Emotional abuse is like the parable—pervasive, self-perpetuating, and so common that everyone can relate to it. In fact, that’s part of the problem: it is so common. Being a part of the cultural, social, and personal landscape, it has come to be ignored. As long as anyone can remember, Grandpa talked that way to Dad, who talked that way to Junior, who in turn talks that way to his own kids.
It probably seemed as if your family wasn’t the only one that related this way. The neighbors down the road could often be heard yelling at their kids in the summer when the windows were left open. The kids on the street would escape their houses, meet somewhere, and swap horror stories about their parents.
Perhaps you grew up thinking that adults always deal with kids that way. You learned to survive the yelling matches and to duck when the blows came. Or you just left to get out of the way. Whoever said life was fair anyway? Tragically, more often than not, even though you hate the way you were treated, you find yourself doing the same thing with your own kids, especially when you are stressed out or tired.
As you were growing up, the sarcastic remarks, negative messages, and disrespect shown you may have seemed part and parcel of your relationship with others in your family. It was just the way everyone spoke to each other. You thought you had learned to deal with it, to let it roll off your back and not bother you. All of the evidence you could see seemed to indicate that the way you were treated was normal. It might not have felt good, but that was normal too.
Even turning on the television bolstered this image that your life was normal. For those old enough to remember, the show All in the Family in its heyday gave weekly examples of verbal put-downs and sarcastic remarks, with the wisecracking, ill-tempered Archie constantly putting down his wife, his daughter and son-in-law, and his neighbors. Later came the foul-tempered Al Bundy in Married with Children. Even in this “enlightened” day and age, the use of verbal put-downs and sarcasm is still used to provoke laughter.
In the cartoon show The Simpsons, the father is portrayed as a bad-tempered man constantly yelling at his sarcastic, wisecracking kid, who in turn takes great pride in his ability to outsmart authority figures and who constantly lives down to his father’s poor expectations. Homer spends each episode reminding Bart frequently and loudly of just what he thinks of him.
Even if we consider ourselves enlightened, we sometimes find ourselves laughing at this abusive treatment. Why do we laugh? Because the abuse makes us tense up inside; laughter releases some of the tension. We can watch from the sidelines, in control. And experience the release and relief because we are not victims. We can comment on the exaggerated foibles of Archie, Al, and Homer, and console ourselves that at least what we went through wasn’t as bad.
Like a constant ringing in the ears or background noise, the frequency of emotional abuse has caused us to try to ignore it since we can’t ever seem to get away from it. And if we can ignore it, we can deny not only its existence but also its effects.
Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and author of 30 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and others.