The Power of Words to Hurt and to Fail Us

Words Are Currency

We desperately try to hold on to them when writer’s block strikes and we find ourselves bankrupt of words.

We lavish them freely upon the blank page when we are wealthy in possessing the best of them.

Words belong exclusively to no-one. We all have a claim to make upon them.

Used effectively, they can catapult us to the highest of heights: promotion, new job, new relationship, a marriage, a deepening friendship…

Words can also shove their lolloping size twelves in with reckless abandon: getting fired, demotion, remaining jobless, relationship break up, an unforgiving groom when you use your ex’s name in the wedding vows (not my true story!), a severed friendship…

In the complicated lives we lead, words can create a deficit or a windfall.

The Power of Words to Hurt the Writer and the Reader

Words in the mindWords can be a writer’s enemy as well as their friend. We can find ourselves bystanders to the horror of suppressed painful memories, spilling from our minds and onto the page. We sit back, watching the car crash of our griefs, hurts and traumas manifesting through a collection of words.

Written words often reveal what no longer desires to remain hidden. Your protagonist endures through crippling depression and you literally fall to your knees, sobbing alongside them (an actual true story).

The reader can sit long after the novel has finished, grieving the character who slipped slowly to a death they never saw coming. A collection of words holds the power to create this stasis.

The writer who formed the sentences, and the reader who has been tapped on the shoulder and encouraged to acknowledge them, will never be the same for the seemingly simple employment of a set of words.

Never underestimate the power of words to hurt you.

The Power of Words to Hurt Us all

We live distinct lives, but I can state with confidence that we have all heard words that have pierced our hearts.

I’m sure many of us can recall words fired at us in times of trauma and misfortune:

‘You don’t have much time left.’

‘I am sorry to have to tell you that…’

‘I’m not in love with you anymore.’

‘You’re worthless/stupid/ugly/a waste of space/fat/unlovable…’ etc

‘It’s your fault.’


Words that have the power to hurt can be uttered with malicious intent or carelessness. Our larynx, tongue and lips, along with a pen or keyboard, have the potential to inflict pain.

I know I am walking this earth, oblivious of the damage that my words may have done because the recipient(s) of them are holding them as their own. What a burdensome responsibility to bear in a paradoxical ignorant bliss.

The Power of Words to Fail Us as Writers

Writer and reader connectionIt may appear odd to state that the words that just won’t come also have power, but they do. Words can retreat to a hiding place in our minds where they defiantly remain.

The writer strives to connect with the reader through their words. It is when the ‘right’ words will not come that one of a writer’s largest fears strikes; word redundancy.

Writing is a writer’s responsibility to their readers. With every chosen word, the writer sends messages to the recipient reader.

No chats can be held to provide explanations, or to check that the meaning has been interpreted in the manner in which it was originally intended.

Many a writer has sat at their desk, head in hands, summoning the gods of ‘All the Right Words’ and finding their pleas unanswered. This may sound like ‘airy fairy’ business to those who don’t write. We all use words every day after all.

Compare it to another job.

If you’re a plumber and you don’t have the right tools to fix a toilet, you’re literally going to find yourself in the shit.

If you’re a call centre operator and you lose your voice, that call is going to result in an irate cusromer.

If you’re a teacher and you have no work prepared for your class, you could probably blag it once *glosses over this quickly due to past role as a teacher* but you won’t be able to keep that up for weeks without having a breakdown or inciting a rebellion.

The tools of your trade attribute to the success of your work. A writer’s fundamental tools are words. If we cannot find them in the toolkit or they are faulty, we are doomed.

We then become fat from comfort eating, blind from daily 14 hour Netflix binges, and hate everyone who posts their NaNoWriMo daily word counts on social media. But enough about me…

The Power of Words to Fail Us All

On a universal level, we have all been in situations, both funny and sad, when either the right words don’t come or they ‘do one’.

WTF Moments

You know those moments, when some arsehat goes way ‘out there’ on Facebook with a post, a person says something shocking or you witness something so hilariously dreadful on You Tube that you feel like your retinas have been burned? The WTF moments.

