Sticks and Stones Will Break My Bones – But Why Do Words Still Hurt Me?

I still remember this one woman in an elevator two years ago that said she wouldn’t have been brave enough to wear what I was wearing. I haven’t worn that outfit since. I walked into that elevator feeling like a million bucks, and walked out feeling like I was unworthy of breathing the same air.

Why do I do that? Why do I let the comment of one person affect me so? Why do I take a comment about my outfit, and turn it into a comment about my very worth as a person? Why do I care what this stranger thinks? And why do I worry more about how someone judges my appearance than my character? Is it because I still want to fit in? I still want them to like me? Am I suddenly that picked-on kid on the playground again? Do I believe that I only matter if I look like Barbie?

I think these are important questions, because I believe that as long as I respond in the way that I do, I will sabotage my own success. When I am not confident and feeling good about who I am (inside and out) it reflects in everything I do – from the stage to the sales call to the written word. And if there’s one thing I have learned as a motivational speaker, it’s that I can control what I believe about myself.  My self-worth is not determined by the opinions of others.

Taking that elevator situation, I’m going to go back and handle it differently. I know that’s kind of weird since it happened years ago. But I still remember it, so obviously it’s hanging out in my head putting a jab in wherever it can.

  1. The first step is awareness.  When the comment is made and I feel myself reacting, I will stop and be aware of what is happening. I will say to myself:  “Wait. Before you walk out of this elevator feeling like a horrible failure, let’s be aware of what is going on. Let’s note that she made the comment, but YOU get to decide here and now whether you will make it part of your belief system. You will decide whether it is valid, and whether you need to take action on it. So let’s stop and talk about this for a minute.”  (Yes, I am known for talking to myself in public places.)

2.       What did she really say? She said she wouldn’t have been as brave as me to wear this outfit. She didn’t say it was ugly. In fact, maybe she was complimenting my courage. Doubt it. But the point is not to put words in her mouth. Deal with what she said, not what you think she meant. Life is too short to be affected by the unspoken words of others.

3.       What does this have to do with my self-worth?  Why am I feeling so bad about myself because of her comment about my clothes? The two are unrelated. Did she say I was a horrible person? No. Did she say I was a terrible speaker? No. Did she say I was mean? No. So this has nothing to do with me as a person – but my clothes. I’m not going to let it affect me that deeply.

4.       Is this truth or opinion? Everybody has a different opinion about something.  Opinion is not the same as truth. If she told you that you were being rude, there might be truth in that statement. But having an opinion is not the same thing. In this case, this is not truth, it is opinion. There will be plenty of people who will not like the way I look. Let it go. That’s their problem.

5.       Take action? If this had been true, the next step would have been to determine what action I needed to take. Sometimes we are receiving constructive criticism that will help us be a better person or help us do our jobs better. Take this information and process it. Use it to your advantage. And, yes, still separate it from your self-worth. What you did is not who you are.

6.       How important is this? At the end of my life, will I really care about this woman on the elevator and what she thinks about my outfit? No. The people in my life love me for who I am, not what I wear. I’m more concerned with whether my child knows I love him. I want to be measured by my character, not my outward appearance. This comment is not important to me.

7.       Let it go. So I am going to leave it in this elevator. Oops. It tried to follow me out. There you go. Stay right there where you belong. I have chosen not to incorporate you into my belief system. Bye-bye.

Sometimes we deal with comments that sting a lot deeper than the woman on the elevator. Words from the people we love and trust the most. While it will be harder, I think the process can still be the same. We can still decide what we believe about ourselves.

Being a speaker puts me in the public eye and open to constant feedback and criticism. While it doesn’t feel like a blessing to hear people evaluate me as “average” or “a waste of their time” – it is actually quite freeing.  I am slowly learning that there will be people who don’t like me – who don’t like what I do – who find me average. There will be times where I don’t fit into the group – where I am not the one chosen. And you know what?  I’m just fine with that. More than fine. I’m free. And life is so much better up here – flying above my comfort zone.  You can try and shoot me down, but it won’t work. You don’t have the power. I do.



Motivational Speaker Kelly Swanson - called one of North Carolina's funniest women by Our State Magazine. Kelly lifts the spirits of audiences from coast-to-coast using humor, storytelling, and lives of the characters from Prides Hollow - Kelly's make believe small town. This unique approach to motivational speaking allows Kelly to break through communications barriers and connect directly to the audience's imagination.
Her powerful stories and wacky wit will make you laugh, remind you that you matter, show you how to see beyond your obstacles, and teach you how to stand up and stick out in a crowded market.
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  1. Kelly, 
    Your message today really hits home. I too, tend to give power to the words of others. I have recently learned that I am the only one that can control how I react to them. The most powerful stance I can take is to not dwell, to be quicker at the processing. In the past I use to take at least a day or two to process, often making my heart and brain incoherent for a couple days while it deals with the hurt or the emotion that was created by the words (or actions – often actions speak the loudest and we can spend a lot of time trying to decipher the real message.) Thanks for the words …”Let it go!” its the hardest step to take. 

    • Nice to hear that I’m not the only one dealing with this, Angela. You would think I would have done it long before now! But I’m a slow learner. And I know we’re not the only ones who take what others say to heart. Awareness is the first step. It’s very important to stop as soon as we feel that clinch in our stomach. To stop and say, “What’s up with this?” And then walk through the steps to let it go and leave it. And it gets easier the more you do it. Trust me. In my business, I CONSTANTLY hear what others think about me – from the good to the bad to the ridiculous! Hang in there girl! I believe in you!

  2. Wonderful step by step processing for all us motivational speakers who put ourselves out there for comments and critiques!  One that lingers with me was even delivered as a veiled complement.  It’s actually humorous but it still bugs me:  “I love your hair!  I loved the 80’s!”  Hmmmm…

  3. Oh, Polly, that is hilarious! I love it when my mother tells me my hair doesn’t look natural. Pulease! I didn’t pay all this money to make it look natural! :)

  4. So beautifully written, Kelly. As motivational speakers we are always putting ourselves in front of others to be judged. Like us?  Some will, some won’t, so what?! It’s getting to the “so what” faster and your steps are an excellent way to make it happen. I once heard it said that even God can’t make everybody happy. At the same time someone is praying for rain, someone is praying for sunshine. So what ever makes us think we could? Stay the beautiful, brave powerful you — in any outfit!

  5. Ahhhhhhh. Brilliant, powerful words, Ms. Kelly.  Well said indeed.  And yes, motivational speakers are particularly subject to this kind of feedback, but it happens probably to every single person on the planet.  Don’t ya even bet that Angelina Jolie has people telling her what’s WRONG with her on a daily basis.  I personally love her.

    I remember once a very well respected speaker who showed up at a presentation I did in Denver and afterwards came up to me and the ONLY thing she said to me, with a totally expressionLESS face was, “It must have taken a lot of courage to do that rap song.”   I’m trying to think back to determine what thought process I DID go through at that time (to see if I applied any of your steps) – but I really don’t remember.  I do remember feeling “stung” initially, but immediately responding, with a smile, “No, not really.”  Then I turned my attention to someone else close by.  I sometimes live by a “fake it till you make it” system.  At least it buys me time to go thing things through – AND now, apply your steps!!!

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