Bad Word

No, I’m not talking about THOSE bad words, the ones we say when we mislay our keys again or stub our toe or get a nasty email from our ex.

Today I’m talking about the kind of words that come loaded with meaning from our past, the words that we almost don’t realize trigger us, until they do. I bring this up because E and I tripped up over one of those words in therapy this past week.

Here’s the setting: I’m seated on the floor of E’s office–so is she–and we’re coloring in our mandalas, as we have been doing, twice a week, for the past year or so. I’m telling her about Sunday’s yoga class.

“We were paying special attention to our hips and low backs in the sun salutation. Then we brought out the foam rollers and worked on the quadratus lumborum,” I tell her, so proud that even a little bit of the anatomy I’m studying for yoga is starting to stick, “And not surprisingly, it kind of hurt. And then I found, all of a sudden, that I encounter an image and urge to kill myself. It seems so crazy to come out of the blue like that. I’d been feeling good in the yoga class, building a positive energy from the sun salutations, and then in moments, I’m thinking I should die.”

Perhaps I don’t use exactly those words or explain it exactly that way, because E doesn’t understand it quite like I meant it, I don’t think. She seems to think that something in yoga class had triggered an angry younger part of me–maybe that I struggled with a pose others could do, that I was comparing myself too much, something like that. Her focus jumps directly to the way that part of me talked to me.

“I wonder,” she says, “if it isn’t time for you to get strict with that part of yourself. Maybe you need to tell her that she can’t talk to you like that. Maybe you can say, ‘I’m here and willing to listen to what you need, but I won’t tolerate that kind of language.’ You know, the way we sometimes need to get strict with our kids.”

I can feel something tighten around my throat right away, though I’m not sure why.

To E, the part threatening to extinguish my life is like a raging child whose bad behavior needs to be contained, even though we aren’t going to reject the child. She tells me about some work she did before or during grad school, when she was a social worker at a school for severely traumatized children. They used to have outbursts sometimes, where they might throw objects or attack someone. Part of her job would be to throw her arms around that child and immobilize him, talking calmly and softly until he stopped struggling. Then she’d ask if he was ready to be released, and if so, she’d let him free. If he started up again, they’d repeat until he released that he couldn’t continue with that behavior.

“Maybe you can envision your own personal social worker,” she suggests. “You can add her to the cast of characters in your internal household.”

I smile, and we talk about what the social worker might be like. But part of me has retreated from our conversation, from the room.

It’s almost the end of the session before I start to realize what it is. I have to close my eyes for a minute, because the emotions come up so strongly.

“That word,” I tell her. “Strict. It feels so harsh to me. You know who in my life has been strict? My step-father was always strict. Strict means judgment. Strict means punishment. Strict means you are in trouble, young lady; I don’t like your behavior one bit. And don’t you look at me like that.”

It’s just a word, right? No big deal. But all my life–okay, ever since I was 14 and my mom married Leo–“strict” has been a word associated with Leo. And although my mother continues to claim that Leo loves me and my siblings, the four of us have never seen any evidence to that effect. He always had ten thousand rules but not a single kind word.

You could say the same about my ex-husband actually. Growing up with Leo, is it any wonder I would marry a harsh, judgmental man with a bad temper and control issues? Is it any surprise that I have probably been a little on the overly soft side with my own children?

E gets it right away when I start talking about this, and she moves away from “strict” and toward talk of “loving structure” and “healthy boundaries.” Still, I end up needing a phone call with her two days later to check in.

“Are we okay?” I ask.

“Are we okay?” she echoes. “Well, from my point of view, we are great. You are doing challenging, fabulous work. But is there something that doesn’t feel okay to you?”

And I end up telling her that I couldn’t help hearing an implied judgment in that word, strict. Is she thinking I wasn’t working hard enough? Perhaps she thinks I need more self-discipline? Does she hate my behavior, or everything about me, the way it seemed my step-father always did?

I mean, honestly, for the most part I do know she doesn’t judge me like that. But there’s a young girl inside me who isn’t sure. It could be the 14-year-old who, only a month into her mother’s new marriage, was shocked at how mean her step-father spoke to her. That girl wants to know she isn’t judged as worthless.

Thankfully, E is willing to give me that reassurance, again.

Strict, ugh, yuck, I hate that word. I’ve relegated it now to my own personal bad word list.




  1. For me, the word is “victim” because a counsellor told me to “stop being a victim and take responsibility” for being heavily bullied. (I naturally didn’t tell him about the family abuse)

    Liked by 1 person

    • How incredibly unhelpful. Did he not get the message that compassion and understanding are necessary for healing?! Impatience and judgment just mean you are going to close up to protect yourself.

      I’ve also been told “stop playing the victim.” It was my ex-husband who used to say that to me. He was also very abusive and often times I WAS his victim, but of course he didn’t see it that way.

      I don’t like that phrase “playing the victim” because it is so often used to deny or minimize genuine victimization. There is nothing inherently shameful about having been victimized. If you were robbed, you were the victim of a thief. If you were punched in the face, you were a victim of a physical assault. If you were abused in some way, harmed in some way, you were a victim. It doesn’t imply anything about who you are or your value, but only that someone harmed you. Unfortunately, however, there are a lot of people now in our society who do use it judgmentally, and that’s very unfair, I think.


      • I’ve a good therapist now but boy that counsellor nearly made me give up.

        Abusive people such as your ex husband often seem to believe they’re the ones who’ve been victimised and that they’re “putting things right”.

        I definitely don’t like the judgment a lot of people place on the word “victim” — the victim vs survivor dichotomy pervasive in some areas definitely doesn’t help too.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Language is extremely powerful! The links between words and emotions in our brains are incredible. Nothing is “just a word.” Words don’t exist in isolation and are all tied to our experiences as humans. I’m glad you recognized that this is a bad word for you and blacklisted it! And the way you are interacting with E – calmly checking the facts instead of spiraling – is so strong and inspiring, Q! You’re awesome. Sending love 💜

    Liked by 1 person

    • No spiraling lately, knock on wood! Sometimes she’ll say something (never intentionally) that stings a bit, that maybe bumps an old bruise. But I don’t get so tied up in knots about it anymore–or at least those knots don’t last for very long. This is entirely because she has let me check, over and over, without becoming reactive or defensive. It’s made a big difference.


  3. I am just going to say, “Yeah!” And then go think about it for awhile. I hate it that a word or phrase can be altered like that by an experience. I lived with people who created new definitions, so my internal communication system has to do a lot of translating these days. So, Yeah!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think a lot of our internal healing work is a form of “translation,” in the sense that we have to take a word or experience or memory and gradually translate its meaning from one thing to another (for example, from meaning, “I must be worthless” to “that was a bad thing but it doesn’t define me.”) It’s not an easy thing to do.

      Liked by 1 person

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