By Deb Avery
A verbal slap can cause more damage than a physical blow.
The wounds are deep and vicious. Over time, if not treated and healed, those wounds can become septic.
Verbal abuse can be so subtle—so insidious—as to weave its way into our life much as a slow growing vine creeps ever forward over everything in its path. Most of the time we are not even aware of the devastation until the the vine has smothered out all other life around it.
At one time or another all of us have teased a loved one, friend or co-worker. All of us have said things with a humorous attitude, only to be taken the wrong way. But when does this playfulness cross the line and turn into a form of violence against another person?
Personally, I think we must be conscious of our words and our tone to others at all times. To be careless with our words and the tone of our voice can cause much harm and suffering. This is true for everyone, but especially when dealing with those of us who feel deeply, children and the elderly. There is a huge difference in playful banter where no one is hurt, and innuendos or degrading and sarcastic remarks about something important to others.
My husband felt early on that it was his duty to toughen me up.
He thought I was too sensitive and that it was his place to harden me against the cruelties of the world. To him, it was harmless, and for my own good, to call me names such as stupid, fat-ass, or bitch, and to use derogatory language and remarks. It wasn’t long before this turned into a harmful habit. But, if I ever voiced my complaints, which I seldom did because, after all—this was for my own good—it was always met with comments on my hypersensitivity.
Years later, when my young son in his innocence would repeat some of the words he had heard his dad say, it was seen as comical and harmless, at least from my husband’s point of view.
I am a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). I experience life intensely—both the joy and the pain. I feel not only my emotions and pain deeply, but those of others as well. I also have a great sense of humor and can take teasing and jokes as well as anyone.
What almost destroyed my sense of self-respect was the way the joking and playful put downs turned into a way to control, hurt and change, my authentic self. It became a way of trying to shame me into being someone I was not. And it was done so well that it took me years to realize just how disastrous it had been to my well being and self-esteem.
One of the best jobs I’ve ever had was working in Public Safety. When I was given this opportunity I was full of gratitude, excitement and more than a little fear. I had been trained in management but this was managing on a whole different level. I was ready to train, learn and give it my all. It was the kind of job I had always longed for.
Before my first week was over my husband had visited my office more than once. He said he was trying to be helpful as he had once served in the military and knew a lot about operations, logistics and things of that nature. It didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel right with him being there. It felt almost like a violation and I could tell that my boss wasn’t comfortable either. He was all for family and helping one another, but my husband had a way of trying to take charge of things. This was the first time however, that he had brought that into the place where I worked.
My boss was patient and I explained how my husband was just trying to be helpful. But being a little nervous with my husband present, I made a clumsy move and caused a slight injury to my eye. My husband responded with a typical comment said in his typical demeaning tone: I was wondering how long it would take for you to show them how stupid you really are. You could have heard a pin drop in the silence that followed. Of course it was broken by another comment from my husband, this time something meant to be endearing and lighthearted.
What is sad, but so common with those of us who have lived with verbal abuse and manipulation, is that I didn’t really think anything about it. I was so used to the degrading remarks that I just thought they were normal.
The next day when I came into work my boss said it was time to take my photo ID. Everyone in the building was required to have one. He took my photo and told me to wait in my office for a few minutes.
A little later he called me into his office and asked me to sit down in the chair before his desk. He was a very laid back person and had a compassionate, caring personality. He handed me my ID and as I reached to take it, I felt an undercurrent of anger emanating from him. Not knowing the cause of this emotion, I tensed for a confrontation. I didn’t know what was wrong, but I knew something was up.
As I looked at my new ID I held in my hands, my eyes welled up and it was all I could do to hold the tears in check. My image was flanked on the one side with the official logo of the county agency. The official seal of my state on the other side.
In the place where my name and position should be were printed the following words in bold with all caps: I AM NOT STUPID.
I looked up and my found my boss smiling. This time it was not anger that I felt emanating from him, but compassion. He was somber, but gentle in his tone when he said these words to me; You are not stupid and no one, no one, should ever be allowed to tell you that.
He then handed me my authentic ID.
I remember feeling embarrassed, but grateful at the same time. I also remember trying to take up for my husband’s actions, but he was having none of that. He then told me something that I will never forget. What he said was this; It has been my experience that when someone is told something over and over again they tend to begin to believe it whether it is truth or not.
To this day, I am still grateful for those words.
That day, a kind and compassionate act of a gentle, caring person opened my eyes to a truth I had long buried deep inside.
That day my windows of perception received a cleaning. However, the film that covered them was thick with years of dirt and grime. It would require much work and more cleaning over the next two years as little by little they were wiped clean.
Although I no longer work at this job I once loved, I still have my ID with those words imprinted upon them. I no longer have to carry this with me to remind myself that I am strong, brave, and intelligent. That has been imprinted upon my heart.
They can be made into wings to carry others and ourselves higher in life, or they can be turned into weapons of chaos and destruction. We can choose to be conscious of how our words affect those around us, or we can use them recklessly to destroy the spirits of those around us.
The choice is always ours.
Editor: Dana Gornall