My personal recent ‘favourite’ is being told by a vet, who had examined my kitten a few times previously, that ‘he’ is actually a ‘she’. This is after a good feeling up of ‘his’ phantom plums and a breeder adamant that the cat was a male. I am signing them both up for a series of online Biology courses as I write.

Words certainly went on holiday when my husband phoned to give me the news. He was actually more worried that I’d shut my gob for once than been shocked by ‘Cat-missing-nads-gate’.

Fear not. I’ve since rediscovered words enough to perform the Google search, ‘Wonder Woman and Princess Leia cat costumes’. Every cloud…


Job interview, presentation, first date, Best Man’s speech… you know the drill. There’s nothing like how nerves loosen your bowels and also cause your words to dribble away to show how words fail us.

You may have compiled beautifully highlighted index cards. However, those pesky words will rearrange themselves into a blurry mess right in front of your scared eyes.

F***ing Awful Moments

Helping hands of wordsWhen badness strikes and you desperately need words to offer comfort, love, care or consolation, this is when words often fly away.

I don’t know about you, but I have never felt as helpless as when I hear of another person’s misfortune or tragedy and I cannot think of the ‘right’ thing to say. Thankfully, but unfortunately due to too much experience of this, I have learned a valuable lesson.

No collection of words whatsoever will ever completely fix a bad situation.

No set of spoken sounds will make a tragic situation change.

Admitting to someone you care about that you don’t know what to say, and don’t have the answers, is tough. However, there is no shame in admitting that words have failed us and because of this we feel like we are failing others too. We haven’t. With that seemingly helpless declaration, we have used words powerfully to say that we are present and trust silent companionship to be enough.

I’d fix so much right now if could be achieved by opening my mouth or tapping away at a keyboard. If words could save lives, I would let them continuously flow.

Words as Both a Hindrance and a Help

This post has been rather deep. I may not be my usual witty self (allow me my self-delusion). I make no apologies for that.

Life is bloody tough sometimes and difficulties can be exacerbated by words either formulating into a jumbled, potentially damaging mess, or by rendering us speechless.

This post is actually a celebration of words. They are incredible in how they can alter lives for better or worse.

Words are amazing. After all, what else, apart from love, do you know that is so powerful in its misuse, absence or rightful direction?

About Lisa Sell

Lisa Sell is a fiction writer. When she's not wrestling with words she can be found showing the love for chocolate, cheese, coffee, books, the cats, and the husband. Perhaps not in that order.

27 comments on “The Power of Words to Hurt and to Fail Us

  1. Oh how true this post is, Lisa! Words can heal a nation as witnessed by the documented speeches of President Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. They can also tear people apart which has never been more prevalent as in the incessant & frequently cantankerous diatribes between Donald Trump & Hillary Clinton. I hope to never have to struggle to find words. That would be too painful to bear. We all should assume responsibility for how we use the written language. Wonderful post!

    1. I’m pleased you enjoyed reading this, Susan. Words certainly can be as powerful enough to heal or break nations as you make clear.

      I know that many of us try to find the right words and as writers we feel we should be eloquent, but sometimes they just don’t come and we have to also realise that silence and holding someone’s hand can be just as powerful.

      Thanks so much for commenting.

  2. Oh yes, some words have strong power. It is so easy to ruin a moment/someone’s feelings/decisions of others by picking one wrong word and vice versa. This is the challenge in being a good communicator!

    1. We’ve all messed up along the way with our words I’m sure. I guess the trick is to realise we’ve done it sooner rather than later!

      Thanks very much for reading and taking the time to provide an insightful comment, Michaela.

  3. Beautiful post Lisa – a friend and I were talking just this weekend about how the words we use are so important – she had been broken into, and she refused to describe it as anything more than having “very considerate burglars”, because they took only cash, and did no damage. She said if she called it a nightmare, or a violation of her space, that made it something bigger than it was. Clever woman!

    1. That’s an interesting anecdote as we can tend to exaggerate sometimes the situation we are in. There are times when this is due to feeling it so intensely. Other times I believe it’s the contemporary world’s propensity to make everything so shocking, and so very ‘tabloid’.

