(2006) Ways into Discourse. Patricia Bou (ed.)Granada: Comares, Biblioteca Comares de Ciencia Jurídica, Colección Estudios de Lengua Inglesa, 13. pp. 49-59. ISBN: 84-9836-098-6.Chapter 6.
Verbal abuse: An assault on self esteem *
A.Emma Sopeña Balordi
Universitat de València
1. Language, map and territory
Language serves not only to establish interpersonal relationships in order to express our world models, but also to create meaning and models of our experience. The Aristotelic affirmation that our words symbolize our mental experience is one of the starting points of Neuro Linguistic Programming (henceforth, NLP) specialists who - based on generative grammar - study profound and superficial structures of language. As a result it is believed that words have the power to reflect and to shape mental expressions as well.
One of the fundamentals of language study in NLP is that a ‘map' is not the ‘territory' itself, (see Korzybski 1933, founder of General Semantics) 1. The combination of his work in the field of semantics with the syntactic theory of Noam Chomsky's Transformational Grammar constitutes the centre of the most important linguistic aspect of NLP.
Korzybski's work is a great step forward as it means that we can finally recognize and overcome our linguistic habits to evaluate life experience through reality instead of language. Thus, we are able to analyse a situation - which is always unique and particular - and look for its alternative interpretations.
A person's linguistic maps determine - more than reality itself - the interpretation of a situation. These maps make it possible to gain meaning out of an experience and to react according to its interpretation. According to the fundamentals of NLP, an internal map is designed through experience gained, through language as well as through personal sensory systems of representation, bearing in mind that our way of thinking generates problems that the thought itself will never solve.
Korzybski's distinction between ‘map' and ‘territory' implies that our mental models of reality determine our behaviour. Maps are not authentic or false, correct or incorrect, good or bad. NLP considers that an individual faced with reality may expand his/her map, and try to find possible options; consequently, the individual will act more efficiently.
New perspectives help to enrich internal maps of reality and permit us not to feel upset through restrictive thoughts which create negative emotions and disturbed feelings and this may produce self-destructive behaviour. These perspectives create a new system of beliefs which filter reality in a different way. The emotional situation of a person who has undergone verbal abuse makes it difficult to create these new perspectives and limits one's mental map in such a way that one involuntarily becomes the verbal tormentor's accomplice. Cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy does not consider the immobile attitude of the person who has undergone verbal abuse as a form of complicity but one's behaviour makes one a participant in the tormentor's felony.
2. The perverse individual
Anybody is able to use, at any given moment, perverse mechanisms for any reason, but the characteristics of a perverse person - or to be more precise - what experts call a ‘narcissist pervert' (NP) - include strategies that first use and later destroy the other person. The NP is not aware that he/she is using manipulation and, therefore, has no feeling of guilt. Thus, difficulties and failures are attributed to other people. Someone who uses perverse strategies at a particular moment in their relationships will try to defend themselves but a NP constructs his/her personality by destroying others.
The term perversion (originating from the Latin pervertere: turn around, turn upside down) entered the French language in 1444 with the meaning of converting something good into something bad. In the 19th century specialists in mental illness began to show an interest in this kind of behavioural derangement and to treat it as a kind of deviation of the instincts.
Among the studies related to this field, we opted for A.Eiguer's (1996) study in which he considers this kind of personality always in relation to other individuals. A ‘perverse individual' (PI) will always want to attack other individuals' integrity first, so as to later disarm them and thus destroy both their self-esteem and self-confidence. This kind of mechanism creates a dependence on others who, as a consequence, believe that PI is absolutely irreplaceable in their lives. A ‘narcissist' in the Ovidian sense is a person who looks for his/her own reflection in the eyes of others. This person lacks any type of self-recognition and, therefore, creates a set of mirrors to feel the sensation of his/her own existence. Narcissists create a projection of themselves on others instead of filling their own vacuum. PI are characterized by a megalomanian self-concept, arrogance, the need for admiration, the belief that others have to show their gratitude, the exploitation of others in their interpersonal relationships, envy, the complete absence of empathy and, last but certainly not least, by psychological harshness (intolerance and strict rationality). Normally they present themselves in a superior and moralising position, and before them the victim will always feel guilty.
Looking for others' failures and insufficiencies is a way of hiding their own. They impose their pejorative vision of the world and express their chronic insatisfaction by means of critical utterances. Disappointments do not produce sadness but rage and resentment vis-a-vis a desire for revenge. However, they are able to maintain an affectionate distance which is great enough so as not to commit themselves in any way.
