climate crisis, so yeah, it’s not terrific. Historians will tell you things are actually getting better, that these are the fewest amount of wars we’ve ever had on the planet, that we are learning slowly from our mistakes, and that the reason it feels so grim is because we’re seeing all these things that happen in real time, and tragedy makes better click-bait and therefore more money, than peace.
I don’t know, because I’m not an expert on this stuff. I just know for sure, screaming at each other through our keypads makes things worse, not better. Words matter. The way we treat each other matters. How you’re feeling inside matters, too. The concept at the heart of Imago therapy is the idea that we are in a relationship with everyone we encounter, those closest to us, and those we meet in passing. These relationships don’t exist inside us or the other person, they exist in the space between us. If you and I are in a relationship, it exists in the space between me, typing away on my keypad, and you reading right now, on the other side of your screen. I’m responsible for what I put into the space between us, and you’re responsible for what you contribute, and together we create this third thing - our relationship. I love this idea because we can never control what other people do, say, want, need or feel, we can only ever control our own actions (and only if we work on it). If I put my list of ways I’ve been wronged into the space between us, my resentment, frustration, boredom or rage, things probably aren’t going to go that well. If I lash out at you and create an environment where you don’t feel safe to say how you feel, we aren’t going to be very close. But if I put my kindness, patience, and desire to really know you into that space, and you do the same, we’re likely onto something good. People need to feel connection in order to thrive. There’s no point in writing if there’s no one to read. There’s no point speaking if there’s no one to listen. Things are going to get darker than they are if we stop trying to communicate, but no one wants to try if they know they’re setting themselves up for an attack. We aren’t meant to exist in a vacuum, and we aren’t meant to despair alone. Here’s hoping we create an environment where we can somehow get on the same team, even if we don’t agree with each other about everything under the sun.
If you’d like to meet me in real time for a talk about the power of words and the need for reasonable communication, I’ll be here Friday10/27/23 at 11:15am PST, or you can wait for the Come As You Are Podcast version. If you’d like to meet me in the real world, I would love that so much. There are still a couple of spots open for Joshua Tree, and I’m heading to Portugal in June with an incredible group, all details here.