“Sticks and stones may break my bones,” the poster in my fourth grade classroom said, “but words will never hurt me.”
This poster gazed down at me over the course of an academic year.
I went to a rather hippie dippy school and one of the things we were often told, as students, is that words do have meaning and they can be hurtful. That words could be used to abuse, in fact. We were told that we needed to identify situations in which people were being verbally abusive and talk to an adult. Report it.
That sign sat at odds with these lessons, but, really, it was emblematic of a broader split in our society. Even as we talk about abuse and the systems which allow it to be perpetuated, we do not take verbal abuse seriously. Verbal abuse is considered a lesser form of abuse. If it doesn’t involve physical violence, how can it hurt someone? If someone isn’t bruised, how is it painful? How can you say that words are abusive?
Even though they are.
Verbal abuse is horrific and awful and one of the reasons it is so awful is that people are consistently reminded that it isn’t real. The victims of verbal abuse are told, over and over again, that their suffering is not real. That they are just being thin skinned. That they are not being strong enough. They’re taking things too personally. They shouldn’t be so upset, it’s just words.
Lip service was paid to the idea that words can be used for abuse, but we weren’t taught about how to identify verbal abuse. We were not empowered with the tools we might have been able to use, as children, to spot and call out verbal abuse. And we, of course, abused each other. Some of us took the lessons learned at home, where words were weaponized, to inflict abuse which would never be directly identified.
“They’re just playing,” the playground monitor would say. “No one’s getting hurt.”
The little girl who cried because her classmates made fun of her for smelling funny and having ratty hair, she wasn’t really hurt. The girl who was mocked and mocked and mocked for being fat, who got thinner and thinner and thinner, she wasn’t really hurt. She disappeared one day and came back months later after treatment in a residential facility but it’s because she was weak and she couldn’t stand up to words and she must have been naturally susceptible and suggestible.
Words. Words. Words.
Words matter. The things that we say to each other, they matter. And verbal abuse really does exist, and it really does need to be identified, discussed, and called out. People need to know that, yes, words hurt.
Abusers already know that words hurt. It’s why they use them. Clever abusers have found the ideal tool for abusing someone without leaving marks, and that tool is words. You can batter people with words and they will not be taken seriously. Someone who says that ou is in an abusive relationship but can show no marks, no scars, no bruises, will be told to toughen up. Or to talk to the partner if they are having upsetting conversations. The partner doesn’t know it’s so upsetting.
Excuse me, please, but the partner knows exactly how upsetting it is. The partner knows because those words are being used to hurt, to inflict pain. The partner knows that those words are devastatingly effective; that, in fact, people can be driven to anorexia, to cutting, to suicide, by words. “See,” the partner says. “She did it to herself. I didn’t do anything. I have been nothing but supportive.”
But the people who are abused?
They know, on a visceral level, that words hurt, because they are experiencing that pain. But they cannot articulate it or put a name to it, because they have been taught that it doesn’t exist. The same people who said “bullying happens with the voice, too,” put up posters on the wall that said “words can never hurt me.” And when you receive those conflicting messages, what are you going to internalize? You’re going to internalize the message that words are not really abuse.
People who experience verbal abuse are told that it is all in their heads. They are making things up. It wasn’t meant that way. Their partners are so nice, they could never be abusive. They are exaggerating. They are attention seeking. They are slandering their abusers.
The communities around them stay silent. Complicit. Friends say nothing. Teachers say nothing. Doctors say nothing. Coworkers say nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing and the words continue. Those sly, slippery, sneaky words which get inside your head and will not leave.
When you are not allowed to name what is happening to you, it is easier to think that it is your fault. It is easier to believe the people who say that it doesn’t exist and cannot be happening. It is easier to believe that because it has no name, it cannot be addressed and confronted. How do you confront a ghost? How do you address something which isn’t here?
Our approach to verbal abuse needs to change. The way that children are educated about abuse needs to change. The way that people involved in interventions, like police officers and crisis counselors, needs to change and these people need to be involved in helping people identify and name verbal abuse. Helping people articulate what is happening. We need to stop telling people that words can never hurt them.
And we need to be able to say “You are being abused. This is not made up. This is not in your head. You do not deserve it. Someone is using words to hurt you. That is abuse. And it is absolutely not ok. It is not ok to abuse people. It is not ok to abuse people with fists. It is not ok to abuse people with neglect. It is not ok to abuse people with words and that is what is happening to you.”
Verbal abuse is abuse. Call it when you see it.