3. Subtle abuse / barefaced abuse
Explicit abuse is not the most dangerous weapon of verbal assault. Denigrating somebody or openly insulting are too obvious when P is trying to achieve his/her counterpart's emotional or cognitive instability. On the contrary, paradoxical, subtle and unexpected abuse is a lethal weapon in this battle without rules because this behaviour makes use of bizarre and bewildering mental games, true mazes, which produce the desired effects: psychological disorder, mental confusion, breakdown and frustration. Alternating frontal and subtle / hidden attacks causes the ‘abusee' eventually to let down his/her guard and facilitates P's mental control over the victim (V). V might be conscious of these verbal attacks and might counter-attack or attempt to defend him/herself. However, when verbal attacks are implicit it is difficult to interpret them as a form of abuse and for this reason they are able to destroy the psyche of the attacked.
4. Some characteristics of subtle verbal abuse
According to Ellis and Grad (1990: 36-40), this kind of verbal attack is characterized by the use of paradoxical non-verbal communication, i.e. utterances with hurtful intentions, together with meaningless words, even friendly, or vice versa - exasperated facial expressions are accompanied by neutral or ‘innocent' comments. Sometimes offensive comments are uttered with a sincere and worried voice. P may deny the usage of a sarcastic tone saying, e.g. “I don't understand. Are you saying that I've said this or that?”, “How can you possibly think that ...?, “ It's your imagination ...”. Thus, a discrepancy between meaning and intention, between speech act and prosody, is produced.
Following Nazare-Aga's (2000) (2), some testimonies and reports of thoughts, feelings and beliefs from people who have lived with perverse narcissists have been compiled. Similarly, certain micro-speech acts demonstrating the strategies of manipulation employed in their relationships have been chosen. To illustrate this kind of perverse behaviour that drives V to have doubts about the situation in which he/she is involved, the author proposes this characteristic speech act:
« Je n'ai jamais dit ça ! (...) tu as des hallucinations auditives ! » (M A 133)
Mockery, i.e. the wish to make V ridiculous, and scorn (which this attitude implies) are always present in this kind of relationship. Hirigoyen (1999) asserts that P hides behind the mask of an ironic and humorous person. Since P enjoys controversies hidden behind cynical, burlesque verbal attacks, s/he aims to force V into a position of self-defence knowing that P will always win the battle. Employing this technique P is able to taunt V's convictions, ideas and beliefs as well as V's tastes and personal inclinations. To this end, P uses V's weak points which P knows very well. Another tactic is uttering unpleasant allusions, which P never explains openly, and expressing doubts about V's capacities.
« Au lieu de peindre Monet, tu ferais mieux de peindre un mur correctement ; c'est plus utile ! » (M A 115)
« J'avais l'air d'un mort vivant. Pour C., j'étais nul, je ne savais rien faire. Elle seule avait raison. Aussitôt qu'elle en avait l'occasion, elle me ridiculisait. » (M A 114)
One of the elements that stands out in P's speech acts is the paradox which breaks the Principle of Informativeness - as opposed to Conversational Maxims. Given that the literal meaning does not permit V to grasp the meaning of the message, V draws the conclusion that there has to be another explanation that might unveil the message.
V will consequently establish some hypotheses about the real meaning of the message to choose the one which is believed to be most appropriate. However, if V is unable to see through the paradox, deductive mechanisms of a pragmatic kind are used to opt for the most coherent solution.
The paradoxical message creates doubts and makes V feel inconclusive. Like irony, paradoxical polyphony is based on a mixture of two systems of beliefs with two enunciators and proves that the message is essentially dialogical.
The aim of this strategy is to maintain the upper hand in this situation and to control V's feelings and behaviour. Once V has fallen into the trap - being exasperated - P seizes the opportunity to attack. Another destabilisation technique is the attempt to defeat V's self-esteem. V will feel exhausted looking for a way out of the maze, having fallen prey to his/her own distress. The aggressor always denies the truthfulness of the speech acts which V has to endure (denigrations, criticisms, etc.) and consequently denies the existence of the conflict as well. By means of these simple mechanisms V remains paralysed. However, if the conflict really existed, V would seek to restore the relationship, whilst P does not wish to accept reality.
P's speech acts are vague - generators of confusion - always remaining unfinished (i.e. the unfinished speech act is a source of various interpretations which consequently cause insecurity). Whether things are true or false does not matter to P - the only important thing is their own utterances. Sometimes, P's distortions of reality are close to delirious speech acts.
« Denis se rappelle qu'un jour son épouse lui demande de prendre un rendez-vous pour elle. Il le prend pour 9h.
