Sticks and Stones for the Holidays
Updated: Dec 25, 2021
The holidays are fast approaching. I'm so busy making soap gift baskets, wrapping gifts and writing out cards, I haven't had much time to write. You might think I'm prepping for a wonderful Christmas, and yes, it will be better than last year's holiday, which was my first Christmas as an adult woman without being in a long term relationship or visiting family. But Christmas is still fraught. I'll be alone, for starters; I won't have my kids on the big day, my longtime friends have their own big-family plans that do not involve an unvaccinated guest, and financial and policy restrictions prevent me from going big, so I'll just be going home...to my apartment, as I'm estranged from my only living relative in the city. Can you relate?
All this holiday rumination brings me to the old saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." My mother used to quote this to me often in childhood when I complained of being bullied at school. Like most people who have been injured by verbal and emotional abuse in whatever form, she wanted to believe that non-physical cruelty is all a matter of the mind - and if you don't mind, it doesn't matter. It's amazing how these kinds of sayings, obviously compensatory and inaccurate, endure so long in the culture. Even today's culture, in which just about everything is considered offensive yet somehow is supposed to slide right off without doing any damage.
Most people who dread the holidays don't fear being beaten with sticks by Grandma or having stones chucked at them across the dinner table. They dread the emotional context, the verbal barbs, the triggering of old wounds. Because words do, indeed, hurt us.
All violence is physical AND emotional
I've never believed the sticks and stones thing, because I was so crushed as a child by the abuse inside my family and the bullying at school that I used to beg to be hit so I would at least have battle scars - so that someone would know what was going on, and someone would do something about it. They never did. Decades later - yesterday, in fact - I found myself listening to my favourite YouTuber, Richard Grannon, for some sustenance. In his Serbian seminar on narcissism vs. borderline personality disorder, he reminded us that indeed no one is coming (thanks for cheering me up Richard! Just kidding - it's true, we have to save ourselves) and someone in his audience made the statement that all violence is both physical and emotional. What does this mean?
In the ensuing conversation Richard explained that while physical bruises fade, the intent behind them does not. I'm paraphrasing here, but he made an analogy to sparring: if you step into an MMA ring and get a smack, you're two people entering into a consensual fight; physical violence ensues, but when you get hit, you're not wondering, "Oh my God, what does this mean? He doesn't love me anymore?" Anyone who has ever gotten a hard smack across the face by a parent knows that the physical sting is nothing against the emotional shock that someone who is supposed to love, care for, and protect you, is instead physically hurting you for a very clear purpose: to put you back in your (inferior) place. Therefore, it's the emotional hit that hurts and lingers.
Conversely, enough verbal and emotional abuse, in any form - instrumentalizing, emotional neglect, brainwashing, entraining, parentifying, enmeshment, conditional 'love', or any other prolonged non-physical abuse and trauma sustained either in childhood or in adulthood, can and will result in physical symptoms. You know all those autoimmune diseases of mysterious origin and onset? All that chronic fatigue, the rashes, the hives, the eczema, the brain fog and the physical pain? Yeah.
That is obviously not to say that every chronic disease comes from trauma. But experts on the subject like Dr. Gabor Mate and Bessel van der Kolk believe it has a lot to do with it. The body internalizes the emotional pain and somatizes it, or expresses it physically.
All this would seem to indicate we should probably change the saying to "Sticks and stones may break my bones, and names will always hurt me." Not a comforting statement, but then the truth rarely is. As anyone who has ever been gaslit knows, as difficult as the truth may be, it is a lot preferable to 'noble lies' that we know are untrue, which compound the abuse by invalidating it and create even more dissonance within the body.
Start with the truth this holidays
If the truth is that you are not looking forward to the holidays because of bad memories, trauma and family drama, the first thing is to stop gaslighting yourself. Don't pretend it's not that bad, that you can endure it for the sake of the family gathering, or that it's your fault for being too sensitive. Start with the truth of the situation, that you're uncomfortable, and then you can begin to do the work to put your own healthy boundaries in place...because you deserve to enjoy the holidays no matter what else is going on or what other people are doing. It was never about them, anyway.