Everyone knows the positive power that words can have. A friendly “I’m so glad you came!” can completely turn a day around. One person saying “hey, I really like that shirt” can save said shirt from a one-way trip to the Bibles for Missions Thrift Store.
We teach our kids to say kind things – to build each other up, to encourage each other. When my kids went to elementary school, there were these signs all over the school like this one:
Unfortunately, negative words are often more powerful than positive words. I think we can all agree that the old ditty “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is honestly just a pile of crap.
Words can hurt. They can hurt badly. Whether it is a mean comment, a disparaging remark, or a careless “whatever”, our words have enormous power to hurt people.
Unfortunately, it is also the negative comments that are remembered. As a mom, I can compliment one of my kids for the same thing 20 times, but it’s that day that I lose my temper and come down hard about something that will be recalled and remembered for long after the compliments are forgotten.
Some research shows that 5 positive statements are needed to counter-balance every one negative. 5 to 1. That’s a lot!
Dr. John Gottman states that the “magic ratio is 5:1. In other words, as long as there are five times as many positive interactions between partners as there are negative, the relationship is likely to be stable.”(1)
So, the power of both positive and negative words are solidly documented.
But what about the words that remain unsaid? How much damage is done, how much hurt is caused when we don’t say something?
Sometimes I think that’s worse, because it leaves room for me to fill in the blanks, and generally speaking what I come up with is usually worse than what would have been said.
Brene Brown, a shame researcher and one of my favorite authors, talks about the power of story in her book “Rising Strong“, and specifically about the stories we tell ourselves. That’s what happens for me when words are not said – I’m making up the story in my head.
So many times when unsaid words are painful.
…when a favorite meal is made, but not acknowledged.
…when extra effort is made to get dressed up, and your significant other doesn’t say anything.
…a simple acknowledgement of the loss after a death.
…the “I love you” that isn’t answered.
All those holes were the words aren’t filled in leave us to fill in the blanks, and what do we fill them with? What’s in our heads, in our hearts.
Which, I’m realizing then, is just one more reason we’re supposed to fill our minds and our hearts with God’s word, with His truths. If that’s what we’re filled with, then that’s what we’ll fill those holes with too.
Doesn’t mean those unsaid words won’t hurt, they still will. But when we can live in the comfort of knowing that we are loved perfectly by the creator of the universe, they sting a little less.