Only sissies worry about things like that – why can’t you take care of yourself?”
“If you had the slightest wish to pass this course, you’d at least try to understand the material.”
“Do you have any good reason why you can never do anything right?”
“You think you did pretty well – I suppose you don’t care – well young man let me tell you…”
“Hey, are you paranoid or something?”
“Wow, that dress almost makes you look thin.”
“You’re always making a big production out of things, can’t you tell that I was just kidding?”
“My supervisor doesn’t stop criticizing me for everything and anything I do, and to make things worse he does it in public most of the time.”
A teacher tells one of her students, “You know Bob, any other teacher would have probably failed you and given you the F you deserved. If you had paid more attention in class you would have written a paper worth handing in.”
Child to parent: “If you really loved me you wouldn’t always be so mean, and you’d buy me a car for my graduation just like all the other kids have.”
“Now look what you made me do. I hope you’re pleased with yourself now.”
If any of the above statements make you feel uncomfortable or bring about some physical discomfort, then you know that you have been verbally abused in the past. Verbal abuse is language that does harm to you and is not accidental. We acknowledge physically challenged people, for their difficulties are obvious. However, there is an impressive majority of people walking around with invisible scars and they too need to be acknowledged.
Suzette Haden Elgin, the author of the series of books on The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense, states: “Verbal abuse is like smog or toxic waste. If you’re only around it occasionally it’s a nuisance, but when you’re exposed to it regularly it can kill you just as surely as being run over by a truck.” She adds that the list of diseases known to be stress related (which are caused frequently by verbal abuse) include heart disease and depression, as well as a host of others.
When there is family violence, the neighbors or the victim might reach out and call the police to be protected. When there are scars on a victim, the authorities, physicians and school personnel, report them for the protection of the victim. However, a very high percentage of people are the victims of verbal aggression and go without any protection, but live with anger, fear, guilt, and frequently have few, if any, outlets to ventilate their feelings. The victims of verbal abuse have no place to go to be protected or hide. There are no shelters available to them. On the other hand, verbal abusers are often admired for they come across as being strong, if not witty and ruthless, and since they instill fear in the audience, confronting or reporting them is a frightening experience.
What is verbal abuse or verbal violence? While the physical attack is obvious and can be recognized and leaves scars, it is over relatively quickly and you can carry the evidence against your attacker. Verbal violence is quite different, except when on rare occasions you are accused publicly and can charge your abuser with slander. Verbal aggression is frequently so well hidden that we may fail to recognize it. Instead of acknowledging that you have been abused verbally you may tend to take on the blame, to add it to your own misery.
When someone screams at you and calls you names, you may know that you are being verbally abused. But when an individual looks at you, perhaps even lovingly and says “Even you should be able to understand why you are wrong” or when you are told, “If you really love me you would do better.” Just stop and think for a moment of the repercussions you may experience when you fail at accomplishing a certain task. The issue is compounded now not only by your own failure but by proof that you do not love the person who made the statement. Suzette Hadon Elgin, the author of The Gentle Art Of Verbal Self Defense offers the following:
Q1: What is verbal abuse?
A: Verbal abuse is language that does harm and is not accidental.
Q2: Since “nothing really happens,” isn’t verbal abuse harmless?
A: No. Verbal abuse is extremely dangerous, and can be just as life threatening as a loaded gun. If you suffer from exposure to long term verbal abuse, for example, if you work all day every day under the supervision of a person who constantly insults you and does everything possible to make you feel inferior, you’re going to be under a kind of severe chronic stress that will damage your body and your mind.
Q3: Who are the worse verbal abusers: men or women?
A: Neither. One is just as likely as the other. Anyone can be a verbal abuser, including small children and people who are physically very frail. Women are a bit more likely to be verbal victims, because they’re so often outranked in our society, but male verbal victims are by no means rare.
Q4: Where can verbal victims go for help?
A: Almost no help is available unless the individual has access to a professional therapist. You can’t call the police or a social service agency and complain that you’re being verbally abused, and there are no “Verbal Abusers” or “Verbal Victims Anonymous.” However, there have been some encouraging new developments recently .
Q5: I’m a verbal victim. What can I do?
A:The most important thing you can do is something you’ve already done: becoming aware of the fact that you are a verbal victim. The next most important thing is to break out of the self-reinforcing feedback loop you’re caught in. When you serve as a ‘verbal victim,’ you’re feeding the verbal abuser’s habit. The longer you keep that up, the worse the habit will become. The only way to break out of the loop is by refusing to participate. You have to make it absolutely clear to the abuser – gently – that you won’t play that game any longer.