      On a side note, I came face-to-face with burglars once right in the middle of ransacking the house I was lodging in. Words became amusing that day when caught burglar spotted me, hands deep in jewellery in the drawers and asked, “Does Bob live here?”

      My shock caused me to reply, “Not in the F***ing drawer he doesn’t.”

      He scarpered. Words are amusing little things sometimes. That day they didn’t fail me. Sarcasm prevailed.

      Thanks, as always, for being so supportive.

      1. I think you’re right about the need to make everything larger than life – every event must be the best or worst ever experienced. I love your robbery story, though – that’s the sort of retort I’d come up with a week later, after much thinking!

  4. This is beautiful. As an avid journaler and reader, I appreciate the power of words. Maya Angelou once said – ‘a word is a thing’. So very true. I hold fast to words that edify me and I release all else.

    1. As often, Maya Angelou imparts great wisdom. Every word is a created thing.

      Thanks for sharing this and giving me something to mull over. I appreciate your comment, Carlana.

  5. Interesting post. I’ve always loved words and the power they hold. Few things I enjoy more than a string of words carefully and beautifully connected.

    1. Words seem like such simple things until we really begin to think about how they work. Thanks for reading and commenting,Michelle. I appreciate it.

  6. Great post! It proves that what the Bible says about the tongue (and our words) is indeed true:

    “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matt. 12:34)
    “Not one of mankind can get it tamed. An unruly injurious thing, it is full of death-dealing poison.” (Jas. 3:8)
    “The tongue of the wise ones is a healing.” (Proverbs 12:18)

    Just to name a few. This article gives me one more reason to always give attention to my words. Thank you!

    Ola |

    1. Those passages certainly are powerful. We can strengthen or destroy with what appear to be mere words.

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Ola.

  7. Interesting post. With my students I like to show them how words can hurt by crumpling up a piece of paper and no matter how hard one tries, the paper has icky pieces.

    1. That’s a great analogy for the ‘spikiness’ of words. I wish I’d thought of that when I was an English teacher as it’s a brilliant idea.

      Thanks for reading and sharing this with me, Natasha.

  8. So true! I think your comments on how words can hurt readers nicely sums up that experience of having a ‘book hangover’. I know a book is powerful when I mope around like a forgotten lover, mulling over the end of a book and wishing it wasn’t over. It’s pretty amazing how it’s just done with the author’s words. Very powerful!

    1. Book hangovers are a paradox of pain and joy. We feel the hurt caused by the writer’s word choices but we simultaneously have the pleasure of knowing that book has changed and moved us.

      Thanks for your insight.

  9. As a fellow writer, I most definitely appreciate and relate with this piece. I love your in-depth breakdown of the power and influence of words. In a culture that has become so word-obsessed, we often don’t look at the impact of those exact words that we use. We need to understand their strength and adjust our usage of them in ways that will benefit us and those around us.

    1. You’ve expressed the essence of what I hope I conveyed in this post, Aleks. We can be very ‘wordy’ whilst not considering the ramifications of those words.

      I really appreciate your feedback. Thank you!

  10. Beautiful post – and you have used your words to stir up passion and provoke thought. Thank you for your choice of words ❤️

    Words matter, and it’s so refreshing to see someone use them with intention.

    Loved this!

    1. Firstly I love the ‘Have That Cake ‘ moniker – right up my street!

      I’m so pleased you enjoyed reading this and understand my motivation behind it. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  11. I love Maya Angelou’s quote about the inherent power of words: “Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you.” I think you captured this essence by encouraging us to be ever mindful of their ability great to shape our world.

    1. This quote is incredibly powerful and sums up beautifully the essence of what I am trying to convey as only Maya Angelou can!

      Thanks for sticking with me and commenting!

  12. I agree! As a person of faith, I know that the power of life and death are in the tongue. The words we choose can heal or hurt ourselves and others. As we learn to become more intentional with our words, we can help create a better present and future.

    1. Great sentiments that I fully agree with. Now, more than ever, the world needs to be aware of how words are used and received.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

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