Research explains the degree to which emotional pain does, in fact, hurt us. Dixie Gillaspie explains this everyday abuse.
Several years ago at a conference I heard a speaker open his presentation with these words:
“If you’re fat it’s your fault. If your 30-year-old son is sleeping on your couch, it’s your fault.”
His presentation went on in this vein, and I saw some of the audience nodding in mesmerized recognition of themselves, but all of my alarms were going off. I was sitting at the speakers’ table in the back of the room, so it was easy for me to unobtrusively slip out into the hallway.
I stood, shaking, wondering why I’d had such an intense visceral reaction that I could not even hear him out.
My mind went back to all the times I’d heard “it’s your own fault.”
When I was beaten I was told it was my fault.
When I was raped I was told I asked for it.
When I was broke and couldn’t even pay for gas to get home to visit my parents I was told I had no one but myself to blame.
But is blame really abuse?
Now this speaker did use some “abusive language.” The F bomb and multiple slang terms for excrement got tossed about.
But that wasn’t what set off my alarms.
Nope, what set me off was the blame, the finger pointing, the derision and the disrespect for the human beings who applauded him when he was finished.
Now, you might be thinking I’m overly sensitive. Because I’ve already told you I’ve been beaten, raped, and flat broke.
You might be thinking that what happened in that room wasn’t really abuse.
But it was. It’s a kind of abuse we all take. And a kind of abuse we all dish out.
Wait! Did I just “accuse” you of being an abuser?
Yes. I did.
Let me connect a few dots for you.
The word “abuse” is generally defined as “to use wrongly or improperly, or to hurt or injure by maltreatment.”
Have you ever hurt anyone? Mistreated anyone?
Are you sure? Remember the last time you took out the frustration of a bad day on the retail clerk? Or berated the cashier at the fast food joint because someone put a chicken sandwich in your bag instead of the burger you ordered?
You probably didn’t damage them too badly. It’s just words, part of the job, nothing personal. You aren’t to blame if they got upset, right?
That joke you told, about blondes, or gays, or engineers, and then realized your one friend who’s blond, or gay, or (gasp) an engineer wasn’t laughing?
That’s not abuse, it’s a joke!
And guys are “supposed” to be able to take a joke. Like poking fun at Leonardo DiCaprio for his “man-boobs.” Just good natured teasing, and he put himself in the public eye so he asked for it right?
Or the clichés about how men can’t parent a child or clean a toilet. How funny is that?
Don’t you wince, just a little, at prison humor, or the jokes about priests and little boys?
And if making jokes at their expense isn’t abusive enough, then we tease these “over-sensitive” guys if they react with hurt or anger.
Remember the old playground retort; “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me?”
You probably knew better even then, but science is catching up with your instincts.
We’ve known for some time that words have the power to “code” our subconscious minds. We call it “conditioning” or even “programming” and we know it’s responsible for how we respond (or react) to most forms of stimuli.
Words, once we’ve accepted them as truth, become our instruction manual for living.
There is now some evidence that words can even reprogram our DNA.
Words, especially oft-repeated jokes and clichés, frame our understanding of ourselves and each other. They carry weight. They have the power to hurt. Therefore, they can be used to abuse.
But that’s subjective, right? It’s emotional pain, not real pain.
Not so fast.
Studies indicate that, not only does emotional pain trigger the same brain activity as severe physical pain, it’s longer lasting. We’re more likely to relive emotional pain, with the same level of distress, than we are physical pain. And that is just as true for males as it is for females.
In fact, most people who have experienced both physical abuse and emotional abuse say they’d rather be beaten than berated any day. (That’s not a study, that’s a personal observation from all the people who have talked with me about abuse since they’ve learned of my experience. But it’s still just as true for males as it is for females and I’ve had just as many men “confess” their pain from past abuse.)
So let’s talk about physical abuse. Because you’d never do that, right? And you may not consider that you have ever been physically abused either.
Have you ever been spanked? Or ever used spanking as punishment?
Surely that’s not abuse! That’s just good discipline, right?
Sorry. Wrong again.
When the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa combined 20 years of published research on the effects of spanking they concluded that it has some disturbing clinical and psychological effects.
Spanking (not beating) reduces “gray matter.” More than just a euphemism for brain cells, gray matter is actually a major component of your nervous system.
The grey matter includes regions of the brain involved in muscle control, sensory perception such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control.
Does anyone else find it ironic that spanking seems to reduce the very aspect of the brain that gives a kid the kind of judgment, discipline and control that spanking is usually supposed to engineer in them?
This same body of research suggests that spanking results in predisposition to depression, low self esteem, and antisocial tendencies.
So, if all these conclusions that science is making have any validity;
–Our brain responds to physical pain and emotional pain in pretty much the same fashion.
–Words can cause emotional pain. They can also make lasting changes in both our subconscious and our DNA.
–Spanking, which for most of us combines physical pain and emotional pain, causes a reduction in brain function and personality changes.
It leaves us with the question – how much is too much?
Let’s go back to the speaker who opened by telling his audience that if there was any aspect of their lives they did not like it was their own fault.
I called it abuse.
He calls it effective.
And if what we want is change in behavior, increase in discipline, even improved performance, it is. Effective.
So is abuse.
If a parent wants a well-behaved, high performing, polite and socially acceptable child, spanking often works.
If a parent wants a hard-working, humble, even self-effacing child, reiterating memes like, “You don’t know the value of a dollar,” and “You don’t know what hard work really is,” and “You think you’re really something don’t you? Well let me tell you…” can be pretty effective too.
But is that what we want?
For our children? For our society? For ourselves?
People who work hard because they don’t think they’ll ever be good enough. People who perform because they’re afraid of the consequences if they don’t. People who don’t know how to take responsibility, but nod in agreement when someone tells them they are to blame.
People who are humble, even self-effacing, polite and socially acceptable because they believe that if they think well of themselves, if they think for themselves, if they stand up for themselves that they’ll be put back in “their place” by someone who is more powerful, more knowledgeable, more successful than themselves.
Do we want to be a culture that has been conditioned to abuse others and accept abuse because it’s only a joke, or it’s for our own good, or because we need to “toughen up” and “face the truth?”
That is not what I want.
I want to be surrounded by people who aspire to be the best versions of themselves rather than becoming hard-working, humble, high performing and socially acceptable because they’re afraid of the consequences of being anything else.
I want to be surrounded by people who notice when something is designed to make them feel bad, even if the designer thinks that making them feel bad is for their own good. People who are willing to call that what it is and walk away from it rather than let it scar their heart.
And for me to have that opportunity, I need to do my part to reject abuse for myself and stand up for those who have not yet learned that they can just leave the room.
Photo: Flickr/Andy Bullock