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Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
I was 5, maybe 6, the first time I remember hearing the adage. It was the early 80s, and I was walking from school to my babysitter's when two older boys making their way home—grade 6 maybe—decided it would be fun to be cruel to the little girl with dark pigtails and big glasses.
I don't know if you remember what glasses were like in the 80s, but trust me, they weren't pretty. And those boys made sure I knew, calling me names, like the ever-original '4-eyes' before shooting me in the lens with a suction-cup dart. When I finally made it to my sitter's, with the dart still fixed to my glasses, I was d i s t r a u g h t. And while being consoled, I first heard the phrase.
I was skeptical, at best.
The apple experiment
Just as I was starting to work on this story, my editor came across a Medium piece by a woman named Danielle Laporte about an experiment she tried with her son called Good Apple/Bad Apple. Based on the work of Dr. Masaru Emoto, a Japanese researcher who studied the impact of human thoughts, feelings, and intentions on the molecular structure of water, the experiment intends to visualize the effect of positive and negative messages.
In Laporte's case, the experiment was a success. The good apple stayed fairly well-preserved while the bad apple turned 50 shades of green. While I found the outcome intriguing, the skeptic in me had reservations. So I decided to give it a go on my own.
On May fourth, I halved a small apple and sealed each in a separate jar. I labelled the 'good' apple 'The G.O.A.T' (greatest of all time), and christened the other a 'Waste of Air.'
I placed both in a sunny spot on my kitchen windowsill and scheduled daily chat reminders, which involved whispering sweet nothings to my one apple friend and terrorizing its worse-half with the cruellest sentiments. And I have to say the whole thing felt silly, nasty, and weird—but more on that in a bit.
Negative ≠ broken
While waiting for my apple-subjects to do their thing, I reached out to Jacqueline Milner, to chat about the impact of negative self-talk on our human psyche. Milner is a Dartmouth-based clinical psychologist who specializes in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindful self-compassion, and the owner of Jacqueline Milner-Clerk and Associates, founder and director of Breathe Mindfulness Centre. And she has more than 26 years of experience providing psychological services to the local community.
"The brain responds to self-criticism and criticism from others as a threat," says Milner. "When we start to self criticize, its an inward attack (of the self). We're attacking our sense of self, and often it is a byproduct of feeling shame, guilt, or unworthiness."
It's crucial to Milner to note, though, that negativity is a natural human response to the world.
"I think it's really important that we understand that nothing is broken in us because we have this propensity towards negativity," she says. "Some of this has a protective nature. It's part of our evolutionary history. To survive, we had to pay attention to things that were threatening."
Problems start, though, when negativity takes over without cause.
"The inner critic may have good intentions even if it has painful results," says Milner. "It's really just trying to protect you, and that comes from a good place. However, the means in which it goes about it can be very painful and difficult for people to bear. And it can affect how you feel."
Negative self-talk has been linked to a laundry list of ailments, including increased stress levels and a decreased life span, higher rates of depression, lowered immunity, greater risks of cardiovascular disease, and a lessened ability to cope during stressful times. Unlike a broken limb, a psychic injury isn't visible. But, just like mended bone, emotional bruising needs time and care to heal.
That real Sticky Icky
I'm going to share a little secret. I'm not one for vulnerability unless I'm in control. Which, one could argue, isn't vulnerability at all. But, if I must be honest, I am a master of being nasty to me. My self-esteem was pretty solid until about mid-way through grade three. It took a dive after my family moved from the city to a tiny village on the shore. It plummeted again when I hit puberty. It's never really recovered.
In my teens, I was depressed and developed an expertise in disordered eating. I kept my 90-pound frame hidden under size 54 jeans (skater girl things), and would say things like, 'if I ever weigh 110 I will end me.' Thankfully that feeling faded with time. But while some things have changed, I can honestly say I've never been as ruthless to anyone as I am to me. And few foes have even come close to matching my internal hostility.
Even today, the messages that get rerun in my head (referred to as 'sticky thoughts') involve a kind of malice not even reserved for the worst types of people. So cold, I'm too ashamed to share. So brutal, if I did, you'd find my wickedness appalling.
But the worst of it might be that I know I'm not alone with these dark feelings.
Always look on the bright side of life.
So, what can we do to unstick the bad thoughts? The answer, despite marketing to the contrary, is not, 'Good vibes only.'
"We can absolutely incline and train the mind to balance the scale a little bit without trying to pretend that everything's great and good when it's not," says Milner. "Because sometimes things just suck."
But there are some things we can do to balance our emotional teetertotter, like focusing on gratitude.
'Even if you just stop right now and think one thing you're grateful for, one little thing, it just goes to shift how you feel," says Milner. "Gratitude is a way to cultivate that."
Another way to reframe negative thoughts is by asking, 'how would I respond to a dear friend, or a beloved, or child—somebody I care a lot for?' Because in most cases, we would never treat another person as harshly as we treat ourselves. So, instead of lashing in, make an effort to extend the same kindnesses reserved for others to yourself. You, too, are worthy.
How about them apples?
I must admit two things: going into this, I was skeptical there would be any real difference between the apples at the end, and, while fun, the exercise wasn't a great example of rigorous science. That said, 20 days in there is a noticeable difference between the jars. The apple of positivity is still looking pretty good, while ol' negative Nell has seen better days.
And while I'm not ready to make any grand claims about causation, I acknowledge the impact of undue negativity in my life (and I'm pretty over it). I noticed, too, despite feeling a little silly about it, how yucky it felt being mean to an apple. It only stands to figure brutishness sent in any direction must do the same, we're just used to the call coming from inside the house.
So, I guess I was right to be skeptical. Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words can break your spirit.
Embrace compassion. We all deserve it.
Robyn McNeil is all about her kid, her cat, her people, engaging stories, strong tea, yoga, sunshine, hammocks, a good trail, salty air, white ash, open hearts, and hoppy beer.