“Sticks and stones will break our bones, but words will break our hearts” (Robert Fulghum)

The words and/or actions of others can negatively impact our mental health unless we develop mechanisms to protect ourselves. Even though it may be fairly challenging, especially when you are feeling at your weakest, we can manage how someone’s words and actions get filed in our respective brains. This means that we have the strength to change how these words and actions affect our wellbeing.

We can think of our conscious intentions as electromagnetic waves going outwards. Of course, we are not the only people creating these “waves”—everyone does this! The challenge comes from navigating the waves of life, including how other people choose to speak and act, while, at the same time, focusing on our own desires, hopes and dreams.

Dr. Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist, audiologist, clinical and cognitive neuroscientist with a Masters and PhD in Communication Pathology and a BSc Logopaedics, specializing in cognitive and metacognitive neuropsychology. Since the early 1980s she has researched the mind-brain connection, the nature of mental health, and the formation of memory. She was one of the first in her field to study how the brain can change (neuroplasticity) with directed mind input. Dr Caroline Leaf, “Cleaning up your Mental Mess”, notes: “It’s not just about you; it’s about you in the world”. This means that, while you focus on your hopes and dreams and living your life, you also have to navigate the “waves” created by others, kind of like a ship sailing in the ocean—there is a lot you cannot predict. Some of these waves will be small, and some of these waves will be large. Some may even feel like the iceberg that hit the Titanic!”

The mind uses the brain to store what it experiences—that is, the events and circumstances of life, including how other people treat us—as thoughts and memories. A thought is a physical thing made of proteins and chemicals that occupies mental real estate in the brain as a tree-like structure on our neurons and as gravitational fields in the mind as well as in the cells in our body. Consequently, a thought is something that can impact both our mental and physical health if we don’t learn how to manage and reconceptualise our thinking.

Dr Leaf mentions three steps to acting on and managing how other people affect us (and I quote):

  1. Taking the time to prepare yourself – If you know you are going to be around someone who has triggered you in the past, then spend some time preparing yourself mentally beforehand. Think about your trigger points, and plan how you will choose to react. One great way to do this is to come up with some statements you can say to yourself when triggered. You can say something like “when I am in a situation with “these” people, this is what has happened in the past and this is how they trigger me…but I will no longer wire this reaction into my brain as it will affect my health, so I will prepare myself and, when they trigger me, I will tell myself this message and focus on this, not what they say or do.” Doing this builds a new network into your brain, which reconceptualizes your past memory of that person, not only changing the way the experience affected you, but giving you the mental resilience to handle a similar situation in the past. You essentially give yourself an antidote before you get “bitten” by a potentially toxic encounter. And the more you practice using this “antidote”, the more powerful it becomes! This new network in the brain essentially forms a protective shield around your mind. And, if you don’t know when you are going to encounter someone who triggers you, you can still practice doing this by excusing yourself for a few minutes to prepare yourself mentally. I love using the “bathroom” excuse for this one, and always do some deep breathing as well to calm myself down.
  2. Practise visualisation – The new, reconceptualised network mentioned above becomes more powerful when you pair it with a visualisation exercise. One exercise I highly recommend when you feel stressed out is to stop and try to visualize yourself wearing a protective shield of armour. See this in your mind’s eye protecting you from the “arrows” the other person is throwing at you. This generates positive energy in the mind and brain, which almost acts like a shield that will help you divorce your own emotions from the situation and give your mind a break from the stress by reminding yourself that you are strong and that you are protected from the negative side-effects of the person’s words and actions. This is a great way to build up your mental resilience!
  3. Be kind to yourself while having compassion for others – When triggered by someone’s words or actions, it is also important to practice being kind to yourself in the moment while remembering to have compassion for the other person. You can say something (out loud or in your head) like “I don’t need to have this in my brain. I don’t deserve to be attacked like this, even if I may have done something wrong or made a mistake. I deserve to be treated fairly and compassionately, just like the other person also deserves my compassion. I will not let them treat me badly, but I also will not react and treat them badly.” When you practise saying something like this, you are changing the wiring of your brain and making your mind more resilient over time, so that in the future you are better at controlling how you react to other people.

Don’t let others’ words negatively impact your mental health. Allowing destructive words to take root negatively affects self-esteem and the ability to approach life with strength and resilience. An impacted self-perception leads to doubt, bitterness and even depression.

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