Her first statement— “They’re only words”—is enough to make me want to switch into all caps in my answer but there’s no percentage in that, is there? That phrase—uttered out in the street, in the bedroom, in the privacy of an email—is the hallmark of denial because words hurt. That sticks and stones rhyme is utterly untrue and the science on verbal abuse is absolutely categorical.
Just in case you aren’t up on what science knows—and there’s no reason you should be—let me summarize it for you in bullet points for ease:
- The neural pathways for emotional and physical pain are one and the same which means that saying that “My heart is broken” is more of a reality than a metaphor. Ditto to “feeling like you were punched in the face” when someone you care about says something nasty, demeaning, or shaming to you.
- Verbal and emotional abuse—which includes both showering negative comments about a person’s being and character and withholding positive and needed support and love, especially from a mother, father, or other caretaker—changes how a child’s brain develops, affecting neural pathways, how the parts of the brain connect, as well as emotional capabilities such as empathy. It’s been argued that physical abuse is, in some ways, easier to recover from because there’s no doubt in the child’s mind that it happened. That may not be true of verbal and emotional abuse which is often accompanied by gaslighting, denial, and other manipulations that allow the adult to control the situation.
- Children who grow up in households where abusive behavior is part of everyday life—children are blamed, shamed, marginalized as a matter of course—internalize what is said to them as essential truths about themselves. This isn’t weird, of course; when you’re small and the person is tall and in authority, you believe what is said about you because you don’t have defense mechanisms or any experience or the ability to argue back. The words spoken become internalized as what is called “self-criticism,” the habit of mind that ascribes mistakes, setbacks, and failures to a fixed character flaws. It sounds like this: “I was passed over for a promotion because I am stupid and clueless and everyone else was talented,” “He left me because I was never good enough for him to begin with and he’s not wrong,” “Who would ever love someone so ungainly and unlovable?”
Why You (and Other People) May Excuse Abuse
As a child, you may think it’s “normal” that people who are intimates—like your mother and father—act this way, raising their voices, sniping at you, enumerating your faults. You figure you’re at least partly to blame—if not totally—because he, she, or they treat another sibling differently or because you’re told explicitly that it’s your fault. Your mother may tell you that she’s always angry because you’re incapable of behaving well, or even that she’s unhappy because you take up so much of her time and she never has any fun. Small children internalize what’s said to them and about them and wrongly assume that what goes on at their house goes on everywhere; that, along with a child’s utter dependency on her parents, work to further normalize hurt and abuse. The child will defend herself by either walling herself off or go into overdrive to convince the parents of her essential goodness; the latter often become inveterate pleasers as adults who don’t listen to their feelings and ignore their own emotional needs.
As adults, these former children often remain blind to abuse, seeing it simply as how the world works or how intimates behave. Explaining and justifying abusive treatment helps the adult veer away from hard decisions such as exiting the relationship and leave her in the position of maintaining the connection at all costs.
Rationalizing and denial
“She can’t help herself because her own mother was dreadful,” writes one daughter; when I point out that she’s justifying her mother’s abuse of her, she gets really defensive. “He never learned to manage his anger because his father was always taking things out on him,” says an acquaintance whose husband belittles her and she adds, “I don’t think he really means to hurt me.” When I point out that he is hurting her, she goes silent.
These are the voices of excusers, and verbal abuse cannot continue without someone making excuses for another adult’s behavior. Is this you?
How to stop an abusive person
- Be clear about what abuse is
If you start babbling about how they’re only words, recognize that you are part of the problem. Abuse need not be physical.
- Call the behavior out
No one has the right to shame or marginalize you or call you names; neither a birth or marriage certificate endows someone with that right. Respond rationally, and never in kind. Be firm about what you consider acceptable and what you do not. Seek help if you feel you’re in danger or threatened in any way.
- Don’t look away
It’s nice to have compassion for others but being understanding of why another adult is acting abusively is a professional’s job, not yours. Being understanding of abusive behavior facilitates the behavior and increases your tolerance for it. What motivates an abuser isn’t your concern; that you’re being hurt should be.
The ideas and research mentioned in this post draw on my new book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from An Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
Photograph by Kira Kira. Copyright free. Unsplash.com.