It all seems to come down to that famous saying: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I dislike that saying with such passion, because guess what: it was words that beat me to a pulp every single day of my life until I was 32 and I had had enough.
The idea that we should just shrug off taunts, that we can just ignore emotional put downs and manipulation is ridiculous and in fact harmful. If verbal and emotional abuse continue to be ignored, how will we teach our children to protect themselves, to deal with bullies or give them the confidence to just walk away?
Emotional Abuse is Hard to Explain
It can be hard to explain emotional abuse to people that have never experienced it. ‘Just pull yourself together’, or ‘just ignore them’ seem to be favorite replies from most people. Last week I watched a Ted Talk by Ruby Wax who talked about her mental breakdown. “Why is it” she asked “that when any organ fails we receive sympathy, except when it is the brain?” A very valid question, and one I think can be applied to emotional abuse too: why is it if we get beat up anywhere we get sympathy, except when it is our brain?
A Slave to Your Thoughts
Two years ago I decided I had had enough of the constant put downs, the little hidden messages and the total lack of respect and boundaries that my parents displayed. When I moved away from that I started, very slowly, to become a person again. Some days though I can still hear them, and I still recognize some of the behaviors they have taught me. Yesterday for example I realized that, while staying at my in-laws for a few days, I make every possible effort to make myself invisible. I make sure nothing is out of place, I had half a panic attack when I spilled some food on the table cloth. Don’t get me wrong, my in-laws are pretty reasonable people, but this is what I learned. Don’t be a bother, do not show on the radar.
It is at these moments when I realize that I am behaving in the way my mother taught me that I realize I am, to an extent, still a slave to her. I may have been freed, but I am still learning to cope with that freedom. I know that when you think of slavery, your mind will move to images of plantations in the deep South and Caribbean, or maybe even to more recent examples like gold mines in Africa or sweat shops in South-East Asia. In fact a lot of slaves were and are not tied up or confined, they are broken emotionally and stay with their masters because they had been taught there was no other way. Well I can tell you, even a mother can enslave her own child.
How Long Until the Bully Wins?
If you look at the definition of slavery, there is one that applies to many people that suffer emotional abuse. One of the definitions offered by the Merriam-Webster is: submission to a dominating influence. If someone tells you often enough that you are not good enough, that you will never amount to anything and that you are unlovable, how long do you think it will take you to become enslaved to those thoughts?
Imagine for a moment that you have dressed especially nice one day, and everyone is giving you compliments about your look. When you enter the office the receptionist looks up and says: ‘What are you wearing today!?’ Are you more likely to remember the many compliments or the one slur? Most people will feel the negative a 100 times more that any positive comment. Now imagine that this is the message you get every day from someone in a position of trust. Imagine your parents, your siblings, your partner or maybe a manager constantly feeding your insecurities. How long do you think it will take you before you start believing them? How long until your spirit is broken and you are a slave to their dominating influence?
What You Can Do To Help
It really can be hard to explain emotional abuse to those who have not experienced it. And I understand that it is hard to comprehend. I was there for every bit of it, and I have trouble wrapping my brain around the fact that my family knows no love, no comfort in each other company, no room to simply be. Don’t worry if you do not understand, instead consider yourself lucky! Just realize that some abuse does not leave bruises on the skin, but scars the soul forever.
When someone trusts you enough to try and tell you about their experiences leave out the just-pull-yourself-together’s, and try one of these instead:
I cannot even imagine that happening to me, can you please tell me more?
That must have been hard to deal with, do you want to talk more about that?
I am finding it hard to relate to that, can you please explain it more?
When someone trusts you with their emotional scars, they are usually not looking for a cure or an opinion. Sharing the stories of what happened is an important part of the healing process. Don’t pretend there is nothing wrong just because you cannot see the bruises.
Validate the experience and the damage it has caused. In our modern society we are too quick to dismiss the mind as unimportant, something we can simply fix by ignoring the problem.
So ask yourself: how many leaks did you fix by ignoring them?