29 July 2010

Verbal abuse and "toughening up"

(Trigger warning for descriptions of verbal and physical abuse and douchiness about those things.)

s. e. smith's wonderful "Dear Imprudence" series at FWD/Forward is one of my favorite things in my (ridiculously extensive) blog reading habit. Part of it is just that I find hiring incompetent and uncompassionate advice columnists fucking reprehensible. For example, the "Love Connection" column in the Maroon Weekly is a train wreck. (My inside information tells me that this author doesn't work for MW anymore. Let's hope they don't scrape the bottom of the barrel and finally get someone better.) And smith is great about calling all the shitty, shitty advice columnists out. Which is hugely important, I think, because no matter how bad the advice author is (see: Maroon Weekly), people will continue to write in to them. So we need to hold these authors to a high standard, because their bad advice will continue to affect people's lives.

Anyway, one of smith's posts really resonated with me recently: Dear Imprudence: Just Toughen Up Already! In it, smith criticizes the Ask Amy column for refusing to take verbal abuse seriously. The letter to Ask Amy is from a lady in high school who wants advice on how to deal with her verbally abusive brother. Amy's response is to tell this lady that what she is experiencing is not abuse, and basically that she shouldn't let it bother her. From smith:
Let’s be clear here. Hurt Sister is saying that what her brother is doing is actively hurting her. She cites that it’s a blow to her self esteem, and it makes her feel bad. She’s writing to ask for help. It’s worth noting that all over the world, every single day, people experiencing verbal abuse cry out for help, and they often get responses exactly like Amy’s.


You know what is verbal abuse? Something that someone identifies as abuse because that person is experiencing it. There are definitely degrees of verbal abuse, but they are all abusive. This is a short letter. We don’t know all the details. But it seems to me, reading between the lines, that her brother is constantly hounding her, is constantly making her feel small and worthless, is constantly saying that he is better than her, is constantly reminding her that she is ‘not doing things right’ and, you know what? That can become highly abusive when you are hearing it over and over.

Especially if you are aware of how it is impacting the way you feel about yourself. Hurt Sister is not writing in to say ‘this is annoying and it bugs me,’ she is writing to say this hurts me and I want it to stop.

Amy’s response is the equivalent of the old ‘sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ adage, with a side of ‘you shouldn’t let the things that other people say about you affect you.’ Well, guess what. Words hurt people. The things that people say about (and to) you affect you, whether you like it or not. It’s not always possible to make a ‘healthy choice’ to ignore verbal abuse, especially when you are a high school student, in your own home, a place that should be safe, and your family member is subjecting you to it.
THIS. This all over the place. Had I read this Ask Amy column without smith's commentary, it would have been triggering. Growing up, I experienced verbal abuse from my father. It took a long time for me to take it seriously, because I actually got the least of it in my family, because it never slipped into physical violence like it did for my other family members, and because when I talked about it, my friends pretty much gave me the same advice Amy gave this young lady. smith again:
There’s a prevailing and extremely dangerous attitude that verbal abuse isn’t ‘real’ abuse, despite ample evidence to the contrary. That attitude manifests in the way that people at all levels deal with abuse, from teachers handling bullying to human resource directors in offices with hostile work environments. If an abuser uses words alone to harm people, that abuser is far more likely to get away with it, and the responsibility for dealing with it will be placed solely on the victim. It’s the victim’s fault for being ‘too sensitive’ and not ‘toughening up.’
So, personal story time. This is not actually something I talk about much, because I've gotten the "you're being too sensitive" reaction a number of times. While most friends I've told about my abusive home growing up did not come right out and say "toughen up," most of them did act like I was overreacting to what they saw as normal parent/teenager conflict. It's taken me a number of years to get comfortable calling it abuse because of this. When I was a teenager, my father was abusive. Verbally to all our family members (my mother and my brother). That became more physical with my brother as he got older. I have reason to believe that his abuse of my mother was well beyond verbal, but we haven't really ever talked about it. We had a code of silence when I was growing up, which I think is fairly common in abusive homes. While we all hated Dad, there was an understanding that it was not okay to talk about it outside of the family. And even within the family, it had to be framed a certain way. Calling it abuse was not okay, because that word indicated a seriousness that would force us to tell someone else. If Dad shoved my brother, it was a "fight." If he yelled at us until he was red in the face for mostly imagined crimes, or told us that we were to blame for him and Mom constantly fighting (and, eventually, for their divorce), or when he basically told us we were (and made me feel) worthless, he was an asshole. But it was still not abuse. And my mother, because she was getting the worst of it, and didn't really want us to know (but of course we knew some, and suspected more), didn't talk about it at all. So breaking that code of silence after their separation when I was 16 was a huge breakthrough for me. But when I talked to my friends about it, I was silenced again. (I was the only member of our family that didn't go to therapy at this time, because we were broke and Mom and my brother clearly needed it more.) According to my friends, what I experienced wasn't "real abuse," and my talking about it downplayed the real abuse suffered by my mother and brother. I was just being too sensitive and exaggerating what really happened because I didn't like my father. For years, I thought those friends were right.

