The story of The Ugly Duckling has become a cliche in our lives, but it has truth to it. It’s one of Hans Christian Andersen’s legacies to the world. He wrote a story about someone who didn’t fit in because of their appearance and it turned out everyone was wrong about him, including the ugly duckling himself.
The part of the story that is really sad, there are multiple pieces of the story that are sad, but the part that is really sad is where the duckling believes the things everyone else says. He believes them. They say he’s ugly. He believes them. There is no question in his mind whether or not he’s ugly. He just accepts that as a fact of life and goes on, well, he runs away. The words of everyone else form the duckling’s thoughts.
We all want to say that we don’t let this happen in our lives. We want to say that words can never hurt us. We want to say that we don’t care what anybody else thinks of us. But, in the end, we do care. We do let words affect us. This scenario is more problematic when we’re younger and more malleable to the world. When we get older, we become a bit more set in our ways and a bit less likely to let others’ thoughts form our lives. That doesn’t mean it goes away. There are still times, as adults, where we let the world determine our worth through its words.
Sometimes words aren’t meant as insults, but we let them determine our worth anyway just because that’s how we took those words. Other times, words are flat-out insults on who we are. Either way, those words can creep into our thoughts and cause us to berate ourselves. It’s like the gift that keeps on giving. Someone can call us ugly once, but then we use that same insult inside our heads on ourselves over and over and over again.
It would be wonderful if we could just turn off whatever process by which we take the insults of others and internalize them, but, unfortunately, I don’t think anybody knows how to do that.
Part of the problem was that the ugly duckling was being bullied, but part of the problem was also that he was bullying himself.