The 1800’s nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is not true for most people. Some people do have the natural ability to emotionally disconnect when being insulted. (They usually struggle with being emotionally engaged in pleasant circumstances as well.) For everyone else, words have meaning and they can hurt a person.
This is precisely what the abuser is depending on: the victim is hurt by their words. Once a person is harmed, they are easier to control and manipulate. So with one well-placed phrase, the abuser has disarmed the victim and gained dominance without ever touching the person.
How can the victim combat the abuse? If the victim retaliates with verbal insults, the abuser will point the finger back on the victim. Then the abuser will act as if they are being victimized. This causes the true victim to retreat even further and the abuser has gained even more control.
There is a better way. For each of the verbal attacks listed below, try one of these strategies instead.
- Abusers use the volume and tone of their voice either by yelling or ignoring to establish dominance. Resist the urge to scream or give the silent treatment. Instead go to the middle ground and stay there. If the abuser yells, respond in a pleasant voice slightly quieter than normal. If they ignore, speak to them anyway. Pretend they are responding to the words and have a conversation out loud.
- Abusers use swearing and threatening language to instill fear, intimidate, manipulate, oppress and constrain. When attacked in this manner, strong positive self-talk is essential. Say, “I am not afraid” or “They can’t make me do anything” over and over. This is not something to be said out loud, rather is repeated inside the victim’s head. Two things are accomplished. First the victim feels better and second they won’t be tempted to respond to the threat from a position of weakness.
- The abuser’s manner of speech is argumentative, competitive, sarcastic and demanding. When they interrupt, stop speaking until they are done. Then go back to the original point instead of the point the abuser was trying to make by interrupting. When they interrogate, answer the question they should have asked instead of the question that was asked. Have a couple of quick slightly sarcastic responses ready to be used in social settings. “How silly of me. After all, you are ALWAYS right.”
- Abusers use personal attacks such as name calling, mocking responses, defaming character, berating feelings, and judging opinions. This condemning tactic leaves the victim feeling inferior and defeated. Again, counteract this with positive self-talk and the truth. It might sound overly simplistic but it is highly effective. Do a reality check by running each personal attack through a best friend test. Would a best friend agree with the insult? No. Therefore, there is no validity to the verbal assault.
- Abusers refuse to take responsibility, become hostile, invalidate or dismiss feelings, lie, and conveniently forget promises or commitments. Everyone is responsible for their own actions and responses. Victims tend to take on more than their own fair share thus letting the abuser get off the hook. When the abuser is faced with a real life consequence for the verbal assaults, don’t bail them out.
- Typical abusive sayings include: “I’m critical for your own good,” “I was only joking when I said that…,” “If only you would…, then I won’t have to be this way,” “You don’t know how to take a joke,” “The problem with you is…,” and “That (verbal abuse) didn’t really happen.” These phrases are a signal that a verbal abuse rant is about to begin. Use it as a warning sign and get out of the conversation as quickly as possible. This is a great time to become distracted by something or someone outside of the conversation.
As a result of the verbal abuse, the victim feels they can’t ever win. But this is not true. Even small victories are helpful and can increase self-confidence. Use these strategies to regain self-esteem. Then make a decision about when and how to get away from the abuser.