Q6: Most verbal abusers don’t really mean any harm. Aren’t so-called verbal victims just neurotics with no sense of proportion?
A: Whether the abusers deliberately cause harm is irrelevant. And once they know that’s what they’re doing, they have no excuse for continuing. When chemical companies dump toxic wastes into the water system, they don’t do that because their deliberate goal is to poison people. They do it because it’s convenient and it’s cheap. But we do our best to make them stop, all the same, and the poisoning is just as real as if it were deliberate. As for verbal victims being “just neurotics,” it’s not neurotic to feel pain when you’re injured or to object to experiencing that pain. Quite the contrary.
Q7: What’s the worst kind of verbal abuse?
A: That depends on the people involved. It’s like asking what is the worst kind of physical abuse…a question with no ready answer. Certainly long term verbal abuse, of any kind, is worse than short term verbal abuse.
Q8: What do verbal abusers say when they realize what they’re doing?
A: Two things. “Well, at least I never hit anybody!” (And they are proud of that.) “I don’t mean to hurt anybody!” (And they consider that a complete excuse.)
Q9: What do verbal victims usually say when they realize that’s what they are?
A: Three things. “Well, at least he/she never hits me!” “I knew I was always miserable, but I didn’t know why—now I know.” “It’s all my fault …. I shouldn’t be so sensitive.”
Q10: Isn’t assertiveness training the best way to end verbal abuse’?
A: No. If you always say the wrong thing — as either victim or abuser — assertiveness training will only teach you how to say the wrong thing far more effectively and more articulately. This is not an improvement. Assertiveness training can be very valuable, but it doesn’t get at the basic problems typical of most verbal abusers and verbal victims. First they need to get their act together, then they might want to consider assertiveness training.
Q11: What’s the most important thing to know about verbal abuse? A: The most important thing to know is this: verbal violence is at the root of physical violence. When children who hurt others with words are always told not to worry about it —“Oh, Mary Lou’s just being a baby… she can’t take a joke!” “Oh, Tom’s just making mountains out of molehills … he’ll get over it!” — those children learn that it’s okay to cause others pain. And they become callous about others’ suffering. The step from indifference to verbal violence to indifference to physical violence is a very small one. The only way we’re ever going to get rid of physical violence in this country is by starting by getting rid of verbal violence.
Q12: Isn’t a verbal abuser/verbal victim pair just one more example of the codependency problem?
A: In some ways, yes, because verbal abusers are dependent on the attention they get from their victims … attention is their “fix.” But there are some critical differences. Unlike a chemical dependency, verbal abuse cannot be done alone; it’s impossible without a participating victim. Unlike drugs and alcohol, attention isn’t in itself harmful. And you can help verbal abusers by showing them that the link they’ve set up for themselves between verbal abuse and getting attention is a false link—by giving them attention when they have not resorted to verbal abuse. A verbal abuse dependency isn’t a situation where the codependent partner is helpless to make things better and the abuser has to do it all alone. This is very different from the other kinds of dependencies, and the differences are all positive ones.
One needs to distinguish between people who accidentally hurt one another and people who intentionally repeat the same pattern. It has been said that the origins of verbal abuse come from the time where very small children are taught that they are not responsible for the pain they cause with hurt because the people they hurt are sissies and wimps or neurotics. Some children have been taught that if people hurt as a result of their action, it is their fault. It is a very thin line from hurting with words to hurting with physical violence.
There are ways of handling verbal abuse. Traditionally, people have tried to protect themselves against verbal abuse in three ways:
1. By being verbally abusive back at the attacker.
2. By trying to reason with the attacker.
3. By trying to arouse sympathy in the attacker…by pleading, for example, or crying.
Unfortunately, these methods only make matters worse. The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense system is different. It teaches people to respond to verbal abuse with techniques that make it impossible for the attacks to succeed, and at the same time defuse the hostility that the attacker would otherwise carry away from the encounter. It teaches people how they can make sure that the attacker is not rewarded, and does not get the desired attention and emotional feeding, while at the same time lowering the level of tension and bad feeling in the language environment. For people who are themselves verbal abusers – often because they are unaware that there is any other way to handle disagreement, or any other way to get attention – The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense techniques offer new ways to accomplish both of those things, without loss of honor or self-respect.