Names CAN hurt – the art of verbal self-defense

by M.C. Parker

Chronic mistreatment the hallmark of verbal, emotional and psychological abuse

Teen girls gossiping ID-100103331

“Ha-ha!” Nelson gleefully taunts on favorite animated TV show The Simpsons. Remember those classic schoolyard chants like “Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah – Mary is a four-eyes,” or “Jimmy is a fatso”? When classmates call each other names, as all children are wont to do at one time or another, the “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me,” chant was a typical response – as though a protective force field that could break the evil name-calling spell.

But what happens when that torment happens repeatedly both on and off the playground, at school, home or work? The childhood rhyme doesn’t work when a loved one such as a parent or older sibling, or someone in a position of authority, such as a teacher or boss, is regularly putting you down and calling you names. It may not even be overt name-calling; it can be a general undermining of confidence. Since children have no frame of reference, they immediately accept the blame and internalize all criticism.

You can still come across the grown-up version of abusive behavior, from outright obscenities yelled out a car window as someone cuts you off, to the window-dressed, sophisticated language and labeling of the corporate work world, but it can be just as damaging. Schoolyard bullies can grow up to become workplace bullies. So how do you deal with verbal, emotional and psychological abuse in a productive, healthy manner?

How to identify “the systematic diminishment of another”

Psychological abuse includes acts such as belittling, denigrating, terrorizing, exploiting, emotional unresponsiveness, or corrupting a person’s to the point their well-being is at risk, according to Dr. Harriet MacMillan, a professor in the departments of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences and pediatrics at McMaster University.

“We are talking about extremes and the likelihood of harm, or risk of harm, resulting from the kinds of behavior that make a child feel worthless, unloved or unwanted,” she said, giving the example of a mother leaving her infant alone in a crib all day or a father involving his teenager in his drug habit.

Harmful forms of interaction

A parent raising their voice to a strident pitch after asking a child for the eighth time to put on their running shoes is not psychological abuse, says MacMillan. “But, yelling at a child every day and giving the message that the child is a terrible person, and that the parent regrets bringing the child into this world, is an example of a potentially very harmful form of interaction.”

Emotionally abusive traits have been defined by the U.S. Department of Justice as causing fear by intimidation, threatening any kind of physical harm, destruction of pets and property, and forcing isolation from family, friends, school or work, notes Wikipedia. You can also refer to an earlier article that helpfully lists basic human rights.

Social scientists believe it is a pervasive pattern of behavior. Andrew Vachss, author, attorney and former sex crimes investigator, defines emotional abuse as “the systematic diminishment of another. It may be intentional or subconscious (or both), but it is always a course of conduct, not a single event.”

Subtler emotionally abusive tactics include insults, put-downs, arbitrary and unpredictable inconsistency, and gaslighting (denial that previous abusive incidents occurred), notes Wikipedia. Of course, modern technology has led to new forms of abuse, by text messaging and online cyber-bullying.

Effects of emotional abuse

“The effects of psychological maltreatment during the first three years of life can be particularly profound,” says MacMillan. This form of mistreatment is more common in homes with multiple stresses, including family conflict, mental health issues, physical violence, depression or substance abuse.

Children whose families are characterized by interpersonal violence, including psychological aggression and verbal aggression, may exhibit a range of serious disorders, including chronic depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociation and anger, according to one study. Another study reported that victims exhibit high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, drug addiction and alcoholism.

How to circumvent verbal abuse

“Hostile language — often called verbal abuse — is one of the worst problems people face today,” according to Suzette Haden Elgin, an expert in applied psycholinguistics. “Hostile language is as dangerous to health and well-being as toxic waste, not only because of its own destructive nature but because it so often escalates into physical violence.”

Elgin identifies two types of verbal aggressors, the first, who is merely ignorant and needs to be educated, and the second, more common, repeat offender, who sets off warning bells quickly. She suggests two effective strategies for responding: boring the aggressor to tears or affecting an emotionless computer mode.

Bore aggressor to tears

For the boring response, Elgin suggests saying something along the lines of “That reminds me of the time when I was a kid in North Bay…no, we were living in Paris then…and my aunt came to visit…and she had this little dog, you know the little ones with the big ears?…” The message the aggressor gets is that it’s too boring and annoying to attack you, so they leave off, noting that you don’t make a good victim.

Emotionless computer mode

The other approach is to make a simple statement without any emotion. For example, if someone who’s looking for something and blaming you for not being able to find it, Elgin provides some good sample emotionless responses.

“People get irritated when they can’t find things.”

“It’s very annoying not to be able to find things.”

“Misplaced [items] cause problems in every workplace [or home, or clinic, or whatever].”

“Nothing is more distressing than having to hunt for things.”

Although it may take awhile for the attacker to catch on, Elgin says once they do, they will once again note that you don’t make a good reactive victim and move on. The key is to avoid reacting in an emotional manner since that only adds fuel to the fire.

So the next time someone tries to verbally abuse you, instead of reacting emotionally or walking away, try boring them to tears, or repetitively empathically describing their complaint without any emotion.

Elgin’s book The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense offers a system for establishing a language environment in which hostile language interactions almost never happen, and if they do, are handled efficiently, effectively, and with no loss of face on either side.

Although verbal abuse is usually part and parcel of emotional abuse, dealing with it effectively is the first step to standing up for yourself and moving away from abusive treatment.

Image courtesy of Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

© M.C. Parker, 2013. Member, Professional Writers Association of Canada. For more information about this writer, please visit www.parker-press.com.

2 responses to “Names CAN hurt – the art of verbal self-defense

  1. Pingback: Family: When They Can’t (Or Won’t) Forgive « Bipolar Lessons

  2. Good post. Good advice.

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