Those Unspeakable Words

By Greg Baer M.D.

February 12, 2007


All our lives great shivers of fear have run up and down our spines when these terrible words have reached our ears, and we’ve gone to enormous lengths to avoid their being directed at us. It’s understandable that we would feel this way, because these words have uniformly been spat like venomous bullets, and the people who have spoken them — our parents, teachers, friends, and others — have been those whose opinions we have valued highly. The context and delivery of these words have been terrifying.

We learned at an early age that when someone said, “You are so stupid,” that had quite a different connotation from someone saying “You are so tall.” We learned that being stupid was a distinctly bad thing, and when people proclaimed our stupidity, we also noticed that they were far less accepting of us — less affectionate, less warm — than when we were not stupid. The withdrawal of their acceptance was devastating.

Understandably, therefore, these words continue to carry quite a negative emotional charge for us, even as adults. We fear them. We avoid them. Regrettably, however, whatever we fear also tends to become a significant obstacle to our growth and happiness, and such is the case with these words.

Because of our fear of the word stupid, for example — not to mention idiot, moron, and others — we are very reluctant to admit that we’re stupid even when we ARE stupid. That is a huge problem, because when we can’t tell the truth about who we really are — including about our stupidity —

(1) we can’t change who we are, we can’t grow, and
(2) we can’t feel unconditionally loved.

Let’s address both of these consequences of not telling the truth, particularly as they relate to the unspeakable words we have listed.

First, when we can’t tell the truth about ourselves, we can’t change who we are.

One of the technological marvels of recent years is the various mapping programs on the Internet: Mapquest, for example, and other such programs by Google and Yahoo. As a child, I thought maps were the greatest things. I would pore over them for hours, fascinated at the tapestry of roads, rivers, cities, mountains, and so on. In my mind, I took trips on those roads, from cities on one side of the country to cities on the other side. It was great fun. Yes, I know I needed to get out more.

So as an adult, it fascinates me that we can type into the computer two addresses from almost anywhere in the world, and in seconds these mapping programs will tell us exactly how to make the shortest journey between those two points: what roads to take, how to turn, how far it is between turns. The programs do have a limitation, however. If I want to get from where I am to another place, I absolutely must enter the correct address for the spot where I’m beginning my journey. If I enter an address different from my starting location, there isn’t a chance that I’ll take the right path to get where I want to go.

Similar accuracy is required for plotting the path of our personal lives. If I lie about where I am right now, I don’t stand a chance of reaching my eventual goals, because my starting point is in error. Every turn and movement thereafter is then based on a mistake, so how can I hope the journey will turn out well? We must tell the truth about our mistakes, flaws, and fears, not to humiliate ourselves but because without the truth we cannot correct or eliminate these qualities which impede our growth and happiness.

So what is the truth about us relative to the word stupid?

In ten years, will you know more than you know now? I hope so. I hope you will know a great deal more than you know now. That’s the whole idea of learning. Relative to what you will know in ten years, therefore, would you characterize yourself as smart now? Of course not. Compared to your wise condition in ten years, you’re relatively stupid now, and the only reason we resent that word is that it’s always been accompanied by a lack of acceptance — usually by bitterness and anger, in fact. If we need another example, compared to God we are massively stupid. It’s just a description of fact, not an accusation or term of belittlement. When I suggest that we admit our stupidity, I am not talking about self-deprecation. I’m not talking about making ourselves feel small. I’m talking about a simple description of how things are.

So why use this particular word? Precisely because we avoid it, precisely because as long as we don’t use it, we cannot feel unconditionally loved, which is the second consequence of not telling the truth about ourselves that we listed earlier.

All our lives we’ve had to earn the approval of others by being obedient, cooperative, clever, responsible, and so on, and we have ample evidence that if we fall below a certain standard in any of those areas, people really will withdraw their approval. Over and over, we’ve seen that when we are stupid — mostly when we behave in ways other people don’t like — people clearly don’t like us as much. They scowl, shrug their shoulders, and offer critical comments. In order to defend ourselves from those painful signs of the withdrawal of approval, therefore, we deny our mistakes, make excuses, and do whatever it takes so that people won’t think we’re stupid.

This is a huge mistake. It’s much, much more productive to simply admit our stupidity. Why? Because it’s usually true that we are stupid, and because our admission creates opportunities for people to love us without conditions — to give us Real Love. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve participated in a scenario like the following.

I was trying once to help someone set up the audiovisual equipment for a seminar, and in the process, I hooked up some of the cables incorrectly. The man in charge of the setup looked at what I’d done, put a big frown on his face, and said, “This is all wrong. Why did you do it this way?”

I smiled and responded, “Oh, I’m just stupid, and, regrettably, it’s not the first time today it’s leaked out. It seems to be kind of a pattern, actually. I would love to have your help.”

He immediately lost the frown and said, “No, you’re not stupid. You just didn’t know how to do it. Here, let me show you how.”

Why did his attitude change so suddenly? Because I told him the truth, which has a remarkable effect on people. When I tell you the truth, I’m making a choice not to defend myself — not to use any of the Protecting Behaviors — which is also a choice to care about you, and you can feel that. In addition, when I tell you the truth, I give you an opportunity to accept me unconditionally, and we all have an innate desire to do that. Telling the truth is a powerful catalyst.

I have spoken in many venues where people have come up after the seminar and said to me, “I really enjoyed the message of Real Love, but I’m concerned about your use of the word stupid. I think it might be better if you used it less.” My response is, “I suggest you use the word more often, until you take the sting out of it, until it doesn’t frighten you anymore. Use the word stupid until you see it simply as a non-critical description until you can describe something you did by saying, ‘That was stupid’ in the same tone you would say, ‘It’s about four miles from your house to mine.”

Allow me to emphatically interject here that we must remember to use the word stupid only when describing ourselves, not others. On the whole, other people don’t appreciate hearing themselves described as stupid.

Accepting our relative stupidity can give us such freedom. Over the years I have discovered that I actually enjoy talking about my stupidity. When I talk openly about what I don’t know, I now have the freedom to learn and grow. Rather than avoid the admission of stupidity, I openly declare my goal that every day I strive to be a little less stupid than I was the day before. Talking about my stupidity also frees me to be unconditionally loved. If you love me while I’m smart and competent, I’m trapped. Now I have to possess these qualities all the time in order to be worthy of your love. But if you love me while I’m stupid, what do I have to worry about? Now I know you love me without conditions, and that is no small thing.

Let us openly declare and embrace our flaws. To be sure, there is an initial discomfort in that approach, but the rewards are great: First, we no longer have to engage in the exhausting and fearful game of hiding our imperfections and defending them. Second, we can feel loved with our defects rather than despite them. And third, we can finally work openly on correcting our flaws, rather than secretly fearing and denying them. The truth really does set us free.

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    About the author 

    Greg Baer, M.D.

    I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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