Words have power. They can build or destroy. They can start or end war. In the scheme of understanding the dynamics of abuse recovery, the impact of words—or silence—should not be underestimated.
The Tongue as a Fist
Verbal abuse, whether obvious or subtle, creates a kind of emotional anguish that is hard to describe to someone who isn’t educated enough to see through the facade. As author Patricia Evans puts it, verbal abuse is a lie told to you about you. That’s hard enough to grapple with; now try explaining it to someone who hasn’t experienced it! I once interviewed an attorney who interrupted my explanation of the types of abuse that had occurred saying, “Well, I understand words can hurt, but…” I knew immediately he was not informed enough to know what verbal punching actually does.
Programming Your Thoughts
One of my favorite lines from the movie Pretty Woman is, “People tell you something enough, you start to believe it.” So it is with verbal abuse. It is a way of programming your thoughts at the most basic level, by altering your internal dialogue. The abuser craftily changes your thought processes until you don’t recognize what is real anymore. Eventually, the abuser doesn’t even have to be present because you perpetuate the message on your own through your thoughts. Even after you begin your recovery from abuse, you must deprogram and learn a different way of thinking. I know that I still occasionally have times when I hear the abuser in my head telling me all the bad things he wanted me to think about myself. I no longer buy the narrative, but tapes can still resurface. This is a perfect example of the long-term consequences of verbal abuse. I am emotionally very healthy, but still must remind myself of what is true versus what is programming. The fun part is that I now respond by saying the things I couldn’t say to him at the time! Once you find the tools that work for you, you can keep yourself grounded in reality.
The Lies, and Why They’re Good News
Verbal abuse in a relationship, no matter who it’s with, will leave you with a false sense of self. The abuse of silence (refusing to be verbal, i.e., ignoring you because you “aren’t worth it”) causes the same damage. At some point in recovery, one realizes that the “love” this person professed for you was also a lie. Guess what? That’s good news! Once you realize that lies and false programming are an abuser’s tools of control, you can also internalize that the bad things they said about you were lies, too!
Be kind to yourself. Nurture your own positive thoughts. As hokey as it might sound, be your own best friend and tolerate nothing from yourself that you wouldn’t allow someone else to say about your best friend. Healing is a journey that focuses on one square foot of real estate: your head! Feed it with nurturing thoughts and you will break free of the programs laid down by verbal abuse.