It's still rare for me to talk about this with friends, despite the fact that I'm a fairly well-adjusted adult now. But even as an adult, it's still rare for my friends to take me seriously. The other day, I was telling Adrienne about how my father would remove my and Justin's bedroom doors for days at a time when we were pre-teens and teenagers as punishment, usually for not ratting each other out. She was horrified, and sadly, I was actually surprised by her reaction, despite the fact that it's mine as well. But the taking-off-the-doors punishment usually elicits nothing more than, "Wow, your dad was an asshole." Well, yes. But he was also horrific and abusive. And sometimes I need to hear that from my friends. (Thanks, Adrienne, for being awesome!)

I still have certain family members that think I'm overreacting, or that don't understand exactly why I won't speak to him. It's hard to talk about with them, so they don't know everything. In fact, they know very little, and most of what they do know actually comes from him. They're his family, and he's supposedly turned a corner, so there's been a lot of reconciliation on their end with him. Which means they think a number of things, namely that his chief crimes to his children were being sort of absent and cheating on my mother.  He's manipulative, and their distrust of me, when they are good people and when they know me to be a perfectly reasonable and very smart lady, is plenty of evidence for me that he hasn't changed a bit. Whatever he's told them, it's probably mostly bullshit, and it sure hasn't been admission of abuse. I wish that I could tell them all this, but I can't. They're too sympathetic to him, and I can't talk to people about this when they've been trying to get me to reconcile with him for years now. But, honestly, I think they should at least suspect. As I noted, I'm clever and driven and reasonable, not a whiny child. They know this, and they also know I haven't said more than pleasantries to him in over 3 years. That should indicate that this is not just a temper tantrum, but a defense mechanism, one I only need because something really fucking bad happened.

But I'm also afraid to tell them, because they might react the way that so many have: by telling me that it's not "real abuse," by thinking I'm overreacting, by thinking that I'm too sensitive. And, frankly, I can't handle being told all that again.

(Fun story: I was forced to invite my father to my undergrad graduation because of a guilt trip from this side of the family. Before this, when discussing it with them, I burst into tears and couldn't talk about it anymore. A side effect of this whole damn mess is that when older men make me feel threatened or patronized, I verbally shut down and can't stop crying. Can't do it. The male family member then said, "I'm kind of glad you're crying. It means you still care about him." I've never wanted to punch someone so much as I did at that moment.)

My father scarred me with words. He's made it nearly impossible for me to control myself when male authority figures patronize me (that was not the first or last time I've cried uncontrollably in front of older men, and the other times were much more embarassing, since they were university-related). He's made my relationships with the rest of my family strained and difficult. And he made me feel useless and unworthy of love for years.  And the advice of Ask Amy, the advice of most adults when something like this happens, enabled him to scar me.


Courtney said...

Went to Facebook to post this as my status, and saw that it's my father's birthday. Weird coincidence.

Courtney said...

Also, don't think I'm going to post this on Facebook. Too many family members with their unpredictable reactions.

Punning Pundit said...

My Mom used my Grandmother's funeral to try and pull a big reconciliation scene. Family verdict: I was the asshole for not letting her manipulate me. Bah.

Kara said...

I hope I don't write so much here that I break the comment system again...

Mostly I wanted to say: You're right, and I'm with you in calling anyone who says that verbal abuse isn't abuse a bloody idiot.

There's three forms of abuse. Sexual. Physical. Emotional/Mental. The last is the one most often dismissed, and often the most traumatizing and difficult to recover from.

Rape victims most of the time aren't traumatized for so long because their bodies are damaged and take a long time to heal. (Sometimes, but not usually...) The trauma comes from the mental impact of being made to feel helpless, defenseless, invaded, and depending on how the rapist acted: worthless, degraded, and 'soiled'.

As a child, I experienced all three forms of abuse. The physical from my step-father, the sexual from an uncle, and the mental/emotional from my step-father and later from my real father. Nor was I the only one. My mother and her sisters seemed to have a penchant for choosing abusive men, and all of my cousins lived in abusive households as well.

