403. The Power of Put-downs

I remember what it was like to get lots of put-downs. Some people may have been kidding; I often responded to put-downs with humor, and maybe some people thought that meant I wasn’t bothered. In fact, sometimes I wasn’t bothered; if people made fun of aspects of myself I didn’t consider important anyway, that was okay. And I have a good friend who knows how to gently make fun of some aspects of me that I consider more important. If people offer us criticism, whether humorous or not, in ways that communicate caring, the criticism can help us grow.
But those aren’t put-downs. Put-downs, whether intentional or not, make us feel worse about ourselves. In my last article, I wrote about the power of sincere appreciation. If we were affected by that without also being affected by put- downs, we’d be much better off. And some people do manage to drink in what praise they get without letting the other stuff bother them too much.
I have known adults who have said that put-downs are good for children – that children need to learn to “take it.” I’ve also known adults who have bitter memories of their parents’ and teachers’ attempts to train them to “take it.” And I’ve known many children who have suffered because people have said things to them that hurt. Self-esteem – especially young self-esteem – can be very fragile. Handle with care.
It really does depend on the person. There are people who very quickly learn to love and respect themselves – almost invariably with the support of the people close to them. Some of those lucky people also quickly learn
how to tease and be teased without hurting or being hurt. But even those people have to consider the objects of their teasing, or they’ll risk hurting people they don’t mean to hurt. And some people who seem to be doing fine are secretly hurting.
I’ve also worked with children who don’t even seem to take it so well. Some adults call these children “hypersensitive,” but I try not to. I don’t find that label very useful. If a child is easily insulted by words that other children take in stride, my approach is to try harder not to insult him/her. I’ve written about seeing the child in the adult, but here’s a case where I try to see the adult in the child. I’ve known too many adults who have wished their childhood traumas had been taken more seriously – not brushed off as “hypersensitivity.”
We do want children to grow up able to take the good with the bad. Not everyone they encounter is necessarily going to think carefully about what are appropriate, sensitive things to say. But there’s no short cut to building self- esteem, and attempts to train children to “take it” usually make things worse.

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