It’s been shown to alter both the functioning and literal shape of the developing brain, for example, and has real-world effects on adults in dysfunctional relationships, whether at home or in the workplace.
People who’ve grown up with an unloving mother or father—especially a combative or controlling one—usually internalize what they’ve been told about themselves as self-criticism which, in turn, affects their ability to recover from setbacks, to motivate themselves to set goals, and to maintain healthy self-regard and a sense of agency.
Self-criticism is the mental habit of ascribing untoward events or failures to fixed character traits rather than circumstances, usually echoing parental commentary and criticism. So, if you’ve gotten a less than wonderful review at work, you would tell yourself that “it’s no wonder because I’m too stupid to get things right,” rather than recognizing that perhaps you could have managed things better and need to work harder. Similarly, when a relationship flounders, you’d ascribe it to your essential unlovability or your being overweight or some other personal flaw, rather than seeing the real factors that led to the breakup.
I thought I’d highlight some of the phrases that often pop up when words are being used as weapons. If you are using them yourself, you should recognize that you’re trying to intimidate or demean the person you’re talking to. If you are hearing them, you need to become proactive, demand boundaries, and stop allowing yourself to be beaten verbally. At the end of the list, I’ve included some observations about body language that often functions to bring verbal aggression home.
- You’re too sensitive
This was my mother’s mantra and it’s a common one, meant to deflect attention from the person who’s verbally abusing you and to shift the blame on to you for your supposed deficiency. This happens in adult relationships as well, and it’s an effective way of preying on the victim’s self-doubts, while “normalizing” whatever nastiness has been expressed. Recognize it for what it is: Manipulation, pure and simple.
- You always/ you never
This phrase is usually a turning point in any discussion that involves a complaint about behavior because it shifts the focus from whatever happened to your personal failings. Marital expert John Gottman identifies this personalized criticism, often uttered with contempt, as the turn-key moment at which what he calls kitchen sinking begins. Kitchen sinking—yes, as in everything but kitchen sink—involves a litany of criticisms, including everything negative you can possibly recall about the other person or any mistake he or she has ever made. The phrase frequently comes up in the most toxic relationship pattern of all—Demand/Withdraw—in which one person makes a request and the other person stonewalls.
- You’re exaggerating
This is a close relative of “You’re too sensitive,” and it’s used to undermine the person’s faith in his or her recall of what actually took place. Telling someone that she really wasn’t “that hurt” or that the words uttered or actions taken weren’t “that bad,” is meant to make her (or him) question not just the validity of her feelings but also her perception of events. It’s another form of gaslighting and a common one at that, which is used to great effect with children and, yes, even insecure adults.
- Don’t psychoanalyze me
This was a favorite of someone I used to know when I would try to explain what I thought his behaviors meant or how they affected me. He would brush me off after stonewalling me first by using these words or ones close to them. Variations on this include, “What are you some kind of expert or something?” “What gives you the right to try to explain me?” or “What did you do? Read some kind of self-help book?” Basically, all of these phrases—and ones like them—are meant to put you down and stop you from bringing any knowledge to the table that might actually change the dynamic.
- It never happened/I never said that/I never did that
Yes, it’s called gaslighting, and it’s another form of verbal abuse meant to make you feel as though your perceptions and thoughts are wrong, and that your take on what’s happened is crazy or skewed. This form of denial is another kind of stonewalling, in fact, and it’s very successful with children who are apt to believe the parent as a higher form of authority or someone deeply insecure. Seen from another point of view—that of the person saying it—it’s a wholly defensive action when there’s no other way the person can justify his or her actions and words. It’s pure poison and manipulative to the max.
Verbal abuse and body language
Verbal aggression is usually accompanied by body language that is meant to bolster the message conveyed by the words, and to intimidate the other person. This includes gestures that convey contempt (laughter, rolling his or her eyes, smirking, a curled lip, shaking his or her head), showing indifference or superiority (smirking, arms folded, looking away or doing something like picking up a newspaper or getting up as you’re speaking), or mockery (curled lip, eye rolls, or throwing up his or his hands.)
Verbal aggression doesn’t have a place in a healthy relationship and has nothing to do with discussion or working things out. We all need to keep that in mind.
Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Fireside, 1994.
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