I'm in my 30's now, and there are still times when, faced with an angry male who is being unreasonable, the urge to go hide while I cry takes over, and I can't defend myself until I've calmed down and brought my anger to the surface, which I then have to fight to keep in check.

You're right to be angry at those advice columnists. They obviously know nothing. They're dismissing the most damaging form of abuse as 'nothing' merely because it isn't physical. Thanks for writing this.


Gayle Force said...

Kara, I don't really understand what you're saying about rape victims. Are you differentiating them from other victims of abuse? I do know that when I was raped, I disassociated immediately because that was a learned behavior of growing up with an abusive mother. How I have survived (not well, not always) my rape has a great deal with how I have survived (not well, not always) childhood abuse.

Courtney, thank you for writing this. Often, still, whenever I try to start explaining to people why dealing with my mother is so difficult, they say, "Well, mothers and daughters always fight." They put the blame on me, for being too sensitive, or for not understanding enough with my mother, or for not making enough of an effort to smooth out our differences. I hear a lot of, "If she ever dies, you'll regret not speaking to her." (Uhhh, I am going to regret trying to keep an abusive person out of my life. I BET I WON'T). And it makes me so upset, because the abuse has been since I was young - so I wasn't understanding enough or was too sensitive at 5? I wasn't making enough of an effort at 10? Usually when one cuts a parent or family member off, it wasn't because of one instance of anger - it's because there is a long history of abuse, and you finally reached the point where you could not bear it anymore.

I'm sorry you were told you need to toughen up. None of us need to toughen up. Abusers need to stop abusing. The end.

Robert Stackhouse said...

"Toughen, up," ha that's a good one. Obviously that advice columnist has never heard of the cycle of abuse, nor do they realize that a continuously verbally abused male child can turn into a physically abusive (violent) adult.

I chose a profession of violence in my pre-college years. I was an infantry soldier. Part of my attraction to that job was genuine patriotism, but I wonder if part of it wasn't my desire to subvert the "bad guy". A desire that I believe I acquired through verbal abuse and emotional neglect as a child.

To my mother, I could never be right. Arguments with her were un-winnable. Even if I was right, I was wrong. I have trouble with the degree to which I should hold her accountable for the emotional damage I suffered in her care; she is bipolar. Add to that the stigma against single mother families in this country, I wasn't open to much help from the community growing up either. Minding your own business isn't going to cut it people. If you see a child suffering, step in and help.

I was also the weird kid. The one who wrote scary stories in English class. The one people avoided on the sidewalk. Good thing I went to high school pre-Columbine. So the one thing I wanted the most from humanity, some sort of emotional connection, some validation, I actively repelled.

The only people I received constant support from as a child, the only ones who refused to let me give up on myself were teachers. One was a Spanish teacher, and the other one was a retired USAF NCOIC turned JROTC instructor. They are probably the reason that teacher and soldier are sacred occupations to me till this day. Probably also why I feel compelled to help others.

Then, not too long ago, I got a job working for a super-manipulative individual who was horribly verbally abusive in direct confrontations. He did not let this side of himself shine through until I'd been working for him for about a year and a half.

He would sing my praises to my face, encouraging me to perform ever more heroic feats at work, and demean me behind my back.

He was also the most horrible blame-shifter ever. I'm rather sad to say that as a defense mechanism, I picked up the habit from him and now fight myself night and day not to lay blame on others.

Anyway, the after effects of the emotional neglect that I suffered as a child and the later verbal abuse suffered at the hands of a once trusted supervisor has threatened to dismantle my relationship and almost completely abolished my self confidence at various stages in life.

I only hope someone who's suffered emotional abuse (or any kind of abuse for that matter) reads this and has the courage it takes to seek professional help. It isn't easy to do in our society with the stigma against mental illness, especially for men.

Rachel said...

Here via (I think? long day of blog-reading) The Sexist by way of TBD, and this is probably a bad post to be all HEY I AM SO EXCITED I FOUND YOUR BLOG on...I am so excited I found your blog.

I'm sorry for what you went through, and I'm sorry that your family are assholes about it and refuse to respect your agency or your feelings. And I hope that you continue to get stronger.

And I'm really looking forward to attacking that "tradition is not an excuse" tag.

-rachel '07

Kara said...

Something else I was thinking about after reading this...

It takes a lot of courage to talk about these things, especially in so public a format. I know that for me, it was many years after all these abusive men were gone from my life before I was even able to clearly articulate some of the fears and scars that I was left with.

