How Not To Swallow Verbal ToxicityMarch 31, 2021
Avoiding Verbal Toxicity: Everyone in their lifetime has had experiences of being told painful things about themselves. What people say to you is not in your control; what you do with the message can make a difference to an outcome of self-care or self-harm. Not everything people tell you is true, so don’t eat their words. The emotional costs of eating over words spewed by others can be prevented, perhaps by implementing the lead apron metaphor.
Verbal Toxicity As An Example
Right before you have dental X-rays, a lead apron is placed on the top half of your body, which starts at your shoulders and ends up somewhere on your lap. The purpose is to protect your internal organs from radiation exposure.
Imagine a lead apron that covers you in the same way as the dentist’s apron. When someone is saying something that is difficult to hear, see that message coming to you in a contained box with the material of your choosing. Some boxes need to be made of armor, for example, messages delivered with disrespect, fat-shaming, and/or meanness.
Other boxes might be made of fabric as the same amount of protection is not needed. Such instances could be something you would prefer not to hear about yourself but could be true.
Another instance may be the degree of emotional pain evoked from the message. Less pain might connote easier subject matter to reflect upon. You are the only one with access to the contents of the box. The box can be opened with a key, or with your hands, or by any unique design, you imaginably create. Approach your box with curiosity and interest rather than with fear and condemnation.
You do not need to dump the contents of your box out all at once. In fact, this is not advisable. Take one item out at a time. Let it rest on your lead apron. Remember, you are protected from potential message harm.
Examine the words, points made, and consider the implications if you decide to swallow this message whole. If you can determine that what is said is true and digestible, then go ahead and allow it to be swallowed. Note: you may need to chew on it first before it can be consumed, as some messages are harder to accept than others.
What if part of the message fits but not in its entirety? This is the beauty of the lead apron. Allow the part that fits to be absorbed into your body, and the rest falls away from the lead apron. Sometimes we do not like certain foods as much as we like others, but we eat them because they are good for us. Sometimes we do not like to hear things about ourselves that might be true, but our mental health could improve if you would be willing to take a few mouthfuls. Upon closer examination, should none of the message be true, then the entire box and its contents fall away from the lead apron and are not allowed to be eaten and absorbed into your body.
An example that fits this category would be the horse nettle berry Solanum carolinense that looks like wild tomatoes. However, pickers beware…ingestion can cause fatalities for humans (Prostko, Ingerson-Mahar, & Majek, 1994).
Know The Difference
How do you know the difference between something said that hurts and is true, and something said that hurts and is not true?
Apply the three “P’s” with a fourth potential “P”.
Consider the source. What might this person’s intentions be? Do you feel safe around them? Do you respect them and do they respect you? If you determine that the person has good intentions, the message was delivered with respect (thus you feel safe around them); then perhaps their message should be examined and tasted - even if it comes across as not your favorite food.
Further, if the message is delivered with such disrespect that you end up “killing the messenger and the message,” meaning rejecting both, then results might look like denying yourself a food substance that your mind and body might benefit from nutritionally. The former and latter examples support the non-avoidance of verbal messages that sting.
On the other hand, projection is a reason not to ingest the words. Projection is what Freud called a defense mechanism whereby disowned feelings are plonked onto another person.
An accusation of being selfish because you engage in self-care can actually be about the denial of the urge by the speaker themselves to practice self-nurturance. Watch for a strong reaction to something you express that surpasses what seems within the ballpark of reasonable responses.
Put on your lead apron and examine if their reply aligns with your actions. If it seems like it is coming from left field, then projection might be a possible explanation. Don’t eat the verbal toxicity.
Look for patterns. Have other people made similar comments to you? Are the consequences of your actions repeated? Different characters, but the same story?
For instance, have several romantic interests told you in various ways that you are emotionally unavailable? You could envision those words coming your way in a large or small box (it might depend on how many partners have told you this).
Open the box and ask yourself how these words might be true? What do you see as you examine the contents of your box? Do you discover that you exit relationships through withdrawal behavior? If so, what prompts this behavior? What you discover influences how much is sustenance and how much is verbal toxicity waste.
Some of my patients do this part of self-discovery with their lead apron off and others keep it on. No apron may allow for an awareness of where in a person’s body their pain is stored. Keeping the apron on may allow a person to do this exercise if going into the hurt seems daunting and unfathomable. The “right way “is the one that works for you.
Ask yourself where in your body do you feel the hurtful words of the speaker. Have there been other times that you feel felt hurt in this part or parts of your body? What were the circumstances? What is the message this body part is conveying through the physical pain? If that body part could speak in words, what would it say?
Emotional pain that is stored in the body in the form of physical pain needs to be released so you can reconnect to the place in which you live.
Avoid Verbal Toxicity
By now, the reader might discern that the decision to chew over or reject hurtful spoken words has inherent complexity. Sometimes a psychotherapist (the fourth “p”) can help with these distinctions/nuances, which can be unconscious.
To assimilate new behaviors into your life requires mindful awareness and diligent practice. Not everything someone says to you should be tasted, ingested, absorbed, and digested. Avoid verbal toxicity by using the space between the stimulus of the speaker’s words and your response to their utterances. Pause before proceeding with behavior that can be venomous to your well-being.
- Prostko, E. P., Ingerson-Mahar, J., & Majek, B. A. (1994). Postemergence horsenettle (Solanum carolinense) control in field corn (Zea mays). Weed technology, 441-444.
ABOUT THE AUTHORDr Michelle Matoff, Psy.D, LCSW is a board certified bariatric counselor, a member of the American Bariatric Advisory Board, EFT certified (Level 2), DBT board certified, and a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) with a doctorate degree in psychology (Psy.D) and is a psychotherapist with her private practice in San Luis Obispo.