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  • Writer's pictureDeric Hollings

Sticks and Stones

From childhood, I recall when children would often say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words shall never hurt me.” Having been bullied quite a bit in my youth, I found the rhyme useful as a reminder that words literally couldn’t harm me.

Nonetheless, it took many years since childhood to understand why that was. Mere knowledge of words being unable to affect me didn’t make too much sense when I repeatedly reacted in ways which weren’t to my benefit.

What did it mean when people said words don’t hurt? One source expresses of the saying, “The rhyme is used as a defense against name-calling and verbal bullying, intended to increase resiliency, avoid physical retaliation and to remain calm and good-living.”

Building resiliency is an aim of my Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) practice when assisting people with low frustration tolerance (LFT). REBT maintains that it isn’t what happens to you which causes distress, though your belief about what happens is what leads to self-disturbance.

Early on, I understood that words were powerless over me. Though, as a kid, what I failed to understand was that my belief about the labels others assigned to me was what led to sorrow, anger, fear, and disgust.

Person A would say thing X and I would experience misery. I knew thing X didn’t truly define me. However, I still experienced misery.

Once I better understood REBT, I realized that it wasn’t person A or thing X that was the issue. Rather, my belief about thing X led to my miserable condition.

Relating this understanding to Recognize Ali’s song “Chosen Few,” produced by El Maryacho and from Ali’s album Recognize Tha Light, I appreciate the lyricist’s perspective as he states:

Fearless! From the ashes, I rise like a phoenix. And strike ‘til I reach all my goals, like I’m [Joao] Felix. You know what the deal is, stop actin’ like the meanest. I mean this! You ain’t robbin’ shit, but you [unintelligible]. Them butter soft wannabe rappers act tough. It’s all fun and game ‘til the gat busts. Who needs a backup? They find you in the black truck. Like a turbin, you fuckin’ hair wrapped up. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but not your words. G’s is home. You tell them clones, ‘Do not disturb.’ ‘Cause I’m back to work. Like a pusher, I’m back to serve. Every single blessin’ comin’ my way, know I deserve.

Ali begins by highlighting the process of rebirth. As a client is made aware that the only thing in this life one can truly change is oneself, the client repairs one’s life by relinquishing the idea of deconstructing society and instead focuses on rising from one’s own ashes.

It’s easy to claim that others are the cause of our problems and to delude ourselves into believing that words used by others can hurt us. Yet, Ali appropriately advocates self-determinism by refusing to concede defeat in such a manner until he attains his goals.

On the path to a new beginning, people can refer to us however they choose. It is up to us as to whether or not we allow their words to cause us to stumble. We don’t need our beliefs about syllables uttered from others to serve as stones on our path.

While some people may not appreciate that Recognize Ali assesses the fortitude of others, or that he describes how such people tend to melt from the heat of violence, I prefer his candor. Throughout my life, I’ve encountered those who have talked a tough game though couldn’t play within the arena they’ve created.

Engaging in conflict on the arena floor, sticks and stones can indeed break bones. In the current chapter of my life, I prefer a non-aggression principle approach to living. This wasn’t always the case.

I once understood that while it was true that the words of others couldn’t harm me, I rigidly held people to unreasonable standards of conduct—often without their knowledge of my inflexible demands. One of my major sticking points related to respect.

For the longest time, I believed that others must have respected me or else we’d engage one another in the arena. If someone called me a “pussy,” “soft,” or, “weak,” I believed they were guilty of an unwritten—though obscurely recognized—rule I had created.

It was as if I believed others could intuit the uncompromising rules within my mind. When the uncommunicated contract in my head was breached, I interpreted the behavior of others as disrespectful.

The consequence for contempt could be severe, depending on the circumstances. However, as I began to understand and practice REBT, I realized that it was my beliefs—not what others said about me—which led to my reactions.

Truly, my beliefs caused the consequences of unhealthy emotions, uncomfortable bodily sensations, and unhelpful behavior. This is why I appreciate Recognize Ali’s reference to violence in the song.

He speaks of a time when I was able to relate to hood mentality—wrapping people up like hair in a turban. Now far removed from that period in my life, and in the words of el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, I’m grateful to say, “No more days like those!

Recognize Ali directly cites, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but not your words.” When put into practice, by disputing irrational belief systems, this axiom can free a person from the shackles of one’s own mind.

Freedom from irrationally-influenced emotions builds resiliency. Still, this process requires exposure to our beliefs, which leads to emotions, for strengthening our ability to tolerate what would otherwise be perceived as a stressful event.

People will say whatever they choose. On the other hand, we do not have to react to mere words or our assumptions regarding their meaning. Words or insults cannot hurt you.

Are you prepared to work on your LFT? Would you like to know more about being flexible when experiencing words you find displeasing, upsetting, or offensive? I may be able to help.

If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.

As a psychotherapist, and hip hop head from the old school, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.

At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!

Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW


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