Verbal abuse can be many things, it can be obvious – yelling, name-calling, criticizing, threatening – or it can be hidden behind “being helpful” or “joking”. All abuse leaves behind scars – visible or not.
“Sometimes, child abuse is only visible to the child suffering it.” – ANAR
The verbal abuse of my childhood have become the negative tapes I play in my head as an adult. Continuing to believe that words do NOT hurt and that the problem lies solely with the person in pain is valiantly negated by applied psycholinguistic expert, Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D.
I recently read one of her books on verbal abuse and another on manipulation as the two are often linked:
Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D.: “You Can’t Say That to Me!” (verbal abuse)
Harriet B. Braiker, Ph.D.: “Who’s Pulling Your Strings?” (manipulation)
Both books focus on the mechanics of verbal abuse and manipulation and offer a practical guide to dealing with both. There is little to no focus on dealing with the emotions (guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, etc.) evoked by VAM and how that plays into deciding the right solution for the reader. However, both authors recognize that the advice is limited when dealing with verbal abusers* and/or manipulators with genuine psychological problems. They yield to the fact that the solution may be to withdraw from the relationship.
Overall, I found their information helpful for improving my communication and dealing with difficult people in general, not only narcissists. The book by Elgin came to me at the right point in this journey and I thank Kitty for the recommendation. Here is what I learned (part 1) and the methods Elgin discusses in her book (part 2).
The Purpose of Verbal Abuse and Manipulation (VAM)
The purpose of verbal abuse and manipulation is NOT to cause pain.
The purpose of the response to VAM is to alleviate pain.
VAM are not designed to hurt. They are about:
POWER or CONTROL
Elgin and Braiker taught me that understanding these opposing purposes is key to dealing with verbal abuse and/or manipulation.
In verbal abuse, the purpose is to demonstrate power by attracting and holding the attention of the person being spoken to (receiver) and then provoking an emotional reaction (ER) that validates their power. In manipulation, the purpose is to feel powerful (superior) and control what you do for them – a certain task (“work”) or a specific response. The control over the receiver does two things: 1) provides a feeling of being in control and 2) further validates the manipulator’s power.
None of these purposes are a part of healthy conversations/interactions. In healthy conversations, the purpose is to inform, share, comfort, pass the time, etc. And in healthy interactions, the purpose is to be considerate of both parties (boundaries) in an open, honest manner.
Elgin on Verbal Abuse (VA)
Elgin highlights the fact that VA can look and sound like healthy conversations especially if the verbal abuser is skilled. But the crucial difference remains: chronic verbal abusers** are only interested in serving their purpose.
The opposing purposes between the chronic verbal abuser (CVA) and the intended receiver ultimately reveals that:
The verbal abuser is NOT interested in the response to a question or statement.
When dealing with someone who chronically verbally abuses, Elgin claims that the common methods we use are not effective. The following are legitimate methods in human communication but when it involves chronic verbal abuse, they become ineffective:
- Pleading: asking them to stop in an emotional and serious way
- Counterattacking: responding in an abusive manner which includes using verbal abuse, leaving the room*** or ignoring the attack
- Debating: reasoning with them using logic, evidence, facts, etc. (I include JADE – justify, argue, defend, explain)
All of these fulfill the CVA’s purpose: to keep the attention on them and to provoke an emotional reaction (ER) demonstrating their power. I was surprised to learn that all these reactions are satisfactory to the CVA. The most desirable being pleading and to a lesser degree the subsequent ones but ALL feed verbal abuse. As long as we respond in a way that serves their purpose, the CVA will come back for more.
Personally, I found this list to be helpful in two ways: 1) What to Stop Doing with CVAs and 2) Signs of Potential Chronic Abuse. How a person responds to any of the above behaviors could be telling of the degree of chronic abuse one is dealing with. If one pleaded, a non-CVA would stop. If one counterattacked, a non-CVA would take notice that the conversation ceased. If one debated, a non-CVA would continue the debate and it would develop into a healthy conversation about an idea/concept.
Sticks and Stones do Hurt, as do the Words we Blurt
When I thought about my FOO and in-laws while reading this book, I began to notice how language is used in my environment. The way I learned to speak came from my FOO together with culture and my environment. It is something I had never thought of until I was faced with my own misery.
By the end of the book I realized that how my FOO/in-laws and I use language is unhealthy and the definition of verbal abuse could be expanded to:
any manner in which the language (word choice, inflection, decibel, etc.) is used that does NOT serve to engage the other in a healthy conversation or interaction
Example of word choice misuse that does not engage in healthy conversations are mentioned at PWN (post: Negative Control and the Narcissist’s Use of It).
It is often word choices and small variations in the language that skilled CVAs use. In the follow-up post I will discuss the methods that Elgin recommends.
Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D: Frequently Asked Questions about Verbal Abuse and Verbal Self-Defense
Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D: How Verbal Defense Works (article summarizing key principles from book)
*Elgin does address the fact there are different types of verbal abusers – ones that are not aware of the language they use to the other extreme where there are deep psychological problems (disorders,etc.)
**The term verbal abuser is used to refer to a person who frequently and consistently uses verbal abuse to communicate – the chronic abuser.
***The response is not referring to estrangement or low contact or no contact.