« Neuf heures ? Tu sais bien que c'est trop tôt ! Tu le fais exprès ou quoi ? »
Il retourne donc au téléphone pour faire changer le rendez-vous à 10 h.
(...) « A 10 h ! Tu es fou ! Je n'arriverai jamais à temps à mon suivant rendez-vous (...) »
Elle s'en va téléphoner et revient, triomphante :
« Moi, au moins, je sais m'imposer dans la vie. On m'a donné une place à 9 h. Les gens m'aiment bien. » » (M A 141)
« « Tu ne fais rien » Lorsque je lui ai annoncé que je voulais suivre des cours de perfectionnement, elle m'a ridiculisé : « Ça a 33 ans et ça veut retourner à l'école ! C'est que tu ne sais vraiment rien (...) si tu veux te perfectionner, c'est que tu t'es rendu compte que tu es vraiment nul dans ton métier. » » (M A 96)
« Toutes les décisions que je prenais sans lui demander son avis m'étaient aussitôt reprochées. J'en étais arrivée à ne plus oser prendre des décisions, ce qui lui donnait l'occasion de me dénigrer davantage avec des remarques comme : « Ma pauvre fille, tu n'es même plus capable de faire les courses toute seule. » (M A 45)
« Mensonges, inversions de faits, falsifications de documents... A l'audience, je me suis retrouvée être accusée de tout ce que, lui, faisait ! » (M A 163)
Another one of P's techniques is the one we call “I'm just saying this for your own good” which enables P to destroy V using comments about V's appearance or behaviour. P justifies this attitude by saying that they know V's thoughts and feelings better than anybody else - including V him-/herself.
« Il m'a fait la guerre pour que je rompe avec ma meilleure amie. Une relation de 25 ans. J'ai tenu bon, mais cela m'a valu d'énormes problèmes. »(M A 60)
« Les visites à ma famille étaient écourtées au maximum. Il me faisait des signes pour montrer son impatience. » (M A 66)
Another mechanism is arguing that they are joking. If V expresses some kind of displeasure, P will have another motive to attack arguing that V does not have any sense of humour. P can accuse V of being hypersensitive or of being too exasperated (e.g. “You have no sense of humour”, “You take everything too seriously”, “You are bad tempered”, “That's rich...”)
« Alors, ça va Chopin ? » (M A 115)
Comparisons - not always made explicitly - with a third person are used to denigrate V (e.g. “Have you seen how well X has done ....?”).
Disrespectfulness of conversational rules and speaking turns - sometimes introducing topics without any relation to the conversation, which might well be banal - are further strategies to cause exasperation, disorder or confusion. Obviously, the manipulator will take advantage of these feelings. This disrespect for conversational rules is practised also in conversations which V maintains with others, and sometimes P answers questions directed at V.
Harsh remarks are an infallible way to leave V without any chance to answer (e.g. “There's nothing to talk about”, “Forget it!”, “ I've heard enough”, “Cut it out!”). V's words are altered as P distorts their meaning (e.g. “...if this is what you want”, “”...if this is what you want to say...”). Denying direct communication is P's favorite weapon of choice - V is forced to request something and to provide the corresponding answer. This may lead to possible misunderstandings, which P may take advantage of.
Therefore, P will use techniques of emotional destabilisation: insinuations, malicious allusions, all kinds of lies and humiliations without third parties knowing about the situation in which P and V are involved. The perverse narcissist avoids any kind of internal conflict by transferring responsibility for any mishap to others.
All these speech acts infringe Grice's Cooperative Principle Maxims which are:
-The Quantity Maxim because P's message does not provide the required information to convey the purpose of the conversation.
-The Quality Maxim because P lies whenever it seems convenient, hence his/her contributions are never sincere.
-The Maxim of Relation as one of the characteristics of P's speech acts is the introduction of irrelevant elements in the course of a conversation trying to create confusion.
-The Manner Maxim because P's message is obscure, ambiguous and disorganised.
Whenever P desires s/he makes use of conventional and presuppositional implicatures - in relation with the truth conditional value (e.g. ”It's a shame that it seems so difficult for you to reach what you want ”, i.e. you have difficulties in obtaining it). Moreover, P uses non-conventional implicatures which bear no relation with the truth conditional value (e.g. “Your friends have just finished their studies, and you started at the same time, didn't you?”, i.e. you and they started at the same time but you haven't finished).
Manipulative and destructive techniques employed in a perverse relationship are expressed in many different ways (e.g. using or avoiding gestures), however, words are the weapon of choice. P acts as the ‘keeper of truth'.
