Moving Mountains and Burning Bridges: The Power of Words

Words can move mountains. That's what I tell my speech students--their words can change the world. They can hurt or heal, break or bond. They have power. I'm acutely aware of the fact that what we say to others lingers far after the words are said; words have a way of worming themselves into the very fabric of our being and becoming a part of us. When those words wound, we carry that pain far longer than even we suspect. Words are particularly insidious weapons because too often, we fail to recognize the myriad of ways they'll follow us. I try to be mindful of that. I try to remember, in my daily interactions, to keep my words kind--or as kind as I can in a situation. I admit I fail more often than I would like, but I do my best to make sure the words I leave behind me will make people feel powerful, important, heard, supported. At the worst of times, I try to leave behind words that at least won't do any damage.

Words can move mountains. But they can also burn bridges.

This weekend, I burned a bridge. It was one I would rather not have burned, but also one I had no plans to cross again, so perhaps it doesn't really matter. What matters is that, for the first time in a long time, I said things that I didn't--and don't--have any intention of fixing. I don't know how long those words will linger with the person I said them to; our words do the most damage to those who respect us and value our opinions, neither of which is true in this case.

But still.

This person and I have had a tumultuous relationship, at best. We've been friends, at times very close friends. I still believe, despite everything, that I know this person better than almost anyone, but in the end, that's just not enough. The relationship was marred by clashing communication styles, piles of hurts that were never healed or even addressed, and a fundamental difference in the ways we believe people should be treated. It turned toxic long ago. I first started thinking about the necessity of walking away in August. There were a couple false attempts--both of which felt genuine at the time but proved to be short-lived. Everyone in my life urged me to cut ties. I went into 2018 with the resolution that I was not going to let anyone make me feel unimportant, disposable, or less than. And this weekend, that resolution was put to the test.

There are some moments in our lives when we just have to say enough. And this weekend, standing in the Science Center at Harvard University, I had that moment when someone I cared about--someone I had supported and cheered for and helped for four years--looked me right in the eyes and told me I didn't matter. I wasn't important. I was disposable.

Despite the up and down of our friendship, I have never said anything to this person that was designed to hurt. Even at my worst, I kept what I thought to myself. When insults were hurled my way--when I was told I was a bad coach and teacher, that I was messy, annoying, stupid, petty, immature, overdramatic and weak--I still held my tongue. I carried those words with me and they did more damage than I care to admit. My struggles with anxiety over the fall stem from a lot of the pain  from that relationship. I gathered up that hurt and I dealt with it on my own. But I kept those words in. While I didn't want much of anything to do with this person going into this weekend, I wanted to end quietly. I wanted to gradually fade away. The friendship carried a lot of baggage, but it also carried a lot of really important memories, and I never wanted those tainted by anger or pain.

Well, that's not how it turned out. But some memories just aren't meant to be cherished, I suppose. I'll make new ones. Better ones. With better people.

I wasn't going to cross that bridge again. So I lit it on fire.

I still didn't say everything I wanted to say. I kept a lot that I think--the pettiest and cruelest--to myself. But I said enough. I told him he was mean, selfish and uncaring. I called out months of gaslighting, manipulation, avoidance, and selfishness. I told him he used people for his own gain. That he disregarded other people's opinions. That he was awful.

And then I blocked his phone number and walked away.

It feels weird and profoundly uncomfortable to me to leave those as the last words I say. But, if I am honest, I didn't say anything untrue. I didn't say anything that--in my opinion--wasn't deserved. And I didn't say a single word that, if given the chance, I would take back. Maybe someday it'll do some good and he'll change the way he treats people. That'd be nice, if unlikely. In any event, it felt good to finally stand up for myself. After months of being gaslighted and manipulated, it felt good to defend my own reality and not let him continue to deny it. It just felt good.

And that's the way words work. They burned a bridge this weekend. But at the same time, they moved mountains for me. There's no going back, but for the first time in a long time, I feel as though I can move forward easier. As if I can breathe easier. I moved a mountain off my chest this weekend. It doesn't change my fundamental belief that we need to be careful with our words, or that the kindest word is almost always the best word. But in that moment, it was more important to be kind to myself, even if that meant my words were cruel. Was I justified? I don't know, maybe not. Maybe I'll regret it someday. Maybe that will become a burden I'll have to carry.

But the bridge is burned.

So it's a mountain I'll just have to move.


Kyle Jensen said…
"The cure for pain is in the pain."- Rumi

Good for you, Allison. It can be incredibly difficult to make that stand-- to be kind to yourself. I think we both share the tendency to try and take everything on ourselves and I'm proud of you for breaking out of that!

(no longer captain) Kyle

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