However, I did find that the more I talked about them, the less power those memories had over me. The more people I'd shared my experiences with, the easier it became to discuss them, put them in perspective, stop doubting myself, and _really know and believe_ that none of it was MY fault.

Which could mean that advice columnists who refuse to acknowledge verbal abuse, and tell people to get a tougher skin, are not only passively encouraging the abusers by perpetuating the idea that it isn't abuse. They're also preventing the abused from having a voice with which they can heal themselves.

Anna said...

I am actually sobbing because of how deeply I relate to this. All of it.

Amanda said...

Platonic net hugs if you want them.

I hear you, and I understand.

I will add it to me list of mantras "More than just an asshole...".

Courtney said...

@Gayle, I get that (you'll regret this when he's dead) all the time, often from the innocuous and well-meaning sources. My father actually told me himself, shortly after my parents' separation, that he was *dying of cancer* when he wasn't, thinking along the same lines, I guess. I will not regret cutting an abuser out of my life, and his ability to use his own death as a guilt trip only makes me more certain of this. And thank you for being so amazing.

@Everyone who relates, thank you for sharing your sympathy and stories. And for encouraging me to be vocal, because it was really hard. I did feel a little lighter today.

@Rachel, I'm glad you found it, too! Weird timing is okay, and I hope you enjoy that tradition tag.

Ryan said...

I wouldn't be an anarchist if I didn't feel this everywhere. People selling out genuine connection for hurtfulness. Some think it's the way they're supposed to act. Some don't know any other way. Others don't think about it at all. And most are a combination of those three. When I was a kid, it wasn't my parents verbally abusing me that sent me hiding and crying and seething and banging the walls. It was them abusing each other. My reactionary thought ('People hurt each other unnecessarily') became my worldview.

Punning Pundit said...

I think my personal favorite is "well, [abusive parent] did the best [they] could." this may be a true statement, but isn't at all helpful. Or exculpatory. Forgiveness may be possible, but is sort of immaterial if the behavior is ongoing.

Mosuke said...


Just started reading your blog today (via Tiger Beatdown)and I felt that I had to comment to say thank you for talking about this. I too was raised in an emotionally abusive household, and I rarely tell anyone this, for fear that I will be told to "toughen up", or that I am too insenstive. My father would tell me my skin was too thin, and that I was an awful person for arguing with him. Nothing my brother, mother, or I was ever good enough for him - and it gets to you, when you hear it day after day after day. I would tell myself it wasn't abuse, because he didn't hit me (much) and it was never sexual. But it is abuse - it took talking to people on the outside to really see it, and allowed me to seek help.
I once said to my mom, "well, at least we got off easy." She'd turn and look at me and say, "Easy? Really?" It goes to show how internalized and nasty this sort of abuse gets - and something we as a society need to start talking about.
I totally get the whole thing about being triggered thing- I work in retail, and it's really hard sometimes to provide customer service to people who are acting exactly like my dad - male or female.
Again, thank you for writing this. I don't feel quite so alone in my experience now. ^^

Kara said...

Gayle, I'm sorry that I didn't explain myself very well. I really wasn't trying to differentiate rape victims from victims of other types of abuse. Let me see if I can clarify what I _was_ trying to say.

Out of the various forms of abuse there are, rape is the form of abuse that most people would agree is the worst and not dismiss. The reason most people won't dismiss it, is partly because it's a physical thing. It has tangible and visible effects. But the damage that it causes is usually more mental and emotional than physical. Our society has an unfortunate tendency to focus on the physical and want to ignore anything that doesn't have any visible/tangible effects. Which is sad, since the worst damage done in most cases of abuse of any sort, is in the mind of the victim much more so than their body.

I was attempting to use rape to illustrate this - that even in this highly physical form of abuse, the worst of the damage done is many times mental and emotional. Our bodies heal relatively quickly compared to our hearts and minds.

I guess the point I was trying to make is that all forms of abuse include mental/emotional damage, even those forms that are considered 'physical' forms of abuse. Also that the mental/emotional damage is usually more lasting and damaging to the victim than anything physical that was done to their bodies.

It's ridiculous when people can't see that it's possible to damage someone's emotional and mental health without necessarily damaging their body.

bike groggette said...

Wow. Thank you for sharing this Courtney.

It's funny (read: fucking infuriating) how many ways people find to dismiss other people's emotions and mental pain (especially but certainly not exclusively pertaining to women). I recently wrote on my blog about depression and "acting out for attention" and while it's certainly not comparable to your experience, I can see a lot of similarities on how we're told our actions/reactions aren't vaild and don't matter.