Hirigoyen (1999:98) points out that perverse speech acts seem to be commonplace and for this reason V will accept any kind of proposition. Thus P's utterances function like ‘universal premises', above all, when these speech acts are expressed in an authoritarian and selfish way.
“'Je ne supporte pas que tu mettes en doute ma façon d'agir!' J'étais mortifiée et me sentais coupable chaque fois que j'émettais une remarque, même gentiment (...) des périodes de mutisme suivaient ce chantage affectif.' (M A 47)
Caught in the trap of these speech acts, V believes that P is right. Hirigoyen (1999) explains that P provides a great deal of security for someone who is extremely weak. Instead of showing their opposition openly, their animosity, or simply their antipathy to others, P resorts to generalisation techniques trying to make utterances sound universally true. For example, P would not say, “I don't find X and Y very likeable, I don't like the way they act”, P would assert, “X and Y are idiots, everybody but you has realised this.”
“Les amis qui t'ont laissé tomber ne sont pas de vrais amis! Les amis ne font pas cela. Ils ne te méritent pas. Tu fais bien de ne plus les voir. » ( M A 59)
5. Cognitive, emotional and psychosomatic effects of verbal abuse.
Confusion and disorientation are the most common emotional effects on a person submitted to this kind of psychological and emotional torture. Continuous and malicious attacks against V's self-esteem by means of verbal and semiverbal mechanisms leave V shocked and bewildered. At the same time these mechanisms isolate V who, in turn, tries to discover the true motives for these attacks. V feels more and more insecure which, yet again, causes an even greater deal of vulnerability.
“Cet homme est une araignée. Je sentais les choses, mais sans pouvoir les expliquer de façon cohérente. » (M A 60)
V is caught in a trap in which his/her self esteem is destroyed little by little. Thinking about when and why the next attack will take place turns into an obsession and the necessity to escape this cul de sac leads to obsessive compulsive behaviour (e.g. turning into a workaholic). Hence, the abusee him/herself becomes impatient, intransigent, nagging, even rude and abusive. The abuser has now even more reasons to attack while - at the same time - the abusee becomes an abusive person him-/herself.
The resulting emotional stress steadily destroys V's physical and mental equilibrium and even his/her immunological, cardio-vascular, endocrine, digestive, respiratory, nervous and muscular systems. It takes V a long time to recover their health while they may become more and more the abuser's alter ego.
However, this process does not take place suddenly but in a subtle and gradual way: the decisive point is to always keep V at P's permanent disposal. Yet, if the victim is too docile, the game is not exciting enough for P.
“Je rétrécissais comme une peau de chagrin (...) je ne m'épanouissais pas alors qu'avant de faire sa connaissance, j'étais extravertie et joyeuse. » (M A 114)
6. Most common reactions to verbal abuse
Being confronted with the above mentioned forms of abuse (e.g. explicit or implicit criticisms), V's reactions might vary between apologies and arguments which the abuser will take advantage of in future attacks. V's confusion and weakness grow stronger and stronger; thus, s/he becomes more ‘manageable'. However, in other situations and being surrounded by other people, C might be an intelligent and assertive person. But their frustration or rage originates from the experienced difficulty to express themselves effectively in order to transmit their wished-for message and to make themselves understood since they fear P's retaliation. The feeling which calls for aggressive self-defence might be anger, a kind of alarm in case of a threat which leads to an attack against the abuser who, in turn, will take advantage of V's anger.
On the other hand, anger turns into self-aggression when V is unable to control this commotion of feelings. As Lempert (1989) points out, unloving somebody leads to some kind of destruction as there is not only lack of love but also creation of permanent violence. Under these circumstances, V becomes his/her own executioner. It is the feeling of non-existence, a psychological murder without either blood or corpse - even without murderer.
Numerous studies on the topic of perversion have shown that people close to V are unaware of the process of P gradually taking control of the V's life. Given these circumstances, V is isolated, looking for defence, behaving in strange and obsessive ways. As a consequence V is also faced with people's negative judgements.
