There is something key about words to the human psyche. Educational researchers have found that the number of words that a child hears or sees before the age of three is the single biggest predictor of future success. Early on, word exposure affects brain development. Word usage is fundamental to human development and interaction.
Ants relate to each other via chemicals; Humans relate to each other via words. We are social creatures. Human social life is amazingly complicated and much of it involves words. We depend on accurate feedback from each other to improve our functioning. We depend on language to increase cooperation and enhance survival. We use words to learn and teach. We use words to connect, express support and affection. Misuse of language can wreck havoc in any of these functions. Verbal and other emotional abuse is a misuse of a language function.
Conversely, when talking about verbal and other forms of emotional abuse, too much focus is placed on the literal meaning of the words when responding to verbal abuse or talking about how to heal from it. If we focus on just the words when responding to emotional abuse, we won’t be effective because it is the use of the words to control, manipulate, hurt, dominate or ruin (as in reputation or sanity) that is the problem. For instance, arguing about content with someone who is rationalizing in the first place is a losing battle – s/he will probably just continue to rationalize.
When trying to understand the impact of the abuse and how to heal, it is important to identify the damage to the relationship – the lack of support, cooperation, nurturing, informing, and bonding. These processes are the building materials of a relationship. Without them you have a leaky vessel in danger of sinking. The lack of any one of these is a serious loss – especially in key relationships with parents and partners. And in cultures with weak extended family systems and communities, the losses take on even more impact.
Verbal abuse hurts for a number of reasons. It hurts to think someone thinks badly of you. It hurts if there is a little truth in the abuse, which is often how someone who is abusing you hooks you into playing the game. And yes, the spin that you put on verbal abuse has the power to increase or decrease the pain. If you are uncertain of yourself because of abusive parenting, verbal abuse is going to hurt more and be more confusing because the abuse appears to confirm the earlier abusive messages. To rationalize away the hurt by saying that they are only words is to ignore the purpose of painful emotions – to let us know that something is wrong.
And there is grief over the losses. It hurts when you realize someone you thought you were in a relationship with doesn’t care about you the way you thought they did. Even once you figure out that it is a game, a destructive one, it is painful and alarming to realize you weren’t able to recognize it sooner.
And, even once you realize that the abuse is really about the other person, it may still hurt and trigger you sometimes or at least somewhat if not as much. Part of the reason for this is stimulus response conditioning – there are a lot of opportunities in life to have negative visceral and emotional associations with all sorts of emotional abuse. Or as Don Miguel Ruiz expresses it, “One word is like a spell, and humans use the word like black magicians, thoughtlessly putting spells on each other.” This is especially true if you were raised with someone who is abusive or have been with an emotionally abusive partner for a while.
Even once you have had considerable opportunity to “decondition” the stimulus response conditioning and you have come to a point where you feel pretty good about yourself, you may still get upset sometimes. Why? Because you are human, and humans depend on the strength of their social contacts for survival and general well-being. Abusers make use of that knowledge.
In addition, if you grew up with a verbally abusive parent, it may have negatively impacted your cognitive development as well as your maturational development. In a couple of well constructed studies looking at the impact of neglect and other forms of abuse in connection with the issue of dissociation, both studies were surprised to find verbal abuse as having a strong correlation with dissociation (http://www.attachmentresearch.org/pdfs/Dutra%20et%20al%20draft.pdf by Dutra et al and http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/163/6/993? by Teicher et al). Both studies were large and neither predicted the correlation. In the study by Teicher et al, the correlation of dissociation with verbal abuse was as strong the correlation of dissociation with sexual abuse by a non family member and stronger than with physical abuse. Scientists don’t really understand why the correlation is so strong. I have some hypothesizes:
In the longitudinal study by Dutra et al, emotional abandonment was prevalent in the parenting of the children studied. As discussed earlier, the use of words is closely tied with bonding. In the videos, you can see the child going up to the parent for support when injured only to be ignored or rebuffed by the parent. The children then display confused behavior going toward and then away from the parent. The human mind doesn’t seem to know how to handle this situation. It is programmed to reach out for support. Perhaps the awareness that the parent isn’t there for them is too alarming and mild dissociation happens or a pattern for dissociation is formed to avoid the very threatening reality of an unavailable parent. Responsible caring parental figures are literally key to the survival of children. Perhaps the amygdala reacts, clouding awareness. I also suspect that attachment and the capacity for language are linked in the hardwiring of the brain and through learning.
There is another major reason verbal abuse is damaging and that is the chronicity of stress in an emotionally abusive relationship. In emotionally abusive relationships, not only are there patterns of abuse, but the abuse is frequent. That means you frequently have to dislodge whatever verbal bomb that was lodged at you and landed in your brain. This takes time and energy. Plus there is the drain of the weapons hurled at you that you were unable to dislodge or identify and are continuing to leak poison into your psyche.
And there is the stress of the lack of cooperation. Problems are not getting solved. If it is an adult relationship, you are doing more than your share of work in the relationship. If you are a child growing up in an abusive household, there is a lot that you are not learning or are going to have to unlearn that will follow you into adulthood.
Whether the relationship is with a parent, partner or friend, there is the lack of affection and support that you are not getting, but which is necessary to replenish and nurture your psyche. All of the above take a tremendous toll on the psyche and the body, and you may become both physically and mentally unwell. Most of my clients come through the door with symptoms of depression and anxiety and some stress related physical ailment. Verbal abuse hurts for a complex set of reasons, including the toll of chronic stress on your physical health.
©Noreen Wedman 2010