There’s an old saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words could never hurt me." And perhaps many ascribe to this adage, not realising that words can hurt you and they can be scarring, especially if they are repeatedly negative, insulting, and harsh. Psychologists say verbal abuse over a long-term period has a direct link to several behavioural, mental, physical and emotional disorders. And can be damning to a person’s development.
According to American professor Berit Brogaard verbal abuse comes in various categories. On the website www.psychologytoday.com, where she leads a discussion on the topic, she refers to the book, The Verbally Abusive Relationship, written by internationally recognised interpersonal communications specialist and author Patricia Evans, in which Evans identifies 15 categories.
The most common include withholding; countering, discounting; verbal abuse as jokes; blocking and diverting; accusing and blaming; judging and criticising; trivialising; undermining; threatening; name-calling; ordering (making demands); denial (denying one’s bad behaviour) and abusive anger.
Blame picong culture
Here in T&T, clinical psychologist Michele Carter in an interview with the Sunday Guardian said verbal abuse was an area of abuse that has been overlooked in comparison to physical abuse. She contended that wherever there is news of physical abuse in a relationship, there is an outcry of condemnation by the public, but when it comes to verbal abuse many people do not understand the deep-rooted impact it has on an individual.
Carter believes one of the contributors of normalising verbal abuse in T&T, is our "picong culture" which is accepted, supported, and celebrated. But she said we have to be careful that picong which is usually deemed as "funny criticism" might not be a joke to the person receiving it or the person telling it.
She said there was a belief that verbal abuse only exists in certain relationships such as between a parent and child or in a romantic relationship between husband and wife or just within the context of the home. However, she explained that it extends beyond that, as verbal abuse can go into the workplace, within friendships and social settings inclusive of social media, which she said has become a major tool used for verbal abuse.
"People have to first understand what verbal abuse is. It involves the use of words to insult, criticise and judge someone," Carter explains.
She said for the person wondering why someone might be verbally abusive, verbal abuse is a form of control.
"It gives the abuser the sense that I am in control of the situation…I’m in control of this person and it even gives them a false sense of pride and power. So they shout, yell or ridicule that person and get them to stay quiet or to conform to what they want them to do," Carter says.
She said in a social setting, there is always that one person who seems to be giving a joke but the jokes that they are giving, they are attacking people personally. According to Carter, apart from the outright insults and humiliation, jokes are just another way that people administer verbal abuse.
She reiterated that the issue of verbal abuse is far-reaching but people don’t understand how impacting it is because there are no physical signs.
"Verbal abuse in itself can cut as deep as a wound inside someone. It cuts through their minds, hearts, and souls. And it can have a life long effect on the person form childhood way into adulthood, having serious repercussions, if not addressed," Carter says.
Asked about the repercussions of which she speaks, Carter spoke of immediate as well as long-term effects.
Immediate effects, she explained, take on feelings of shame, low self-esteem, guilt (depending on what has been said to them), self-doubt, self-criticism, and even withdrawal.
"They may not speak much, because they feel if they open their mouth to say something to counteract what was said to them, they might be further insulted and humiliated. So they become withdrawn and sad. These are the immediate feelings the person is experiencing," she says.
As it relates to long-term effects, she said a person experiencing verbal abuse over a prolonged period can develop eating disorders to cope with the abuse, addictions, anxiety (a long-lasting repercussion of verbal abuse). They may be overcompensating in their lifestyle to cope with the abuse or have feelings of unworthiness. They may also struggle with social interaction resulting in self-isolation and extreme cases of constant verbal abuse; it can even lead to suicide.
Carter said we have all been verbally abused at some point in our lives but the difference was, it might have occurred just once and therefore we know how to deal with it. But when it’s constant, where the person experiencing it every day or week, the effects of it are long-lasting and wrecking.
"After a while of telling someone negative things about themselves, they begin to believe it," Carter says.
She said a person who is constantly verbally abused can even get to the point where they’re unable to distinguish constructive criticism from an insult or a "put down".
Carter said it was also important to note, that while people who are abused in any form may have common symptoms, they would also react differently as reactions depend on the person’s personality as well.
"One person is a victim of abuse and they may become totally withdrawn and another person could become more aggressive. 'Okay, you bully me, so I’ll bully you back.' The reactions really depend on the personality of the person being verbally abused."
Asked how verbal abuse could be addressed on a social level, Carter recommended public awareness campaigns on an ongoing basis, which teaches and sensitises people about the various types of abuse and the effects they have on victims.
She said in becoming aware of verbal abuse, each person (especially the abuser) needs to look within themselves, as most times they are unwilling to admit that they have at the problem.
"As a society recognising that verbal abuse is a real form of abuse, we must also know we cannot change a person’s behaviour. I can influence the change of your behaviour by what I say and do, but you ultimately must change your behaviour. It is a decision each individual must make to change," Carter advises.
She said practising simple use of kind words would also be a good start. "Words can destroy or celebrate a person. They can breakdown or build up a person. Words can heal and therefore we must understand the power of words."
Carter also called on parents to be mindful of the words they use when speaking to their children because quite often they might be verbally abusing them, which is wounding to their children, something she said she often encounters in her practice.
"Those who have experienced or are experiencing verbal abuse must address their issues and find a way to speak up and seek help in order to heal. They must also learn to set boundaries and immediately address the first instance of experiencing verbal abuse. And I suggest on the road to healing, survivors should become involved in activities that reconnect them with their self-worth."