“Il m'a fait la guerre pour que je rompe avec ma meilleure amie. Une relation de 25 ans. J'ai tenu bon, mais cela m'a valu d'énormes problèmes. » (M A 60)
« Les visites à ma famille étaient écourtées au maximum. Il me faisait des signes pour montrer son impatience. » (M A 66)
7. Application of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Psychoterapy and NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming)
As aforementioned, a person's vision of the world is not based on reality but on their internal maps which have been designed through their personal experience, language and sensorial systems of representation. According to these principles, V's emotions are not caused by speech acts themselves but by what they represent for V. Nobody is able to produce a feeling in somebody else without the other's consent. Paradoxically, when P does not act as an abuser, V him-/herself turns into an abuser wasting energy on the reconsideration of P's denigrating speech acts. Disturbed feelings are not the product of the attacks or criticisms but originate from the belief that V is being attacked or criticised. These feelings persist if they are fed by thoughts and beliefs which have originally caused them. Restrictive beliefs stem from cognitive mechanisms such as generalisations, suppressions and distortions. However, if they are not altered, they are perceived as reality itself. This way of thinking leads to the consideration that the beliefs are the ‘territory' instead of one of the possible ‘maps'. NLP introduces the mental virus concept in order to express a kind of restrictive belief which cannot be corrected by experience as it is based on restrictive beliefs of the past. A mental virus is a belief not connected to other cognitive and empirical processes from which it originates (Dilts, 2003: 229). Therefore, it is difficult to get rid of a mental virus by means of explanations or counter-examples stemming from experience, as it is not a coherent and complete idea fitting into a person's system of beliefs.(3) Eliminating a virus requires the creation of a huge mental map which expands and enriches one's perception of the world. Virus elimination means breaking P's influence on V, a kind of authoritarian power which provokes - without logical arguments - non-spontaneous behaviour.
8. The end of the battle
When the abusee reacts and tries to act as a free individual, the open battle begins. Aggressive verbal mechanisms, analysed beforehand, become systematic, and humiliation and mockery turn into permanent features of the relationship. Hirigoyen (1999: 102) points out that P employs sarcasm as a kind of protection against the one thing they fear most - communication. P's hatred of the escaping prey is added to their frustration resulting from loss. Destructive verbal mechanisms become gradually stronger with the aim of putting V down. On the other hand, V tries to take an escape route while - consequently - P's hatred never becomes indefinite. P's verbal virulence is satisfied with hostile denigrations of any kind almost always mixed with wicked mockery, especially in private.
“Il n'y a que des arriérés dans ta famille ! » (M A 111)
« Tu peux faire ce que tu veux, tu sais, tu n'attires plus personne ! » (M A 116)
« Tu as toujours acheté des chaussures trop grandes aux enfants. » ( M A 138)
V falls into the provocation trap, and P - using projective mechanisms - supposes V to be acting with bad intentions. As above mentioned, at the beginning of the relationship P was satisfied with inhibiting V's thoughts; later on, in the critical phase, P tries to destroy V using provocation, and then the abusee falls into the trap responding to the attack by feeling guilty because the abusee behaves like the abuser.
V is cornered trying to justify him/herself in the same way a culprit would do. Still suffering the effects of P's domination, V does not have adequate mechanisms at hand in order to resolve the situation. Once the process of liberation is completed, the feeling of guilt remains, distressing V's life while P adopts V's position thus having a new motive to continue the attacks. Even physical separation does not prevent V from being under siege. The need for self-justification, for instance, remains a constant part of V's utterances.
“Tout était toujours de ma faute et aucun argument ne pouvait le faire changer. Plus je lui parlais, plus la situation s'aggravait. Aucune écoute, aucun changement dans son comportement. » (M A 95)
The only way out is unconditional self-acceptance, rebuilding one's personality out of one's debris and finally starting a new process of individualisation. Self-assertiveness may be expressed in the following ways:
“I'm able to look after myself and change my behaviour according to my own values.”
“I will remember, understand and learn from my past, and use this lesson for my own independent life.
“I won't consider my whole being but as a sum of particularities depending on the circumstances.”
Thus, someone who has been exposed to verbal abuse, an assault on one's self-esteem, may be able to rebuild their personality, leave the vicious circle and finally lead a life of their own which is, after all, the first human right: respect for one self.
(*) My thanks go to Ralph Wilk for the English version of this paper.
(1) A. KORZYBSKI, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (1933, 1947). In 1933 A. Korzybski coined the term ‘General Semantics' for the General Theory of Evaluation which - once applied - was meant to be an empiric science able to provide approaches suitable for our private, public and / or professional lives.
(2) The initials MA correspond to the title of the book (NAZARE-AGA, 2000) and the numbers thereafter refer to the page of the book.
(3) NLP adopted this concept from biology: a ‘virus' is a fragment of genetic material, an incomplete part of a programme, not a being. Therefore, there is no way to destroy it as it is not alive. It enters cells where it establishes itself. A computer virus is like a biological virus, it is neither a complete programme, nor does it know where it belongs. Its only purpose is reproducing itself which it does anywhere, no matter where.
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