Law Office of Amanda J. Hackett, LLC said...

This is such a great post. Thank you for writing it. The scars are not visible, but the damage is really fucking real.

It took me so many years to actually name it abuse. I actually didn't/couldn't call it abuse until one of my friends looked me in the eye and said, "You know that's really abusive, right?" I had spent so long trying to figure out a way to make home peaceful and myself lovable, that I hadn't yet figured out that there was nothing I could do. It was not too much later that I told my mother that I wouldn't talk to her unless she could be polite to me. Part of her explosive response was telling me that her biggest failure as a mother was my inability to forgive (her).

No, your biggest failure as a mother was being abusive. Fullstop.

And oh with the families and guilt-tripping! Mentally preparing for a family-function I feel compelled to attend, and my brother "just wishes people could get along." No, brother, you just wish that I would continue being abused and shut up about it.

There was a really awesome comment over at fugitivus that said "I stopped thinking about my friends and family as 'good' or 'bad', and started thinking in terms of 'are they hurting me or not.'" And that is what I'm going to focus on for the weekend, because I have no space for people who hurt me.

orangepeacock said...

Gah, Blogger ate my comment. What I meant to say, was to thank you for writing this. You described my family to a T. Even the bit with the doors (nobody ever gets why that's so awful, do they? To this day, when I feel threatened I retreat into any tiny space I can close, whether it's a closet or a car or a toilet stall, just to get something solid between me and the scary person). Except my mother never got sufficient perspective to divorce him.

And people never understand how damaging it is, unless they've lived it. I can never really, fully explain to someone else how fully this has affected my life, how hard it is for me to handle interactions with male teachers, bosses, customers, even SOs. Therapy can never really undo the horrible things another human did to you for decades. And they always push for effing RECONCILIATION, when the only thing keeping you safe is separation.

I hope all of us can find some measure of peace and healing. Thank you so much for writing this. I appreciated s.e. smith's post, but thank you so much for sharing your personal story.

Jemima Aslana said...

Oh, my goodness. I can relate. Can't write about my own stories right now. Crying.

Know that you're not alone, and that your feelings are not at all unusual nor unwarranted at all, and that there are people out here who can and will recognise this.


emjaybee said...

Thanks for posting this. I know some of this has gone on in another branch of my familiy, one over which I have zero power/ability to help-everyone involved is still keeping the secrets and not dealing (other than through bad relationships/drugs).

There are no bruises, no physical proof it's going on. Nothing I can call anyone about. Hints have been rebuffed or met with defensive hostility. So I just...watch the train wreck, and wonder if I'm missing something I could do.

Anonymous said...

My father scarred me with words. He's made it nearly impossible for me to control myself when male authority figures patronize me (that was not the first or last time I've cried uncontrollably in front of older men, and the other times were much more embarassing

Thank you thank you thank you. That caused such a *click* moment for me - I had never made the connection before (duh!)

Courtney said...


I'm glad it helped! And if it makes you feel any better, I didn't really connect my abuse with my penchant for crying and clamming up when yelled/lectured at by men until this year, and then once it clicked, it was like a revelation! While it doesn't make it less embarassing, it's actually much easier for me to process it. I don't have to feel like I'm just a crybaby girl who can't handle big boy pressure. I can even explain it when necessary.

Courtney said...

I can't tell you what this comment thread has done for me emotionally, nor how much I appreciate your stories, your support, and your internet hugs. You are all my heroes.

Anonymous said...

I have felt abused by certain things that have been said and implied to me over the years by members of my family, and the problem I have is that I basically can't blame them. I make excuses for them. "They don't know that really stuck with me, they don't know I took it that way, they went through far worse than I did, etc." So even though I felt horrible at the time, and even though all these years later I will sometimes emotionally shut down just at sudden memories of past injuries, I have never, ever considered myself as abused. That might be a mistake.

Thanks for sharing this. I might never had made this connection otherwise.

Anonymous said...

The dirty little secret about advice columns is if no one sends in letters, then the staff of the paper writes in letters, often fake. We did it at my school paper a lot.

-Anon for a reason

Anonymous said...

relate to post very much & I am working on a new layer of not accepting verbal abuse from adult children and trying not to ashamed that I'm putting my self interests first. I've had to give up 4 out of 5 people from family of origin and one child completely in order not to be a willing participant of victimization. This so sucks. Especially as a mother of only daughter, whom I helped emotionally mentally fight two stage IV cancers with to stay alive, while she was 16, 17 & 18. All my kids birthdays come between 4-15 & 5-10 and I'm feeling very down.